Medellin on Tuesday commemorated the 10th anniversary of Operation Orion, a military offensive in the western Comuna 13 that successfully removed left-wing rebels, but ended up installing paramilitary groups still terrorizing the area.
Immediately after October 16 2002, when the operation began, the military offensive was criticized because it was carried out in one of Medellin’s most densely populated areas. While the army, police, air force and paramilitary groups combated left-wing urban militias, the then approximately 100,000 residents of the slums were caught in the crossfire, leaving hundreds injured.
The operation became even more controversial later, when locals began telling stories of how hundreds of residents had been detained but were never tried, how dozens of neighbors were disappeared by paramilitary forces during and after the operation and how the paramilitary Bloque Cacique Nutibara (BCN) had been collaborating with the army and police to secure paramilitary control over the area.
And even now, ten years down the line, inhabitants still don’t know why they were put in the middle of a battlefield, what happened to the people who disappeared since the four-day siege, and why paramilitary groups — and not the state forces — used the siege to consolidate disputed territory and imposed a terror the community had never before seen.
Comuna 13 before Orion
Throughout the 1990s, the Comuna 13, or San Javier, was actually one of the least violent areas in Medellin with a homicide rate well below that of the city average.
Unlike other parts of the city where the right-wing AUC had incorporated vigilante Convivir groups and combos previously loyal to Pablo Escobar, the western wing of the city was controlled by communist urban militias called the Armed People’s Commandos (CAP). The FARC and ELN — at that time at the strongest point in their history — had also reached the periphery of Colombia’s second largest city and, together with the CAP, had taken control over strategic entry and exit point of the city.
The situation changed drastically when in 1999 several blocks of the AUC began an offensive to push the left-wing illegal armed groups away from the zone that connected Medellin to Uraba, a paramilitary stronghold on the Caribbean coast and an important port for the import of weapons and the export of cocaine.
The paramilitaries’ counter-insurgency offensive, however, spiraled out of control and caused unprecedented violence in the comuna.
While Medellin’s average homicide rate had been steady around 170 per 100,000 inhabitants around the turn of the century, the homicide rate in the Comuna 13 tripled between 1997 and 2002, going from a relatively low 123 to a staggering 357. In that same period, forced displacement went from three cases to 1259.
After controversial ex-Mayor Luis Perez took office in 2001, Medellin police and the national security forces tried to violently enter the neighborhood on ten occasions to end the war between guerrillas and paramilitaries, but without result; the violence continued.
Two months after being inaugurated, then-President Alvaro Uribe held a security council in Medellin on October 15, 2002 and publicly ordered the commander of the locally stationed 4th Brigade, General Mario Montoya, and the Medellin Police Commander, General Leonardo Gallego, to begin an offensive that would once and for all oust insurgent groups from the Comuna 13.
More than 1,000 soldiers and policemen, supported by armed helicopters, attacked the area 24 hours later. Heavy combat lasted until October 20 after which the police and military had successfully expelled the communist militias from the comuna. Witnesses, local media and BCN commander and Oficina de Envigado chief “Don Berna” have said the police and military were aided by paramilitaries.
Speaking before Colombian prosecutors in 2009, the former paramilitary warlord said “the self defense forces of the BCN arrived at the Comuna 13 as part of an alliance with the 4th Brigade of the Army, including General Mario Montoya, of the army, and Leonardo Gallego, of the Police.”
“Several of my men entered with the security forces. [They were] hooded because a lot of people from there knew them,” the paramilitary leader testified from his U.S. prison in 2009.
The battle left hundreds of civilians injured. The amount of civilians killed remained unclear as official counts contradicted others and some civilian casualties were reported as guerrillas killed in combat. Additionally, approximately 70 people disappeared.
Following the siege, Operation Orion was praised by authorities as one of the most successful offensives against illegal armed groups to date. The year after the siege, the homicide rate in the Comuna 13 dropped from 357 to 72 and the mayor claimed 72 hostages were rescued from the slums, an assertion that was later denied by other officials.
However, residents and human rights organizations began complaining about security forces torturing civilians, arbitrary detentions, disappearances, and that Don Berna, and not the security forces, had taken full control of the comuna 13, continuing violence against what the BCN considered guerrilla sympathizers.
“What they did was replace one illegal armed group by another,” Maritza Quiroz of the Corporacion Juridica Libertad, an NGO monitoring human rights in the Comuna 13, told Colombia Reports Monday.
The spectacular drop in homicides that followed Operation Orion was not the result of a successful military operation, but “because Don Berna ordered to stop the killing,” a local community leader said.
Instead of leaving dead bodies on the streets, the BCN turned to disposing the bodies in a dump site up the hill called “La Escombrera,” keeping the homicide rate low.
According to the Corporacion Juridica Libertad, some 140 people disappeared from the neighborhood between November 2002 and February 2003. This claim has been corroborated by locals, Don Berna and the local ombudsman’s office that has said that some 150 bodies are expected to be buried. Some media have claimed more than 300 people have disappeared from the Comuna 13 since Don Berna took control.
Nevertheless, official figures on the amount of people who have disappeared since Orion are not publicly available and local authorities have failed to fulfill its promise to investigate the dump site and locate and identify the remains of those who disappeared.
The forced displacement that started after the paramilitary incursion in 1999 also continued after the paramilitary groups had taken control. A 2011 study showed that between 2003 and 2009, almost 3,500 people were displaced from the comuna. City-wide, forced displacement more than doubled since then.
The excessive homicide rate that spurred Orion returned after Don Berna’s extradition in 2008. Warring factions of the Oficina de Envigado, later joined by neo-paramilitary group the Urabeños, secured that by 2011 the Comuna 13’s homicide rate was higher than before the arrival of the paramilitaries.
Inhabitants of what once was one of Medellin’s most peaceful comunas have received the assistance of an independent international commission that has vowed to take locals’ testimonies and clarify what has happened during and after Operation Orion while former Generals Montoya and Gallego are under investigation by public prosecutors over their alleged collaboration with Don Berna.