Medellin’s deputy-mayor on Friday rejected the idea of a peace deal with the city’s illegal organizations, following the Wednesday publication of an article calling for government transparency over the matter.
“All of the work being undertaken by the mayor of Medellin and security secretary is aimed at strengthening the mechanisms of security and justice…to dismantle criminal structures through research, identification, and conviction of all those who are part of these structures,” said Deputy-Mayor for Security Luis Fernando Suarez in an email.
The rumors emerged following the February 27th publication of an article, “¿En Medellin pactaran con las bandas?” (Will Medellin make a deal with illegal groups?), in Colombia’s weekly Semana, which sent a buzz through social networking sites.
One local journalist who writes on human rights and security said, “I had not heard anything of these rumors, but he [Juan Diego Restrepo E., the article’s author] is highly respected, not a sensationalist.”
Railing against “the bureaucratization of the security issue” and “ineffectiveness of the policies designed by the current mayor of Medellin,” the article went on to allege that “in many circles of the city” rumors have circulated that the Secretary of Security “has been discussing the possibility of entering into dialogue with illegal armed groups in order to achieve their disarmament.”
The secretary was established in April 2012, following Mayor Anibal Gaviria’s inauguration three months earlier, while the position of Deputy-Mayor for Security was created alongside five other deputy-mayoral positions in September.
The Semana article went on to appeal for information on “the content, viability, and legality of these possible pacts,” ending the article by demanding “someone should clarify for us what is happening.”
But Suarez rejected the article’s assertions, saying they were “invalid, without support, and made a superficial analysis of the problems in Medellin.”
Since arriving in January 2012, Gaviria’s administration has come under fire over its security policies. While annual homicide rates went down 24.5% in 2012 compared to 2011, the months following his inauguration were marked by increased homicides, going against a general pattern of decline over the previous two years.
FACT SHEET: Medellin violence statistics
According to Colombia’s coroner’s office, the 88 homicides recorded in January 2013 represented a 29.4% rise compared to the same month in 2012. Despite this, homicides have been declining each month since October.
This outlines the problems with the statistics which are bandied around by opposing sides: by selecting the basis of comparison (year-over-year, corresponding months, five-year trends, etc) it is possible to skew the figures according to your needs and the mayor’s office and its critics have both been guilty of this.
However, on the subject of bureaucratization, there is no disagreement. The administration has established a raft of new positions. Where the sides differ on the matter is its efficacy in addressing the city’s problems.
In its attack on this process, the Semana article branded it a “useless bureaucratic structure,” criticizing reduced homicide rates as a sign of improvements by saying “the decline in murders is not the only indicator to measure the level of violence in a city. In the capital of Antioquia there are overwhelming ‘invisible borders,’ strict social controls, large-scale extortions, torture, forced disappearances and a lack of governance in some marginal areas. All of this is violence, silent and continuous.”
The words almost exactly echoed those of Fernando Quijano, director of Medellin human rights organization Corpades, in an interview given last Wednesday on the subject of two 11-year-old boys brutally murdered last month after crossing an invisible border.
Invisible borders are the shifting boundaries enforced by warring street gangs as they seek to protect and expand their areas of influence. The penalty for crossing them is death, regardless of whether you are involved with a gang. One of the consequences of this situation was outlined in a Sunday article in local newspaper El Mundo, which reported on the scores of children unable to attend school in the city because of the danger posed by these frontiers.
In a Wednesday interview, Suarez laid out a possible scheme of safe routes and chaperoned school journeys to tackle the problem. If this were a subject upon which the city government sought talks with neighborhood gangs, it would likely be met with some approval. The outpouring of grief following last month’s murders was overwhelming, 300 people joined the funeral procession and community organizations united to demand greater protection for children.
On the issue of bureaucratization, for Suarez the six new deputy-mayor positions are an essential element in the effort to make administration more responsive and focused.
“This is a process of modernization,” says Suarez. “I served as secretary for social welfare, but trying to get an appointment with the mayor was impossible, he had no time. There were 50-something [secretaries and managers] trying to speak to him,” he added.
“The deputy-mayor is in daily dialogue with the secretaries and managers who come under their jurisdiction and when there is something which needs to be taken to the mayor, the deputy-mayor is able to make sure that happens,” he explained.
According to Suarez, through the deputy-mayors, secretaries, managers of centralized programs, and administrators of the city’s 16 districts, policy can be developed by teams made up of officials specializing in the relevant geographical locations or strategic issues, such as security, education, or health.
Where this falls short is in the appointment of officials whose previous professional experience does not seemingly fit with the job handed to them. A major criticism leveled at Gaviria when he announced the establishment of the Ministry of Security was his selection of Eduardo Rojas as security secretary, who previously worked in university administration.
Rojas left the position Friday to be replaced by Arnulfo Serna, who has an educational background in criminal law and human rights, and previously directed Medellin’s prosecutor’s office.
For Suarez his appointment was an essential step in bringing together the “three legs” of governance: the mayor’s office, the police, and the prosecutor’s office.
“If one of those legs does not stand up, the whole organization falls,” said Suarez.
“The mayor’s office is firm and police we are building up, but sometimes the prosecutor’s office was a world away. With Arnulfo’s appointment we have brought those three legs together,” he said.
While the question of whether the restructured administration will be more effective at addressing the city’s problems can only be answered with time, the concept of negotiating for peace with illegal organizations is more debatable.
Despite the repudiation of the policy by Suarez, who outlined that such a course would render pointless the massive amount of money and resources now being channeled towards special police teams tasked with attacking criminal enterprises, it is unlikely such a reputable journalist picked the idea out of the sky.
The theme of negotiations with criminal organizations is currently high on the agenda in Latin America, with a high-profile gang truce initiated in El Salvador in November apparently leading to a two-thirds drop in the homicide rate. The country recently established its first ‘peace zone,’ free of illegal gang activity and military presence, and 18 more are being considered. While fears have been raised that the gangs may be abusing the program to reorganize themselves, the apparent success has led Guatemala’s President Otto Perez to also consider such a scheme.
In both the Central American countries, as in Colombia, street gangs maintain close links with major drug trafficking organizations. However, they differ in the sense that the gangs active in El Salvador and Guatemala have traditionally operated independently, but grown closer to Mexican cartels as they have become more significant in the transnational movement of drugs. Colombian gangs on the other hand, have developed alongside the major trafficking organizations over recent decades. Much of the violence between gangs in Medellin is due to an ongoing battle for control of the city’s underworld between the Oficina of Envigado crime syndicate, dominant in the city since Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993, and the Los Urabeños neo-paramilitary organization which currently controls swathes of the country and has closed in on Medellin over recent years. Street gangs are aligned to and fight on the behalf of one or the other, with heavy violence concentrated around the major transit points in the east and west of the city.
For that reason, it is hard to see how the city government could possibly enter into dialogue with street gangs to get them to stop fighting. Any negotiations would have to involve these major structures, which would in turn cause public outcry. Given the criticism the current administration has already come under, such a move would be political suicide.
So it seems, for now, the hopes for an improvement in Medellin’s security situation rest upon the success of the current administration’s newly structured approach.
- Interview with Luis Fernando Suarez
- Email from Luis Fernando Suarez
- Interview with Fernando Quijano
- Interview with Medellin journalist
- ¿En Medellin pactaran con las bandas? (Semana)
- La educacion, victima del conflicto (El Mundo)
- El Salvador ‘Peace Zone’ Launched in Second Phase of Gang Truce (InSight Crime)
- Guatemalan President Seeks ‘Alternative’ Approach to Gangs (InSight Crime)
- Colombia Coroner’s Office (Instituto Nacional de Medecina Legal)