Homicides in Colombia’s second largest city Medellin have dropped over the past weeks, possibly because of a truce between local crime syndicate Oficina de Envigado and neo-paramilitary group “Los Urabeños.”
Over the course of the past weekend, there were “only two murders” — what Medellin’s Secretary of Security Arnulfo Serna called a “comforting” statistic for a city with over 1,200 homicides last year, especially during a weekend, the start of the annual Flower Festival, traditionally accompanied by a sharp increase in alcohol consumption.
Indeed, over the first seven months of 2013, the murder rate has dropped 12.5% from 2012, said authorities, after initially being forced to admit a spike in homicides in the first quarter of the year. Colombia Reports has not been able to verify this claim as the local Coroner’s Office stopped providing murder statistics to sources after the aforementioned spike.
Last year, the city claimed a 24% overall reduction from 2011 figures.
But it might be too soon to declare a new golden era in the one-time murder capital of the world’s struggle to establish law and order.
While Serna and others in the political sphere have continually cited crackdowns on corruption in law enforcement and increased government attention as the causes of Medellin’s statistical improvements, others are not so sure the government deserves credit.
According to Diego Herrera, president of regional research group IPC, “the reduction in homicides has almost nothing to do with the government’s policies, and doesn’t tell the whole story anyways,” he said.
“If you look at the city’s history, what you will see are brief periods of calm that coincide with pacts made between the city’s crime bosses.”
In fact, suspicions that such a “pact” may currently be in effect arose last week, after local newspaper El Colombiano reported that leaders of the increasingly powerful Urabeños and the traditionally strong Oficina met to enact a truce.
“Historically, anytime you have a total stop in murders, it means that there is a pact in place,” said Herrera, who admitted that neither he nor his organization had any specific information indicating that a ceasefire is in place. “Homicides don’t just suddenly stop happening.”
This weekend, however, marked the fifth and sixth days in the past month to pass without a single murder.
Even before the placid end to the week, the El Colombiano report questioned whether the timing of the pact had something to do with the coming of the Flower Festival in the Antioquia capital. But coincidence or no, Herrera does not think the homicides are the most important thing to focus on.
“Without question, there has been a drop in the homicide rate [since 2008],” he said. “But what about the extortion? What about the control of neighborhoods? Every day there are less murders, but every day the illegal powers stretch their monopolies over the city and its crime.”
What a trend the IPC calls “the hegemonic control of criminality” means for Medellin is that as groups such as the Urabenos and the Oficina get more firmly entrenched in power, their need to fight each other diminishes, and their energies go, instead, toward other criminal activities that “draw less attention.”
PROFILE: Oficina de Envigado
This weekend, for example, there were reports — subsequently confirmed by Serna himself — that Urabeños gang members under the leadership of a man known as “El Ñato” charged local businesses between 300 and 500 dollars a piece for the “right” to build box seats for Sunday’s festive horse parade through the city. In a few instances, the extortion was reported to local law enforcement, but in the majority of cases, the victims, whether through fear of retribution or a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to protect them, remained silent regarding the extortion and paid sums totaling an estimated $150,000.
As territories become more clearly delineated and conflict over turf dies down, this sort of activity tends to be increasingly commonplace. It’s impossible to know exactly how much money is squeezed from businesses and residents on a daily basis, and city officials have refused to give statistics regarding robberies and other lesser crimes, despite Colombia Reports’ repeated requests to release the information to the public.
FACT SHEET: Medellin violence statistics
“As long as there is a clear power structure, things can seem fine on a certain level. But the criminals are still there and the crime is still happening,” said Herrera.
Some have intimated that the government is playing an active role in the most recent spate of what Herrera calls the “illusory calm,” as it is believed to have done in the past whenever prominent international events come to the city. But either way, Herrera does not expect the “short-lived peace” to last.
“[The truce] is not sustainable (… ) We call it ‘fragmentation.’ Something will happen, because something has to, and the violence will come back strong. This is always how it occurs. And the government hasn’t done anything to change that.”
- Interview with Diego Herrera Duque
- Clima de tranquilidad en Medellin por reduccion de homicidios (El Espectador)
- Cobran “vacunas” por dejar instalar palcos en cabalgata de la Festival de Flores (Mintuo30)
- En cumbre mafiosa se pacto una tregua de combos (El Colombiano)