Arrest of Medellin Kingpin May Intensify City’s Gang Wars

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Medellin’s former crime boss ‘Valenciano’ is set to be extradited to the U.S., while his former allies the Urabeños appear set on continuing his bloody war for control of the city.

Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias “Valenciano,” has known little else besides a life of crime. After his father was killed at age 13, he was supposedly taken in by Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” the successor of Medellin drug lord Pablo Escobar. Bonilla trained in one of the city’s famous “oficinas,” or assassin’s networks, and later inherited Murillo’s criminal empire.

Bonilla’s arrest in Venezuela last week·appears to be the end of his rule in Medellin. The city is a valuable prize for the Colombian underworld thanks to its gambling, prostitution and opportunities for extortion. Medellin also offers strategic links to the Caribbean coast from Colombia’s interior, making it a convenient rendezvous point for arms and drug smugglers.

But Bonilla’s influence in the city has been on the wane since at least 2010. After the U.S. issued an extradition order for Bonilla in April, he was forced to adopt a lower profile. Near the end of that year, he agreed to allow another criminal gang, the Urabeños, to establish cells in Medellin neighborhoods like Comuna 13, the city’s most violent barrio. The Urabeños are based along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and needed Bonilla’s collaboration in order to enter Medellin, a city with an intricate history of gang rivalries which does not easily welcome outsiders.

The risk now is that the Urabeños will try to step in and take over Bonilla’s faction of the Medellin mafia, known as the Oficina de Envigado. Parts of this faction may not be so willing to adapt to new leadership, however, which could cause a new spike in Medellin violence.

Bonilla was hardly in a position to say no to the Urabeños’ demands to establish a foothold in the city. Bonilla was fighting another former hitman, Erick Vargas, alias “Sebastian,” for control of Medellin territory. Vargas had more street gangs, or “combos,” on his payroll, but Bonilla had the advantage of controlling international drug trafficking routes from the Caribbean coast.

Bonilla had the contacts and the cash that comes from networking with other global criminal gangs, like Mexico’s Zetas. But Vargas had on-the-ground presence in Medellin. While Bonilla traveled to Costa Rica, reportedly for gastric bypass surgery, or managed his drug-running operations from coastal cities like Barranquilla, Vargas made a point of personally overseeing Medellin’s gang wars.

This gave him home turf advantage against the Urabeños. But the Urabeños are made up of former paramilitaries or military and police officials. They are better trained and armed, and run a tightly disciplined organization, compared to the shifting network of small-time street gangs allied to Vargas.

According to Medellin’s Omsbudsman’s Office, out of the nearly 9,000 youths thought to form part of street gangs, some 7,000 are in “combos” loyal to Vargas. This is by no means a set number. The Urabeños will probably have no problem in buying the loyalty of stalwart Bonilla allies like the Mondongueros street gang, as well as other bands of drug dealers and assassins-for-hire in Medellin’s barrios.

The leader of the Mondongueros, Carlos Esneider Quintero, alias “Gomelo,” is pegged as Bonilla’s official successor. Esneider heads one of Medellin’s oldest street gangs, formed in 1990 in the northwestern Castilla neighborhood. The Mondongueros have traditionally concentrated on fighting for neighboring Bello, a city that forms part of Medellin’s metropolitan area. They may not take well to the Urabeños’ presence in Medellin.

But the Urabeños might have an easier time trying to make good with Bonilla’s former network rather than with Vargas. Unlike Bonilla, who tried twice to negotiate his surrender with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Vargas has shown little willingness to negotiate with anyone. In choosing to start a war with Bonilla’s faction of the Oficina de Envigado back in 2008, Vargas proved he was unwilling to accept anyone as the leader of Medellin’s underworld other than himself.

Unless Vargas begins feeling more pressure from international law enforcement agencies, making it too difficult for him to stay in Medellin — as happened to Bonilla — he is unlikely to show humility towards the Urabeños. In any case, it is likely Medellin can look ahead to another year of escalating homicides.

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