The fragile peace between Medellin‘s warring gangs may not last now that the identities of the ceasefire negotiators are public, Colombia Reports has learned.
“Unfortunately, now that this process is more visible it may be harder to continue,” said Jorge Gaviria, a peace advisor to the Medellin mayor’s office, who along with three other civilians helped broker a temporary truce between the city’s rival crime networks. He says he does not know how the media learned of their identities.
“We can’t say how long this agreement will last, nor is there a clear path towards what our next steps should be,” he told Colombia Reports. “But from what we’ve heard up until now, the reactions have been fairly positive, and hopefully that will allow us to continue moving forward.”
The three other civilian negotiators are Alberto Giraldo Jaramillo, the archbishop of Medellin; Jaime Panesso, a member of the national peace group; and Francisco Galan, an ex-combatant from leftist guerrilla group ELN. The group began meeting at Galan’s non-profit organization, La Casa de La Paz, in early November 2009, after Medellin’s homicide rate doubled from the previous year.
“We don’t represent the state, we don’t represent the municipal government,” Gaviria told Colombia Reports. “Essentially, we wanted to be a neutral group that could come forward without demands, without judgement, without repercussions, and say, ‘hey, man, what are you doing? This is madness. Let’s stop killing each other, because this is consuming the entire city, and it’s killing everybody.'”
The mayor of Medellin was informed of their existence, Gaviria said, but told them that while he welcomed efforts towards reconciliation, the municipal government could not become involved while also pursuing other means to reduce violence. These efforts have included boosting the number of police patrolling Medellin’s poorer neighborhoods and waging a public relations campaign against crime.
President Uribe was told about the peace efforts in early January and gave his approval, Gaviria said.
Most of the city’s homicides stem from confrontations between a crime faction headed by Maximiliano Bonilla, known as “Sebastian,” and a rival group led by Erick Vargas, otherwise known as “Valenciano.” In a radio interview, Panesso said that much of the violence was caused by “power, warrior’s pride and vengeance.”
But the rivals were prepared to declare a truce because individuals outside the gang network were increasingly committing homicides and other acts of violence, and then blaming them on either Sebastian or Valenciano, Colombia Reports has learned.
“What was happening more and more was you had individual youths committing actions because of a personal grudge, then assigning responsibility to these larger networks, ” said Gaviria. “These factions were increasingly taking the blame for actions they were not actually responsible for.”
The second factor that allowed for a ceasefire was, simply, fatigue.
“People were increasingly seeing that their families, friends, and people who had absolutely nothing to do with the conflict were being affected,” said Gaviria.
Gaviria and his companions began meeting with key gang members, most of whom were imprisoned in various jails in Antioquia. At no point did the group speak directly with either Sebastian or Valenciano.
“Let’s say we sought out the people whom we knew could deliver our message where it needed to go,” said Gaviria. “We went to the places where the channels of communication were open.”
At no point were gang members offered reduced jail sentences or other rewards in return for coming to an agreement.
“We offered nothing because essentially we had nothing to offer,” Gaviria told Colombia Reports. “This was very clear, and everyone involved understood this. The only offer we could make was a reduction in homicides.”
The truce, in place since February 1, has already contributed to a fall in the homicide rate from an average of eight murders a day to one or two, he added. But he does not believe the ceasefire is the only explanation for Medellin’s recent drop in violence. Nor does he expect the truce to affect drug-trafficking rates.
President Uribe has given the bishop of Monteria, in the Cordoba department, permission to initiate a similar peace process among other competing criminal empires. Cordoba, like Medellin, experienced rocketing murder rates last year due to gang warfare, registering 600 deaths.