December in Medellin is a time to celebrate and torelax. This year, that goes for the city’s gangs as well, as the Mayor’s Office is working to persuade the various battling groups to call a truce for the holiday season and let residents enjoy a Christmas in peace.
“Our aim is that, after so many years, we have a December in peace and in harmony, so that people can enjoy the proper activities of this time of year,” Jaime Fajardo Landaeta, the mayor’s “coexistence and reconciliation” adviser, told Colombia Reports.
In many sectors of the Medellin the gangs are in control. They have 5,000 members, by some estimates, although no-one really knows much about what is going on in the city’s fractured criminal world, and are made up of some 200 groups, who extort money, run the drug trade, and control what happens in their territory. There are five major gang leaders, but the majority of the violence in the last two years has been part of a turf war between two; Maximiliano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano” and Erick Vargas, alias “Sebastian,” battling over who will inherit the empire of extradited paramilitary leader “Don Berna.”
After the hellishly violent 1980s and 1990s the city saw its murder rate decline steadily from 2002, which was hailed as a victory for the government’s security crackdowns, social programs, and demobilization of paramilitary gangs. The celebration of this “Medellin miracle” was interrupted when killings rose sharply, doubling in 2009 to give the city a murder rate of more than 94 per 100,000 residents. Some 1,882 murders took place in the city between January and the end of November this year, the majority of them men aged 18-25, according to figures from forensics agency Medicina Legal.
Mayor Alonso Salazar has been redoubling efforts to tackle the problem in the run-up to the 2011 local elections. His office is working to bring as many young people as possible into Fuerza Joven, a program that offers former gang members education and a monthly payment to stay out of crime, and his office is now holding talks with the gangs in an effort to secure peace, if only for a few months.
“Even if we don’t manage to break up these organizations, at least they understand that there can be a pause in the confrontation for this period,” says Fajardo. “We don’t want this to be only for December, but if we can do it in December, it’s a setting from which we can work on a long-term strategy to remove more young people from the conflict.”
The Mayor’s Office has held talks with most gangs, according to Fajardo, and 70% of them have agreed to the idea, meaning that there will be agreements in the majority of the city’s comunas. In El Limonar, for example, a troubled barrio on the south-western outskirts of Medellin, the office has brokered a peace agreement between two warring factions. “We managed to get them to sit down, to talk, and to sign an agreement of non-aggression, and to work for a Christmas in peace,” says Fajardo, “and we have done the same in Comuna 13.” Since September the mayor has been holding events across the city for gang members to give up their guns, including one, promoted by pop singer Juanes, in which 170 gang members from groups in Comunas 1 and 3 handed over their weapons to police.
The Mayor’s Office is quick to distance itself from a failed peace deal brokered between Valenciano and Sebastian in February by a group of prominent citizens. The ceasefire lead to a swift halving of the murder rate, which plummeted from 239 in January to 116 in February, but killings shot back up within a few months after the government disowned the scheme and lower-level gang leaders rebelled against it. A few of the same individuals are involved, but the focus is on the communities and on the individual gang members, not on their leaders, according to Fajardo. “The important thing here is that we’re not just talking with the heads of the gangs, we’re going neighborhood by neighborhood, talking to the people.” The peace talks are a process carried out together with the local people in each area, and it’s through these tight-knit communities that the Mayor’s Office contacts the gangs. “They are people from the barrio, people from the same families … so it’s not difficult to find them and hold talks with them.”
So far, it seems to be working. The number of murders has dropped, falling over 30% from 198 in August to 135 in September, when talks began. September, October and November have seen an average of 146 homicides a month, more than 30% lower than the same period in 2009.
But Jose Giron Sierra of Medellin think tank Instituto Popular de Capacitacion (IPC) explains the decreased violence by the fact that the war has been won – and not by the government. “The Mayor’s Office doesn’t like this,” he told Colombia Reports, “but in recent months it’s been clear that Sebastian is winning the war. To the extent that [his faction] is gaining ground, getting territory, they don’t need to be killing, so obviously the murders are going to go down.”
For Giron the mayor’s efforts to promote “coexistence and peace” simply aren’t enough. Talking to the gangs, asking them to agree to a truce, doesn’t get to the heart of the problem, which begins with the failed demobilization of the paramilitaries. The paramilitary groups that had controlled the city since the 1990s laid down their guns starting in 2003, but the demobilization wasn’t real, he says; the militias’ power structures went untouched, as did their links with the police, and their top leaders remained at liberty.
The years of relative peace that followed, hailed as a triumph of the mayor’s social programs, are now broadly interpreted as years in which calm reigned only because the city’s underworld was ruled over by a single leader; paramilitary commander Diego Murillo Bejarano or Don Berna. As Giron puts it “the urban war had been won by the paramilitaries and that they no longer had an opponent to fight.” Don Berna continued to control his men from jail, even after his arrest, until his extradition to the U.S. in May 2008, when his subordinates were left to battle for power. His group, the Office of Envigado, has since then been fought over by former subordinates Sebastian and Valenciano, leading to the 2009 surge in murders. Now Sebastian is winning, just like Don Berna did in 2002, according to Giron.
The murders may be falling this Christmas, but the power of the gangs, their control over their territory, is stronger. The government’s actions don’t begin to address this issue, says Giron “All this makes us a little skeptical, that maybe these actions serve more for the television, or to get publicity.”
Attempts to broker peace can also have unpredictable consequences. The IPC’s 2010 human rights report, which covers January to the end of October, distinguishes premeditated killings from the bulk of murders. By their analysis, the number of these planned assassinations dropped sharply in September, before rising again in October. The report attributes this to the government’s truce efforts; “In the times when peace initiatives are publicly displayed open confrontations decrease while selective [killings] increase.”
But the fact remains that overall, murders are decreasing. “Obviously, if there’s one person who doesn’t die because of the work of the mayor, it is important,” says Giron. The administrations of both Sergio Fajardo and Alonso Salazar have made steps in the right direction, he thinks; improving the police force and the work of the public prosecutor, but the peace talks only skim the surface of the issue. “These are remedial proposals, very transitory, because what is happening, it is not getting to the bottom of the reality.”
At the heart of Medellin’s war is the drug trade. The business has the power to pay young men large amounts of money, in areas where the unemployment rate often runs at 70%. While the global drug trade continues, there will continue to be a high level of violence in producer countries, Giron argues. “Narco-trafficking has the ability and the resources to create armies” he says. This is out of the hands of the Colombian government, and is arguably out of the hands of any government. To end Medellin’s war would involve breaking the grip of the drug trade in Colombia, a cause into which billions of dollars have already been poured, to little avail, he points out.
On this point Jaime Fajardo agrees; “What is missing first is a distinct alternative to the drug trade.” Narco-trafficking makes a lot of young people rich, and fast, and every part of the urban problem in Medellin is tied to this industry, he says. The drug business is a world-wide phenomenon, one which it’s hard for Medellin to combat alone. “While the drug trade does not end, is not reduced to its least possible form, it will be very difficult to combat this crime,” he says. “But the important thing is to understand that the problem here is ours and that we have to solve it.”
It’s difficult to organize peace, even just for Christmas. There are feuds, revenge, and issues over territory, and it’s hard to tie up all the loose ends. “You can’t say that there isn’t going to be confrontation, that is very difficult, but this will reduce the agony that is suffered by the community.” says Fajardo. “We’re going to have a different Christmas”