Cali, Colombia: Caught in the Criminal Crossfire

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The massacre of eight people on a ranch in the outskirts of Cali — Colombia’s third-largest city and the second-most violent in the country — has raised alarm over the presence of organized crime in the city, even as the city’s authorities appear to disagree over the presence of armed groups there.

The city of Cali has been caught in the crossfire from various sides for weeks, as the result of internal conflicts and confrontations between the so-called BACRIM (for the Spanish for “criminal bands”) in several sectors of the city, as well as common crime.

The event that set off alarms took place on October 2 at a luxurious ranch in the neighborhood of La Maria, in southern Cali, where Julio Cesar Paz Varela, alias “J1” — who was considered Colombia’s “capo” of synthetic drugs — and seven of his closest allies were murdered. According to authorities, various men had met up at the ranch to define the future of the region’s drug trade.

A version of this article first appeared on VerdadAbierta.com and was translated and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here

At the beginning of the investigation into what had happened, the strongest hypothesis was that “J1” (pictured below), who had just left prison a week before, wanted to break away from his partners, alias “Martin Bala” and alias “Chicho,” the imprisoned former heads of the “Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia,” otherwise known as the Urabeños.

J1

The massacre — coupled with a series of murders in different parts of the city over the following days — sparked fears among Cali residents of a possible mafia war between criminal groups that would affect the wider public.

Authorities attempted to quash these fears by explaining that the multiple homicides were linked to an internal dispute between factions of the Urabeños, and denying that the BACRIM — which emerged in 2006 following the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries — had any permanent presence in the city.

Nonetheless, the national and local ombudsman’s offices issued warnings several months ago that the Urabeños and the Rastrojos were indeed present here. These BACRIM were co-opting local gangs in order to gain territorial control over Cali’s poorer neighborhoods, aiming to run illicit businesses like micro-trafficking, extortion, armed robbery and hired killings, among others.

A risk analysis released by the Ombudsman’s Office on February 4 this year indicated that more than 30 neighborhoods in 11 “comunas” (districts) in eastern Cali and in the city’s mountain region were affected by the presence of criminal groups attempting to control the area.

“At particular risk are boys, girls, adolescents and youths in the neighborhoods and districts named here, who face seriously vulnerable conditions that expose them to the actions and aspirations of illegal armed groups,” stated the report.

The Ombudsman’s Office noted that many homicides in 2013 were linked to a power struggle between the Urabeños and the Rastrojos. 

“This dispute is being carried out via local organized, armed groups who establish alliances or agreements with one or another armed group; this also influences the dynamics of the confrontation,” the report said. 

SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile

The Cali ombudsman, Andres Santamaria, told VerdadAbierta.com that for some time his office had been denouncing the presence of BACRIM in the city.

“Cali has become more visible due to the massacre, but throughout the country the conflict has intensified and has transformed from a rural to an urban conflict,” he explained.

“There has been a transformation of the illegal groups that have come in to exercise territorial control in the municipalities,” he added. “Cali has not been immune to this; this territorial control has been marked by the drug trade, along with other crimes.”

He said that unlike in other cities, in Cali there was a complexity to how youths and minors were linked to the structures that control the city’s neighborhoods.

“This control is exercised via youths who are recruited by the criminal bands and, specifically, also by the gangs,” said Santamaria. “Using them [these youths], they [the criminal groups] maintain mobility and exercise control. That is another part of the story that Cali — or its institutions — won’t accept.”

The capital of Valle del Cauca is one of the 11 cities in the country where a frontal assault on crime, ordered by President Juan Manuel Santos, is being applied. It is estimated that 82 percent of crime in Colombia is concentrated in its major cities — Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Pereira, Ibague, Pasto, Barranquilla, Cucuta, Bucaramanga, Villavicencio and Neiva (photo below shows residents in Cali protesting violence). 

Protestors Cali Violence

The information compiled by the Cali Ombudsman’s Office — which includes interviews with gang leaders — supports the national Ombudsman’s Office analysis on how the BARCIM are co-opting local criminal groups. “This co-option ranges from paying them to carry out crimes-for-hire, to financing some gangs to halt the advance of their rivals in the comunas, either by providing them with weapons, economic support, or fighters,” the analysis stated.

Jesus Dario Gonzalez, the director of the Social Observatory of the Archdiocese of Cali, which operates in various vulnerable parts of the city, said that the complexity of the city’s violence was due to three factors. The first is the arrival of people and groups that follow the same criminal model as the old factions of the AUC;  these were originally set up in rural areas in order to exercise territorial control and diversify their illegal activities.

“Practices associated with the history of paramilitary control have begun to show up in the city, in search of sources of income like micro-trafficking and other [crimes] like extortion and cell phone theft,” said Gonzalez.


“If the state isn’t there, illegal groups come in to replace it.”


The second factor is the increase in the consumption of illicit drugs — both new ones like synthetic drugs, and traditional ones like marijuana and “bazuco” (a cheap cocaine byproduct).

And the third factor highlighted by Gonzalez is the worrisome social situation that is leading to an unusual increase in the population, as more people displaced by the conflict arrive to the city. According to the Observatory, in recent years more than 100,000 people have arrived, and according to the local Ombudsman’s Office, 37 people arrive daily from Colombia’s Pacific coast.

“The local government doesn’t have a way of attending to them and has a limited capacity to provide basic services, security and inclusion,” said Gonzalez. “The displaced population is victimized and re-victimized.”

And that’s where local criminal gangs — and organizations associated with the type of control once exercised by the paramilitaries — come into play. “If the state isn’t there, illegal groups come in to replace it,” said the Observatory director. “Territorial control is a convergence between the available [vulnerable] population and the possible supplantation of the state.”

“We can’t clearly identify one or two groups with territorial control,” Gonzalez concluded. “There are scattered groups associated with micro-trafficking and other crimes. I think it would be thoughtless to point to and label distinct phenomena.”

The Official Version

The police is the institution in charge of confronting the BACRIM. General Hoover Penilla, commander of the Cali Metropolitan Police, told VerdadAbierta.com that they are aware these groups are attempting to enter not just Cali, but all of Valle del Cauca province and the surrounding coffee region. However, they don’t have evidence to support the theory that these groups are present in Cali’s comunas.

According to Penilla, the Urabeños and the Rastrojos are not using Cali’s gangs to exert territorial control. He believes that the BACRIM contract the gangs on a short-term basis to commit certain crimes.

“[The BACRIM] don’t permanently employ [the gangs] in their service; rather, they perform specific jobs,” said General Penilla. “It is a temporary contract, not permanent. We have knowledge of this — of some of these agreements — but not of [the BACRIM] having control over [the gangs].”

“They work for the highest bidder,” he added

What the police say contrasts with the warnings from the local and national ombudsman’s offices. In Penilla’s opinion, the BACRIM are not establishing ties with simple gangs, but rather with more sophisticated groups [known as “oficinas de cobro”].

“[The BACRIM have] contacts with very local organizations that are dominant locally, which are very reluctant to allow people from other parts of the country to enter,” he said. “But [the BACRIM] have come to the conclusion that they can have a link here by contracting these local structures, not just in Cali, but across the region.”

As one example, a source in intelligence cited one case in which a sophisticated gang known as Parche de Zuley was reportedly hired to carry out an attack on the former interior minister, Fernando Londoño. 

General Penilla believes that the BACRIM do not maintain a presence or exert territorial control in Cali for economic reasons, and in order to preserve resources. “Faced with the effort of trying to enter the city violently, it is much easier for them to reach understandings with leaders of some structures and make those kinds of agreements,” said the police chief (photo below shows Cali skyline).

Cali skyline

Police investigators have also identified some gangs that present themselves as factions of the Urabeños or the Rastrojos, without actually having a real relationship with them. In those cases, the BACRIM have ordered them to contribute resources in exchange for getting to use the BACRIM name.

Cali’s Secretary of Government, Laura Lugo, said she did not know of a power struggle between BACRIM in the city, or if they were co-opting local gangs for their criminal activities. To the contrary, she highlighted the positive security results that Cali registered during the first half of this year, a period that saw monthly decreases in homicides. Between January 1 and July 15, 2013, 1,089 murders were committed, while that same period in 2014 saw 802 homicides. 

Although Cali’s government institutions disagree on the BACRIM’s degree of influence in the city, they agree that they are generating violence — while using local criminal gangs — to some extent. And what’s most worrisome is that those most affected by these alliances are the city’s underage youth.

The police have identified 107 gangs in eight communities in eastern Cali. According to estimates from the Ombudsman’s Office, these groups are composed of 15 to 20 youths, among them minors. The neighborhoods where they operate are characterized by poverty, unemployment and high dropout rates. This means they are more exposed to offers from the strongest gangs, who seduce them with money and arms.

And the numbers back up this conclusion. According to figures compiled by the Inter-Institutional Committee on Violent Deaths in Cali, which maintains monthly homicide registries for each neighborhood, 245 underage youths were murdered in 2013, and between January and September this year, 142 lost their lives violently.

The Cali ombudsman believes that adolescents join criminal groups because they offer them money, and that it is possible that many of those deaths are linked to the presence of criminal groups. “In order to be well-organized, these gangs need economic resources,” he said. “One sees gangs with certain types of weapons, and they go from being an expression of youthful rebellion, to having a serious impact on the territory.” 

In addition to being victims, the minors are victimizers. According to registries from the Police for Children and Adolescents, in 2013 there were 2,263 cases of infractions committed by minors; 2,543 [suspects] were brought to stations in police districts and 865 more were arrested between January and July 20, 2014.

Of those detained in 2013, 1,011 were 17 years old, 766 were 16 years old, and 524 were 15 years old. The causes for arrest included 594 who were linked to trafficking and transporting drugs, 579 for trafficking and carrying weapons, 495 for aggravated robbery, and 427 for simple theft. Of the total, just 58 — equivalent to 2.2 percent — were taken in for homicide.


245 underage youths were murdered in 2013, and between January and September this year, 142 lost their lives violently.


These figures appear to lend credence to the alarms sounded by the national and local Ombudsman’s Offices, which on various occasions have warned that the BACRIM are co-opting gangs to engage in a bloody war for their neighborhood street corners […]

Alongside these captures, the lack of space in rehabilitation centers for minors must also be considered. According to a report from the Cali Ombudsman’s Office, there are four places in the city that have 713 spaces for adolescent offenders, but as of July 2013, they had exceeded their capacity by 37.

In reference to this, General Penilla explained that due to the lack of space, there are around 18 youths being held in the hallways of these juvenile delinquent centers.

Adults are in the same kind of deplorable situation. According to Penilla, as of three months ago, 170 people had been sentenced to serve time, but hadn’t been sent to a prison due to overcrowding. Because of this, they’re being held in police stations under the custody of officers, who, in turn, are unable to patrol the streets.

Is There a Solution?

The various sources consulted by VerdadAbierta.com coincided in indicating that punitive action is not enough: the state needs to commit to help Cali’s most vulnerable families, so that the younger generations won’t be sucked into the spiral of violence that Cali has lived for decades now — and which appears to have worsened in the last few weeks. 

Cali’s Secretary of Government said that the mayor’s office is developing a youth crime prevention program for five neighborhoods, involving economic, educational and sports projects. She also highlighted the local government’s recovery of around 600 public parks and investment of more than $7 million in LED lighting.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

“The parks used to be run by delinquents and drug dealers; now there are kids, youths and elderly people playing sports,” said the official.

For his part, General Penilla highlighted the police intelligence work that has led to the dismantling of 49 criminal groups, as well as the work of other security and justice institutions, which has resulted in 287 fewer homicides during the first half of this year, compared with 2013 […]

The Ombudsman’s Office has pointed out that many minors who are involved in crime in Cali lack opportunities, live in poverty and have parents that have been victims of the armed conflict. Mixed in with this is the state’s incapacity to give them a better life.

“Violence isn’t just the entry of criminal bands,” said Cali’s Omsbudsman. “It’s also their ability to utilize very vulnerable sectors because the state hasn’t given them other alternatives, and the criminal gangs have arrived before the state. There’s a social abandonment.” 

Based on the data and the Ombudsman’s Offices’ calls for attention, it seems like the youths in eastern Cali are living closer to the “franchises” of these criminal groups than they are to the so-called “branch of heaven,” as Cali is nicknamed. 

*A version of this article first appeared on VerdadAbierta.com and was translated and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here.

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