Contrary to what we have been hearing so far this year, the drug war in Colombia’s second-largest city Medellin shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, there is reason to fear that the coming months may be among the bloodiest in recent memory.
When homicide rates in Medellin began to skyrocket in 2008 after four years of remarkable peace and stability, both the local and national government insisted that the murders were, paradoxically, a sign of progress. Organized crime, the argument goes, is at its most violent when it is fragmented, weak and struggling for survival.
Since then, however, organized criminal violence has continued to rise, with no end in sight. January 2010 was among the bloodiest months in recent memory with 238 murders, more than double the total for the same month a year earlier. Then suddenly, a group of civil society leaders announced that they had mediated a ceasefire between the city’s rival mafia lords, who go by the aliases “Sebastian” and “Valenciano.” The peace deal reduced violence almost overnight. There were only 114 homicides in February 2010, still higher than a year earlier but a major improvement on January’s numbers.
Meanwhile, the authorities were both dumbfounded and embarrassed. If, as local officials claimed, criminal structures were fragmented and decentralized, how could just two men halve the local murder rate overnight? If gangs were so weak, why were Sebastian and Valenciano still at large and wreaking havoc throughout the city? Indeed, when crime finally went down as the police had anticipated, it was not due to the authorities’ success but rather to a voluntary peace agreement within the mafia itself.
In recent weeks, homicide rates have begun to rise again despite the fact that the ceasefire is officially still in place. Thanks largely to this latest spike and to January’s high murder rate, the total of homicides in the first three months of this year exceeds that of the same period last year by 178, an increase of about 50%. Crime is unsurprisingly most acute in poor areas, but the effects of the gang war can also be felt in more affluent areas. Murders have gone up in all but one of the city’s sixteen wards. In El Poblado, by far Medellin’s wealthiest and most tourist-friendly area, there were six homicides between January and March this year. To put that in perspective, it means El Poblado’s homicide rate is higher than those of Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
There is reason to believe that the worst is yet to come. The civic leaders who mediated the ceasefire have commented that while it remains in place, Sebastian and Valenciano have been unable to maintain control over all of their criminal subordinates and associates. This has led to local breakouts of violence that are quickly spreading from one neighborhood to another. If this trend continues, the contagion of violence could spread throughout the city and lead to the breakdown of the ceasefire.
Just how much violence would increase in such a scenario is obviously a matter of speculation, but even conservative estimates suggest that the effects could be devastating. In the 1st and 13th wards, the two areas where the truce has begun to break down, homicides have more than doubled. If the same happens in the rest of the city, Medellin could have well over 3,000 homicides this year, making it as violent as Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. It is too soon to make such predictions with any degree of certainty. Indeed, my central point is that neither the public nor the authorities know very much about the state of the Medellin underworld in the post-paramilitary era.
But perhaps the authorities know more than their seemingly naïve public statements suggest. Indeed, those policemen and city employees who work on the front lines of the gang war must have some sense of just how limited the government’s control over the city is. Perhaps, then, officials in Medellin are hoping that their public optimism about security will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, just as governments often make optimistic statements about the economy in order to generate confidence and thereby re-energize the economy.
In theory, this strategy could be effective. Many local gangs fund themselves partly through highly lucrative extortion rackets and residents are often afraid to speak to the police for fear of retribution. If the citizenry feels that criminal groups are small, weak and fragmented, they might stop paying protection money and start collaborating with the police. Further, this strategy was successful in Bogota in the 1990s, when then mayor and current presidential candidate Antanas Mockus used public confidence to dramatically reduce crime rates. Still, two years into this recent crime wave, it is clear that the strategy has failed. If the authorities are indeed trying to use public confidence as a tool against crime, all they have done is hurt their own credibility.
Recently, therefore, their statements about crime have become more realistic and, unfortunately, pessimistic. The city’s government secretary, Felipe Palau, said last week that while crime rates are high, they are not as bad as in 2002 and 2003, not a reassuring statement given that Medellin had the world’s highest homicide rate during those years. Moreover, as Palau knows, if the upward trend continues, this year’s body count could very well reach those levels.
Tough security measures, the paramilitary demobilization, and local social programs have certainly had an impact on Medellin’s underworld, but whether they can make the city less violent in the long run is less clear. Many questions remain about the future of crime in Colombia’s second largest city. Unfortunately, when you cannot even count on the authorities for credible information, all residents can do is nervously wait and see what will happen next.