After a period of relative calm, violence in Medellin has intensified with the proliferation of new criminal gangs in the tradition of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, leaving more than a thousand dead since the beginning of 2009 alone.
The Antioquia department’s capital experienced its worst moment in 1991 during Escobar’s reign, when 6,500 homicides were reported. Between 2004 and 2007 that figure dramatically decreased thanks to mayor Sergio Fajardo‘s program to crack down on crime while implementing social programs.
However, between January and August of this year there have already been 1,300 murders, whose victims are members of the 380 emerging bands operating in the city.
According to city statistics, reports Colombian news source Terra, the victims all fit a profile of young men aged between 18 and 26.
City spokesman Jairo Herran said that the surge in violence is due to the “breaking of the authority of the Envigado [gang]” – a network of killers and drug traffickers born in the 1980s – “and the extradition to the United States of fourteen heads of this organization.
“When an entity like this controls its subordinates, homicides decrease and [we have] stability. However, [when powerful groups lose control], this manifests itself in disputes between gangs, violence in the neighborhoods and [the arrival] of illegal groups from other regions.”
In line with this thinking, Terra reports that President Alvaro Uribe said Sunday that Medellin “is moving from having crime controlled by a few to crime dominated by many.
Luis Mosquera, head of Human Rights for agency Con-vivir, said that another element contributing to the weakening of the the great structure of the underworld was the process of demobilization and reintegration of paramilitary commanders.
Since 2003, the Uribe government has promoted the social integration of far-right paramilitaries under the umbrella of the Law of Justice and Peace which, in Mosquera’s opinion, “has failed”, leaving the path open to middle managers.
Thus, in Medellin’s neighborhoods, gangs are competing for territory, by extorting buisnesses and transporters, trying to control the movement of people and places where drugs, gambling and prostitution proliferate.
This tension has triggered violence that reaches outside of the gangs themselves: A few weeks ago a community leader who was not yet twenty years old was shot dead, and several children have been struck by stray bullets in recent months.
Spokesman Herran said that the involvement of children by criminal groups is increasing, and are used as messengers to carry information from one gang to another. This has also influenced the numbers of forced displacement in the Antioquia region, which in the first half of 2009 has reached 6,336 people.
For these reasons, 5,800 police have been mobilized in Medellin, and curfews have been imposed in a number of areas. However, according to the city ombudsman, this has “not affected the number of homicides, much less the suppression and prevention of crime.”
“The measures taken must be in accordance with the organized gangs that are [filling the vaccuum once occupied] by armed groups, to establish acts of coexistence rather than confrontation,” said spokesman Herran.