Weeks after the military repressed a new violent upsurge in Medellin’s gang wars, locals say they’re more afraid than ever.
A military occupation, ordered by the city’s mayor June 19 following a new outbreak of war between rival drug groups, was supposed to restore peace in Medellin’s Comuna 8. But according to those living in the collection of neighborhoods that run up the city’s eastern slopes, gang members have simply found new ways to terrorize the local population.
It is a story common to Colombia’s second city, where gang wars affected at least six of Medellin’s 16 comunas in 2009 and 2010, forcing similar military clampdowns: International drug trafficking groups fight their territorial battles through street gangs, and despite police or military intervention, continue to paralyze the neighborhoods under their control.
“Violence has never left this place,” said Catalina, who grew up in Comuna 8 and teaches at a community group in one of the sectors most hit by the fighting. Two powerful crime networks see the 135,000-person barrio, which sits between Medellin and northeastern Antioquia’s marijuana and coca fields, as key to controlling the city’s underworld.
Medellin’s Comuna 8
Until early May, the battle between the Caribbean-based Urabeños and Medellin’s own Oficina de Envigado for control of Comuna 8 remained at a lower pitch. Then a streetgang member, urged on by the Urabeños, carried out a hit on the Oficina’s extortion-tax collector, and the tense peace in Comuna 8 shattered.
By the time the mayor sent army helicopters and extra troops to police the neighborhood, its streets had already emptied. Fruit vendors and fast food stalls abandoned the area, and parents yanked their kids from school in the fear that they’d be killed on the way to class. Gunshots—a normal nighttime sound for the neighborhood—transitioned to the short blasts of small homemade bombs or machine-gun fire, and could be heard as easily in the morning as at midnight.
Pamphlets spread through social media outlets killed the community’s nightlife, warning residents to stay in after 8 pm or “end up in a cemetery,” one said. “We will consider anyone we see part of the rival gang. It doesn’t matter if you’re young, or old, or a child.”
Catalina had been mostly unfazed by the recent troubles—until a friend and co-worker disappeared.
She thought he had found his own way home after leaving a party unannounced. She found out the next day he’d picked up a call on his cell phone. “They’re going to kill you,” said the voice on the other end. He didn’t stick around to see if “they” would make good on their promise and in the course of the night, he left his job and Comuna 8 behind.
The next weekend, her mother saw several drunk men, known to be members of the local gang, take a 20-year-old by the throat and drag him out of sight. They haven’t heard anything about him since, but a few days later Catalina saw women flirting with the same men responsible for the disappearance, offering them shots. “I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, that we forget so easily,” she said.
Alberto, 12, one of 11 children born to a Comuna 8 mother, has been sleeping in the doorway of a Chinese restaurant in Medellin’s city center for months now, because it’s too “caliente” to go home. “They killed one of my friends a year ago and they want to kill me,” he said. “I prefer to sleep down here.” When asked about his mother and brothers, still living in the conflict zone but at least together, he put his head on his knees and stopped responding.
Although the military has largely managed to stop the daily outbreaks of serious street violence—Medellin’s chief of police announced Saturday that murders in Comuna 8 had actually declined 32% from last year—gang members have not ceded control, Catalina said. They’ve just switched tactics. “They’re very smart.”
That tactic is very simple, said psychologist Bruno Madrid—terror. Madrid, who works in Medellin’s governmental unit for victims of the conflict, said the situation can become such that “these people feel constantly threatened. The crisis may have passed but they’re afraid to live. They always feel that something bad is going to happen, that someone is going to kill them. There is constant fear.”
“What they do is they threaten people another way,” said Catalina, who asked that her name be changed in this article for safety. “It’s much more strategic. They threaten community leaders [to get to the whole community].”
“When the violence isn’t as visible in such a massive, obvious form, people begin to think that things have calmed down,” said Juan David Gonzalez, another city psychologist who helps rebuild conflict zones. “Just because there’s no shoot-outs doesn’t mean the neighborhood isn’t ‘hot’.”
For many in Comuna 8—like other districts in the city’s gang-controlled north—this is not the first time that fear has overtaken their lives.
Twelve percent of the community’s population is displaced, according to an October 2011 report from the mayor’s office. Still more may have experienced trauma, Gonzalez said, describing Comuna 8 as a place where people often arrive limping.
“Colombians, and paisas (people from the area around Medellin) in particular, have a very strong resilient capacity,” he said. “They’ve suffered a lot, but when they get here they say, ‘we’re going to move forward,’ and they’re programming themselves mentally for a new beginning.” But then “ten years pass. And in the past few months, the gunshots and the pamphlets start again.”
That’s why the cyclical violence common to Medellin’s outskirts can prove so damaging. “Each time a person returns to a violent event or type of trauma the effect is more profound,” Madrid said.
Recently arrived or not, many Comuna 8 residents have already lost something—a job, a family member, a friend—because of earlier periods of violence or the threat of it, he added.
With the violence winding down, what will keep it from returning again?
Gonzalez has been working in Comuna 8 and other low-income areas for three years. What the community needs now, he said, are more social programs to fix the longstanding problems that have made it ripe for gang entry—high poverty and unemployment rates, a government still struggling to accommodate the constant ebb and flow of the displaced, and crime networks whose recruits get younger and younger.
Catalina sees the military action as a band-aid—and an uncomfortable one at that. Not everyone in Comuna 8 feels cheered by the influx of police, she said. Besides, “you can have as strong a police or army presence as you want, but at the end of the day [the gangs] will decide if they leave the war or not.”
She has carried on her community work despite an 80% drop in attendance since the gang wars began. It’s a “form of resistance,” she said—working towards a long-term solution to Comuna 8’s problems. “You can’t let fear be the biggest thing.”
But nightmares which began after her friend got that phone call continue to haunt her. Sometimes she dreams that they’ve killed her friend, sometimes it’s her. “Am I afraid? Yes, that’s normal. Then again, it’s so surreal I believe nothing could happen to me. I guess I have to think that.”