At least two FARC banners were mounted on bridges in different parts of Medellin earlier this week, raising concerns that they and the ELN are returning to Colombia’s second largest city from which they were violently expelled early this century.
“Citizens feel afraid that the guerrillas, who only a few years ago were cornered, now have a presence in the cities” said Congressman Federico Hoyos, who on Wednesday led a debate in Congress on the crime levels in Medellin.
While official homicide rates fell 34% in the first half of 2014, Hoyos said there is a popular “dissatisfaction with the security policies of Medellin.”
One of the FARC banners was suspended on the Bulerias Bridge near the Pontificia Bolivariana University, while the other was found on the 30th Avenue Bridge over Guayabal. The banners displayed messages from the Ivan Rios Block, the guerrillas’ unit that operates north of Medellin.
FACT SHEET: FARC command structure
The rebel unit claimed responsibility for the recent capture of a Colombian army general who walked into rebel territory in what authorities consider a “red zone” because of increased guerrilla activity.
The banners were suspended only weeks after Colombia’s second largest rebel group, the ELN, showed videos of an apparent urban militia patrolling Bello, a town on the north end of Medellin’s urban area.
Medellin Security Chief Sergio Vargas told Colombia Reports that “the presence of two banners alluding to the FARC in no way means that this terrorist group has returned to Medellin, but it’s an event that we pay attention to through our security and intelligence organization in order to control the propagandistic and other activities of this terrorist group.”
Vargas earlier told the press that the FARC was seeking to demonstrate “that they remain a force with the kidnapping of a general in the Choco and with their attack in Gorgona Island, where unfortunately a member of the police died.”
The police inspected the areas where banners were discovered but found no explosives.
With the exception of public university campuses, Medellin has virtually been free of FARC and ELN activity since both groups were driven out by by a number of urban military operations at the beginning of the century.
“Operation Orion” – the last of a combined police, army, and paramilitary offensive against the guerrillas took place in October 2002. That offensive, ordered by then freshly-elected president Alvaro Uribe, saw helicopter gunships used against the rebel-held Comuna 13 in the west of the city, leaving hundreds of civilians injured, a still unclear number killed, and 70 disappeared.
Following the operation the paramilitary Cacique Nutibara Bloc assumed control of Comuna 13, and the locality has since become characterized by violence and forced displacement. A 2011 study showed that between 2003 and 2009, almost 3,500 people were displaced from the district.
The latest guerrilla activities raise questions of whether relations are changing between the guerrillas and the dominant criminal groups that are active in Medellin and used to be aligned to the paramilitary AUC; the Urabeños and the Oficina de Envigado, who hitherto aggressively pursued any presence of the FARC and ELN in the city.
According to the city’s security chief, “November and December historically sees an increase in delinquency and for this reason we design and put into practice a special intervention plan, to support the police we will have an additional 600 troops from training schools to accompany officers during this period… and will have a special team of investigators from the Prosecutor’s Office to provide legal support.”