Colombian police have arrested the alleged second-in-command of a faction of the Medellin mafia, another indication that the security forces are cracking down on the organization as the city’s homicide rates continue to raise concerns.
On May 15, Medellin police announced the arrest of Jesus David Hernandez, alias “Chaparro,” accused of running an assasin’s network for Erick Cardenas Vargas, alias “Sebastian,” one of the leaders of the fragmented Oficina de Envigado.
Vargas commands a powerful faction of the Oficina, the most powerful criminal organization in Medellin. It is currently split into two rival groups, one led by Vargas and the other by Maxiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias “Valenciano.”
According to El Tiempo, Hernandez had undergone significant plastic surgery on his face in order to evade Colombian authorities and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, who supported the four-month investigation against Hernandez. The alleged “king of assasins” also reportedly had his fingerprints modified, another indication of the kind of pressure he was facing.
Aside from managing the Oficina’s network of hitmen, Hernandez reportedly handled other key jobs for Vargas, like the attempted takeover of Medellin’s northwest barrio, the Comuna 9.
Hernandez’s arrest comes soon after authorities captured Valenciano’s alleged number two, Gustavo Alvarez Velez, alias “El Gordo,” on the Dutch island Aruba.
These recent captures indicate that the authorities are receiving good intelligence on the top level of Oficina command, as well as important support from the DEA. Impacting Oficina operations has become a priority for the government, in light of President Juan Manuel Santos’ proposed commitment to reducing urban crime. Last year, Medellin saw 2,019 murders; with 649 homicides registered so far in 2011.
But it is unclear whether dismantling the upper ranks of the Oficina will do anything to reduce violence in Medellin, which is mostly caused by clashes between rival street gangs, or “combos.” The violence is even spreading outside of Medellin to neighboring municipalities like Santa Elena, Rionegro and Marinilla, as gangs have reportedly upped their recruitment in rural towns.
Medellin is the logistical center of operations for the many criminal organizations operating in northern Antioquia, where much of the region’s coca is grown and cocaine is processed. Cocaine flows into Medellin, in order to supply the city’s internal market, while weapons and drugs are smuggled out towards the coast or the Venezuelan border. Such is the importance of Medellin as a strategic center that the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) and guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – ELN) all traditionally operated with one foot in the Antioquian countryside and another one in Medellin.
In the long term, the city’s strategic importance in the drug trade will not change. And given that much of Medellin’s violence is caused by the lack of a central authority keeping the “combos” in check, the arrest of top-level operatives like Alvarez and Hernandez may do little to reduce homicide rates.
The current fight between Bonilla and Vargas is basically over control of the criminal empire established by paramilitary warlord, Diego Murillo Bejarano, alias “Don Berna.” Murillo wielded significant control over Medellin’s criminal underworld: after he ordered the “combos” in keep murder rates down, in order to make it appear to authorities that he was collaborating during the peace process, Medellin saw a period of relative calm known as “donbernabilidad,” Spanish wordplay on “gobernabilidad” or governability. In 2006 and 2007, the city registered a total of 826 and 788 murders, respectively. After Murillo was extradited to the U.S in 2008, the total murder rate jumped to 1,066, followed by 2,186 homicides in 2009, as the Oficina wars intensified.
In that sense, the real game changer would be if another criminal strongman were able to impose a new era of “donbernabilidad.” This appeared to happen in February 2010, when Medellin’s murder rate dropped from 239 cases in January to 116 in February, after a group of public officials brokered a temporary ceasefire between the gangs.
The weakening of the Oficina may give rival gang the Urabeños, whose stronghold is along the Caribbean coast, the opportunity to impose their own “donbernabilidad.” The Urabeños already have presence in Medellin’s peripheral neighborhoods like Comuna 13. If the authorities continue arrested top-level Oficina operatives, debilitating the group’s operations, the Urabeños’ position in the city may only strengthen.