The inheritors of Pablo Escobar’s drug trafficking empire in Colombia, the Oficina de Envigado is now a hodgepodge of smaller organizations that seeks alliances with street gangs to keep control of their territory and businesses that is in nearly constant flux. The Oficina de Envigado first arose as a faction of assassins established by Pablo Escobar in Envigado, a small municipality adjacent to Medellin, in the 1980s. The Oficina would evolve into a sizable, though conflicted, drug-running operation, drawing many of its leaders from former paramilitary blocs, while its lower ranks became filled with an endless pool of willing young men from the working-class neighborhoods of Medellin.
The Oficina de Envigado’s “Godfather” is Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” who after operating as a guerrilla fighter for the Popular Liberation Army (Ejercito Popular de Liberacion – EPL), began working in the criminal underworld as an assassin for the Galeano and Moncada families. These families worked with Pablo Escobar until Escobar ordered the assassinations of the Moncado and Galeano brothers in 1992 for allegedly stealing money from him, after which his control of the Oficina began to slip. Don Berna supposedly barely escaped with his life as he was accompanying Galeano’s mistress to the beauty salon at the time.
Oficina de Envigado Factbox
Drug production, kidnapping, domestic drug sales, arms trafficking, money laundering, human trafficking
Principal criminal groups
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), National Liberation Army (ELN), Urabeños, Rastrojos, Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC), Paisas, Oficina de Envigado
After Escobar assassinated Don Berna’s bosses, Don Berna teamed up with paramilitary leaders Fidel and Carlos Castaño to organize the People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar (Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar – PEPES), a paramilitary group designed to destroy Escobar’s massive network. Combining portions of the Medellin underworld, rural right-wing paramilitaries, the Cali Cartel and elements of the Colombian National Police, the PEPES attacked every facet of Escobar’s life and business, eventually enabling the Colombian police to find him and gun him down in December 1993.
After Escobar’s death, Don Berna took control of Medellin. The Oficina became the chief mediator and debt collector in drug trafficking disputes, and Don Berna maintained major trafficking of drugs through his numerous contacts.
Don Berna’s connections with the paramilitaries continued as well, and in the late 1990s he was named the commander of the Cacique Nutibara Bloc by the paramilitary umbrella organization the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). He also consolidated his control of the Medellin street gangs, drove the guerrillas from the city and presided over the country’s most feared hitmen network, La Terraza. His ruthless approach included fighting with his cohorts in the AUC and La Terraza. When La Terraza rebelled against his command, he assassinated several of its leaders and exterminated the breakaway members of the gang in a bloody conflict.
He also waged war against one time ally turned rival, AUC commander Carlos Mauricio Garcia Fernandez, alias “Doblecero,” and his Bloque Metro paramilitary unit, in a dispute over demobilization negotitations with the government, which led to the eventual decimation of the Bloque Metro and the murder of Doblecero. Before his death, Doblecero accused Don Berna of being behind the assassination of AUC leader Carlos Castaño. It is believed Don Berna and other traffickers in the AUC ordered Castaño’s brother Vicente to have him murdered, as they believed Castaño was about to sever ties with the traffickers and turn himself over to the US authorities.
Don Berna demobilized with other AUC leaders in 2003, along with several hundred of his Cacique Nutibara Bloc troops. But he was imprisoned in 2005 when authorities connected him to the assassination of a local politician after talks had begun. Nonetheless, in prison Don Berna found a safe haven where he could continue running his operations at a safe distance from his enemies, while on the outside, Don Berna’s spokesman, Carlos Mario Aguilar, alias “Rogelio,” along with a former paramilitary, Daniel Alberto Mejia, alias “Danielito,”managed the Oficina’s drugs trafficking and assassin network.
Ultimately, the charges against Don Berna for the murder of the politician were eventually dropped — although this decision overturned three years later on appeal — and he began collaborating with justice officials in an attempt to avoid extradition to the United States. This included ordering the Oficina to keep murder rates at a minimum — the so-called “donbernabilidad,” which kept Medellin’s murder rate low from 2003 to 2008.
The Oficina itself was never without internal rivalries, as evidenced when Aguilar ordered Mejia’s assassination in November 2006, after Danielito had assassinated former paramilitary and football club owner Gustavo Upegui Lopez. Mejia’s body was never found, and was reportedly dumped into a vat of acid.
Eventually, Don Berna’s relationship with the government soured, and he was extradited to the United States, along with 13 other paramilitary leaders, in May 2008. The Oficina quickly splintered. In July, a top operative was captured. That same month, Aguilar surrendered to Colombian authorities and was extradited soon thereafter. The Oficina also started feuding with Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias “Don Mario,” whose group would later morph into what is now known as the Urabeños while a rural wing of the Oficina, later dubbed the Paisas, also broke away. Most damaging was the bloody internal feud between a faction headed by Maximiliano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano,” and Erick Vargas, alias “Sebastian.” As one Colombian official observed following a massive arrest of gang members on September 5, 2009, “this criminal structure is in a death struggle and [its members] are totally broken in their loyalties.”
The murder rate in Medellin doubled between 2008 and 2009 as Sebastian and Valenciano battled for control of the city. Before the 2008 dispute, most of the Oficina’s Medellin operations fell under the control of Sebastian, while the international trafficking operations were handled by Valenciano, who moved cocaine shipments via the Atlantic coast to Panama, then to the United States via Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.
The internal conflict in the Oficina also created an opening for rival drug gang, neo-paramilitary group the Urabeños, who allied themselves with Valenciano. In 2011, Valenciano was arrested in Venezuela, however, Sebastian’s victory was short-lived. The Urabeños then used its military training, weapons and considerable financial resources to move into Oficina territory, offering money and military grade weaponry to local gangs to turn them against the Oficina. The ultimate aim was to control all major entry and exit points of Medellin, and the group gained considerable ground in a bloody war played out in the city’s barrios, although the Oficina retained command of the northern and and eastern districts.
There were also reports that Valenciano cultivated an alliance with the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – ELN ), Colombia’s second largest insurgency. However, with Valenciano’s arrest and defeat in the war against Sebastian, the Oficina lost control of its primary trafficking routes, many of which are now in the hands of the Urabeños.
Aggressive actions by the authorities further weakened the organization during 2012, with five of its top leaders captured, including Sebastian, in August. In December, several leading figures were massacred in Medellin, in an attack believed to be linked to the leadership dispute. Several factions were believed to have been taken over by Edison Rodolfo Rojas, alias “Pichi,” but he was arrested in a joint operation between Panamanian and Colombian police in February 2013, leaving the Oficina’s leadership structure in flux once more.
However, in mid-2013, a truce was brokered between the Urabeños and the remnants of the Oficina by the powerful group of white-collar criminals that has long lurked in the background behind the Medellin mafia. The two sides declared a ceasefire and a new era of cooperation began. The deal saw the Oficina gain access to their rivals’ international drug trafficking routes in exchange for allowing the Urabeños to peacefully stake its claim to profits from the Medellin underworld. The impact was an immediate and drastic drop in murder rates to mark a new era in the history of the Oficina and Medellin crime.
According to police, the Oficina earned approximately $31.4 million per year from money laundering. This is partly due to the Oficina’s hold over the gambling and betting industries, including clandestine lotteries, which have long been a staple of the group’s finances. One out of four slot machines in Medellin is reportedly run outside gaming commission regulations, bringing in annual profits of up to $10.5 million. Casinos are used as money-laundering outlets, or else are required to pay frequent quotas.
The Oficina has also proved adept at infiltrating police ranks and government institutions, including the now-defunct presidential migration and security service DAS. “The fiercest assassins in the Oficina are former police agents,” one source told the Colombian newsweekly Semana. As a result, previous successful captures of key Oficina members have been carried out with police agents brought in from Bogota.
Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, “Don Berna,” was the group’s original leader. The warring Oficina faction leaders Maximiliano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano,” and Erick Vargas, alias “Sebastian,” were captured in 2011 and 2012, respectively. In January 2015, one of the group’s last remaining leaders, Julian Andrey Gonzalez Vasquez, alias “Barny,” was arrested in Bogota.
The Oficina’s base of operations was in Envigado and Medellin, but the group conducted international trafficking operations via the Atlantic coast to Panama, and from there to the United States via Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. The group now has access to the international trafficking network of the Urabeños, after forming an alliance with them in 2013.
Allies and Enemies
The Oficina has been known to have alliances with the Rastrojos and the Sinaloa Cartel, the later of which relies on Oficina operatives for support in its global drug trafficking operations. In 2013, the group formed an alliance with the Urabeños.
The Oficina managed to create a sizable drug trafficking network from Medellin to the northern coast of Colombia and the Panamanian border area, although this has for the most part now been lost. Yet internal conflicts and external rivalries have left numerous public figures dead as a result of the Oficina’s penchant for settling debts with firepower. Indeed, while the Oficina de Envigado used to exert hegemonic control over the combos that ran microtrafficking operations within Medellin, this has been challenged by the Urabeños criminal syndicate. Additionally, the loss of the major international drug trafficking contacts which Valenciano had maintained, resulted in many of the combos looking for new ways to boost their income — extra income which they then used to increase their strength and influence, evolving into “super combos.” The growth of these super combos has left the Oficina increasingly struggling to assert hierarchical control.
In 2014, the US Treasury designated eight members of the Oficina de Envigado under the Kingpin Act, and, under increasing pressure, leaders of the group have continued to be captured by authorities.
- “Colombia’s New Armed Groups,” International Crisis Group, 10 May 2007. (pdf)
- “Los tentaculos de la mafia en Medellín,” Semana, 2 May 2009.
- “Nexos entre la Oficina de Envigado y Cartel Mexicano de los Zetas,” El Tiempo, 7 March 2010.