Medellin seems on the brink of a new period of extreme violence. No immediate solution to these waves of violence exists, but unless we resign ourselves to being a regular victim of terror, we should seek a long-term remedy.
Some of the signs announcing extreme violence are the same as in 2008, when I had only just arrived to Colombia and the extradition of war lord “Don Berna” spurred a gang war that left hundreds, if not thousands, dead in the two following years.
Following Berna’s extradition, the absence of clear leadership brought localized gang disputes over territory, while different groups vied for influence within and control over the “Oficina de Envigado,” the city’s dominant criminal structure since it was constructed by Pablo Escobar in the 1980s.
The same is happening now, following the arrest of “Sebastian” earlier this year.
Just like in 2008, infighting between gangs have affected public life in the comunas 5, 6, 8 and 13, and outsider groups like the Urabeños are seizing the opportunity to enter the city and try to assume control over Medellin’s complex criminal structure of “combos” and “supercombos,” most of which have previously come under the influence of the Oficina.
However, the situation is also different from 2008; The different combos in the city have become increasingly self-sufficient, turning to local drug consumption and extortion as profitable income, and the Urabeños have already been able to establish a presence in some of the city’s most crucial territories.
While infighting between the combos is similar to that of 2008, the dismembering of youths, the killing of community leaders and even policemen, an increase in forced displacement and the recent detaining of a government official represents a recent escalation.
These incidents haven taken place in areas wrestled from the Oficina of Envigado by the Urabeños who, it seems, are not seeking to “serve and protect” the neighborhoods and are not seeking a non-violent co-existence with local authorities that was common practice under “Don Berna” and “Sebastian,” but are using terror methods to control their territories and intimidate the authorities.
This new evolution of violence in the city is worrisome to say the least, especially since the authorities’ reaction is exactly the same as last time; sending more police while refusing to explicitly recognize a public security issue, claiming the city is suffering more from the “stigma” of being violent, than from violence itself.
The failure to learn the lessons of the past and face up to reality, and fight a public relations war, is going to yeild exactly the same result as in 2008: nothing.
Just like last time, we’re just going to have to sit out the wave of violence until the criminal forces settle their disputes. While doing so, we’ll be submitted to the occasional shooting, fear and we’ll probably have to attend a number of memorial services.
I personally refuse to resign and accept that this is going to be the situation in the city I love. However, I have been wracking my brains trying to think about short-term solutions and haven’t been able to find one. We are looking at a pattern of violence that re-occurs and evolves at its own pace just like hurricanes come by every so often.
While we’re not able to prevent or detain this particular hurricane, we are able to look at what the causes are that make this city so susceptible to violence and see if we can find long-term treatment for them, instead of fruitlessly fighting the symptoms through a militaristic approach.
First of all, the city’s justice system needs serious reform as it has been clogged by thousands of criminal suspects, allowing the majority of criminals to be released because prosecutors were not able to proceed within the legal time limit.
Second, criminal law needs a revamp that allows a serious punishment of minors involved in violent crime. The current system literally allows kids to get away with murder, which is being exploited by the gangs who intentionally send minors to carry out the killings.
But most importantly, I think it is important to listen to Governor Sergio Fajardo, whose answer has been “Education.”
While Fajardo was mayor of Medellin, the city executed a number of successful programs to deter children from entering the gang wars. The most famous was the building of libraries in the city’s poor neighborhoods, granting kids access to books and the internet. However, no less important were programs aimed at involving children in music, and one making sporting activities available in the city’s poor neighborhoods.
One of the main issues is the 5,000 kids actively involved in the city’s combos and thousands more lined up to succeed those who get killed, injured or end up in jail. Prevention of violence is obviously too late for those already in the gangs; they will have to be subjected to a functional justice system that prevents them from returning to crime after their sentence.
However, to prevent the rise of a next generation of “sicarios” it is important to focus on education. Public schools in Colombia are now nothing but “a parking space for children” as a teacher wisely said in the documentary “La Educacion Prohibida.”
Medellin, with its particularly violent history, needs to include education in an integral offensive against crime and violence. Finding a solution for the city’s public security problems is the responsibility of the state, which administrates the city’s public schools.
It makes no sense teaching children about catholic protocol, the chemical elements and English, and not give the children a notion of history and the challenges of contemporary society.
By including violence prevention programs in the city’s public schools, children can be taught about cause and effect, how to make choices based on rational thinking, the consequences of actions, how to resolve differences intelligently: all cognitive qualities necessary to create opportunities and prevent violence.
Without this, we are leaving the children ignorant to the alternatives to the gangs who — at least temporarily — offer the children protection, a decent income and social status. By not improving education, we leave the children unable to resolve conflict without violence, and condemn them to repeat the mistakes made by thousands of kids before them. Meanwhile we condemn Medellin to a never ending cycle of violence.