The tense calm that had persisted for six years in the town of Bello, near Medellín in Colombia, has been shattered in 2019, as homicides have spiked by 175 percent in the first half of the year.
Between January and June of 2019, Bello saw 105 deaths, up from just 38 recorded during the same period in 2018.
This rise is due to an escalating conflict between three local gangs: Los Pachelly, Los Mesa and Niquía Camacol, all of which vying for control of the town in the Valle de Aburrá, according to a warning issued by the Ombudsman’s Office in September.
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It also warned that residents were threatened through social network posts and through printed pamphlets, and that they were also forced to leave their homes. Gangs were also recruiting youths.
The violence has taken place in at least 13 neighborhoods, but has largely been concentrated in northern Bello in the areas of Bellavista, Altos de Niquía, Niquía and Suárez.
Colombia’s President Iván Duque announced at the end of June that an army battalion would be sent to these communities to stop the violence and to crack down on the criminal gangs.
A reduction in violence during the past two months, however, has been attributed to a new truce among the gangs, Verdad Abierta reported. The gangs announced an August 27 ceasefire via WhatsApp, seemingly aware of the official attention the violence had drawn to them.
The truce could also involve larger criminal gangs, according to Verdad Abierta. The Oficina de Envigado and Urabeños are reported to have brokered the truce, but InSight Crime was not able to confirm this.
InSight Crime Analysis
The truce in Bello is a positive step, given the level of violence that preceded it. But the town’s strategic location in the Valle de Aburrá and the criminal profits it holds means the truce is likely to only be temporary.
For almost 15 years, much of Bello has been under the control of Los Pachelly, a gang hailing from a neighborhood of the same name. Their senior leader, Albert Henao Acevedo, is believed to be one of the main drivers of the violence impacting the town as his gang’s dominance is threatened.
Los Pachelly have ruled through connections to politicians and institutions in the region, which granted them protection and the ability to expand. But that expansion came at a cost.
As Los Pachelly’s ambitions have expanded, especially into illegal gold mining in other parts of Antioquia, it turned over portions of local criminal economies in Bello to trusted lieutenants and allied smaller gangs, such as Niquía Camacol and Los Mesa, according to information from the Ombudsman’s Office.
Both Los Mesa and Niquía Camacol emerged in parts of Bello over three decades ago, first serving as local links in the drug trafficking chain controlled by the Oficina de Envigado in the 1990s.
More recently, they served in a similar capacity for Los Pachelly. But disputes arose concerning how criminal profits from extortion, illegal mining and drug trafficking were being distributed, as confirmed by El Colombiano.
These differences came to a head in February 2019, when a lieutenant of Los Pachelly was gunned down allegedly by a dissident faction within the group, which allied themselves with Niquía Camacol and Los Mesa.
The 2019 war has been fought over the main criminal economies in Bello: drug trafficking, microtrafficking and extortion.
Bello is positioned along a key drug trafficking route along the Valle de Aburrá. Coca cultivated in parts of Colombia’s central and San Lucas mountain ranges enters the Valle de Aburrá through the municipality of Barbosa where it is processed. From there, the cocaine makes its way to Bello, a key stop on drug routes to Colombia’s northwest, especially the Gulf of Urabá and the Pacific Ocean.
Extortion is also prevalent. Extortion fees, known locally as “vacunas,” are demanded from public transport operators, street salesmen and even residents going to the market.
More recently, real estate developers and construction companies have also been targeted, as Bello has seen an increase in land speculation.
Mauricio Soto, a researcher at the Instituto Popular de Capacitación (IPC) think tank in Antioquia, said that the truce could stabilize Bello through the end of 2019, but that it would be very difficult to sustain in the long term.
“It is surprising that this peaceful process came from the gangs. A deal like this calms the situation and happens mainly due to the high costs of maintaining a war. But any criminal pact can be easily broken,” he told InSight Crime.