The group Morada (Spanish for bruise) sent a letter to the mayor on March 28 already, asking the execution of strategies to protect youth vulnerable to crime and prevent the recruitment of minors by gangs, policy proposals the mayor promised to put in his administration’s Development Plan while campaigning in 2015.
Now, four months into his term, the mayor has yet to take action, said the group.
“There are teenagers in this city who have experienced serious things, which has broken them deep inside; The anguish has continued to grow for some on the peripheries of the city where growing up is extremely hard,” Morada said in a statement.
To force the mayor into action, the group created an online petition, hoping that the involvement of more youth convinces the mayor to keep his campaign promises.
Calling on teenagers to force government action
The petition requests a coordinated effort from the Colombian Family Welfare Institute, the District Prosecutor General’s Office, and the Medellin city government to provide ways for young people to leave the territories run by the gangs, where their lives are endangered.
Their letter also urges Gutierrez to show the political will to implement the long-term strategies needed to address the city’s continuing problems with violence, even if those changes are unpopular.
According to the group, many youth in the city’s many poor neighborhoods are trapped in a world of violent crime, where teenagers must often choose between becoming either a victim or member of the locally active gang.
Preventing the recruitment of minors
Proponents of the violence-prevention strategies believe that some 3,000, mainly minor gang members could be removed from the city’s many gangs by offering them alternative opportunities and reintegrating them into society.
Medellin’s Delegate for Human Rights, Jesus Alberto Sanchez, told newspaper El Tiempo that gangs target minors because they are cheap, easy to manipulate, and because they cannot be prosecuted or forced to identify the group they are working for.
In a 2014 study from the Corporation for Peace and Development (Corpades), an estimated 13,500 adolescents in Medellin are involved in 350 gangs affiliated with drug trafficking organizations, though the police estimate the number of gangs to be closer to 100.
“Minors are the cheapest and most appealing source of labor for criminal gangs,” said Medellin’s Councilman Jaime Mejia.
The local lawmaker estimates that about 40% of new gang members are minors, and of the estimated 570,000 teenagers in Medellin, more than 79,000 are considered at elevated risk of being recruited by criminal gangs.
In more marginalized areas such as the western District 13 and the downtown area where youth are already alienated from society and have few opportunities, that number rises to 14% of the population.
Intimidated by threats to their families and bribed with offers of money, food, and drugs, it’s hardly unsurprising that so many youth are sucked into the violence. If they can’t be convinced, they are forced, with approximately 1,754 minors forced into gang recruitment between 2012 and 2015, according to El Tiempo.
Medellin’s violent history
Though Medellin has witnessed an 80% drop in homicides over the last two decades, many parts of the city have been tightly controlled by gangs united in “La Oficina de Envigado,” Pablo Escobar‘s former enforcer army.
“You cannot talk about how everything has been transformed, how Medellín has changed when over 70 percent of the city [neighborhoods] are in the hands of criminals,” said Fernando Quijano, President of Corpades in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor.
Since 2011, two main criminal organizations have been locked in a bloody battle for control over Medellin’s streets and the drug trafficking industry: La Oficina and the “Urabeños,” the primary heir of the now-defunct paramilitary group AUC.
When Mayor Gutierrez took office at the beginning of 2016, he promised to “recover” the areas of Medellin that had fallen under control of these gangs, promising a more direct approach than former Mayor Anibal Gaviria.
These efforts have resulted in 162 arrests, drug seizures, and the deployment of 200 police officers officers to gang-controlled areas in the western districts of Castilla and Robledo.
Gutierrez’ attempts to address the security issues that were ignored by past administrations have earned him rumored death threats from the criminal groups.
Surprisingly, Medellin has actually been enjoying a period of relative calm since 2013, generally attributed to a truce between La Oficina and the Urabeños to cooperate in drug trafficking and divide the city into territories.
Though the murder rate halved between 2012 to 2014 as a result, analysts believe this pact has actually intensified the criminal organizations’ grip on the city and cemented Medellin’s role in the international cocaine trafficking industry, fueled by their young recruits.