A mafia boss is found slumped in a car park in an exclusive neighborhood with four bullets in his head. Grenade attacks and hitmen on motorbikes leave a trail of dead downtown. Colombia’s most fearsome criminal organization plays peacemaker to warring street gangs, while Mexico’s leading drug cartel floods the city with money and guns.
After a year of criminal peace, violence is slowly returning to Medellin as the city’s underworld edges ever closer to a yet another criminal chapter.
At the start of 2014, Medellin recorded its lowest murder rate since Pablo Escobar made the city the capital of the international cocaine trade 30 years earlier. But few believe city officials when they claim credit for the fall in violence. This is a criminal peace, say residents and experts — the result of a ceasefire in the war between the Medellin mafia known as the Oficina de Envigado and narco-paramilitary invaders, the Urabeños.
While the pact between the two sides has silenced the guns in the Medellin streets, its purpose was not to bring peace for city residents. Instead it was a move in a high stakes game of criminal chess with Medellin as the board and the city’s street gangs, criminal rackets and “collection offices” (oficinas de cobro) as the pieces. The contestants included not only the Urabeños and the Oficina de Envigado, but also perhaps the most powerful Latin American criminal player of them all: Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.
The Medellin pact is now a year old, and there are signs it may be beginning to fracture. Old rivalries have bubbled over into renewed conflict, a new battle for control of the city center has erupted and tensions are building in key strategic locations.
“The pact is above all a transition,” said Fernando Quijano, president of Medellin-based conflict monitoring group the Corporation for Peace and Development (Corpades). “It could end with the Urabeños in control, supported by the Oficina, but on the road to that any number of things could happen [to prevent it] — and some of them may already be happening.”
Behind The Pact
On July 13, 2013, commanders from the Urabeños and the Oficina de Envigado met in a luxury house in the idyllic town of San Jeronimo, just outside of Medellin. Together, they thrashed out a deal to bring a halt to the criminal turmoil that has engulfed Medellin since the 2008 extradition of the city’s last great kingpin, Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” which created a power vacuum that has never been filled.
The two sides declared an end to hostilities and agreed to respect their rival’s territorial boundaries and criminal interests within the city. According to both official and underworld sources, they also agreed to cooperate in the international cocaine trade, reconfiguring regional trafficking networks to the new realities of today’s Colombian criminal landscape.
Shortly after the agreement came into force, underworld sources told InSight Crime it had been brokered by powerful white collar criminals among the city’s elite, who felt the violence was bad for both their legal and illegal business interests.
Since then rumors have swirled that the Medellin authorities were also involved — an inevitable suspicion in a city with a long history of state collusion with organized crime, especially when the local government is fighting to protect Medellin’s new found international image as a city that has left behind its violent past. The rumors have included whispers about meetings between officials and Medellin’s criminal overlords to discuss cutting a deal in which the mafia bosses would deliver a pacified city in return for lenient prison sentences.
However, both official sources and analysts now say that while the pact may have had powerful local sponsors, it also had an even more powerful sponsor from the outside — the Sinaloa Cartel.
“The Mexicans are protagonists in this conflict. They have had a role in lowering [violence] figures, in working on the underworld’s commercial strategy, and most troubling of all, they have brought in a lot of high caliber arms,” said a source in Colombia’s Public Ministry (MP), who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
The Mexican Connection
The Sinaloans are long-time collaborators of the Oficina de Envigado, and according to a recent press release from the US Treasury, have “come to rely upon operatives of La Oficina for support in trafficking narcotics throughout the world.”
However, in recent years, their partner’s capacity to deliver has taken a battering, as the Oficina has been left reeling first from the bloody internal war of succession sparked by the extradition of Don Berna and then, since late 2011, as they have attempted to fend off the Urabeños invasion.
These conflicts have allowed the Urabeños to squeeze the Oficina’s cocaine trafficking business on all sides. They appropriated many of the Oficina’s trafficking routes after taking over the networks managed by the loser in the Oficina’s civil war, Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias “Valenciano.” They also restricted the Oficina’s access to cocaine by driving their rival’s supplier, the Rastrojos, out of Antioquia.
The Urabeños now control cocaine dispatch points in their Uraba heartland on the Caribbean coast and have a virtual monopoly on production in Antioquia, controlling both processing labs and, through contacts with the guerrillas, access to coca crops. All that remains in order for them to establish near complete control of the Antioquia cocaine trade is to seize control of a logistical center — somewhere to act as a money laundering hub and a source of armed manpower, criminal expertise and vast illegal profits. And what better than the criminal capital city: Medellin.
Until the criminal pact, the battle between the two sides — which was mostly waged by street gang proxies — was fought to a stalemate, with the Oficina on the defensive, but too deeply locally rooted and numerous for the Urabeños to completely defeat. Both sides paid a high price in blood and money, but according to the MP official, it took the Sinaloa Cartel to break the deadlock.
“There was a major drop in production of the merchandise that was arriving north, that’s why the Sinaloans, who were very interested in increasing production for the US market, started to push an agreement ,” he said.
“We suspect that what gives the pact life is that the Sinaloans made an agreement for the Urabeños to sell [the Oficina] cocaine from the region at cost price, and for the Oficina to share their routes.”
There is evidence the Sinaloans, who the official believes are financing the pact, are not content with their top level trafficking contacts and are now looking to extend their reach directly into the city’s gang controlled neighborhoods. Mexicans have been spotted around the city, he said, cruising the slums in luxury vehicles loaded with weapons and cash to be distributed to the gangs.
Corpades has also tracked the growing infiltration of the Sinaloans in Medellin’s criminal world.
“We have two cases completely confirmed of two criminal groups where Mexican members of the Sinaloa Cartel are part of the organization,” said Quijano.
“These gangs, today, belong to the Sinaloans,” he added.
A Year of Criminal Peace
In the days after the pact was signed, feuding gangs came together in some of Medellin’s most troubled neighborhoods for soccer games and street parties celebrating the new peace. That peace has, to a large extent, held. Medellin’s murder rate plummeted from 52 per 100,000 residents killed in 2012, to 38 in 2013, then to 28.5 at the start of 2014.
The city authorities have claimed their security policies have driven this drastic drop, pointing out falling violence coincided with the arrival of a wave of police reinforcements, the introduction of new technologies such as improved security cameras, and innovative techniques based on territorial control and community contact.
As late as April this year, Medellin Mayor Anibal Gaviria refused to acknowledge the existence of the pact in anything but hypothetical terms.
Meanwhile, Gaviria’s counselor for coexistence, reconciliation, and life, Jorge Mejia, accepts the existence of the pact and the role it has had in reducing violence, but told InSight Crime he believed it was state pressure that drove the Urabeños and the Oficina to broker a ceasefire.
“I believe the non-aggression pact has to do with the fact they are receiving too many blows from the security forces,” he said.
Residents of the city slums that are Medellin’s main criminal battlegrounds dispute the narrative of a security success story. Life may appear peaceful and normal, but gang control of their neighborhoods has grown under the pact, they say. Extortion has risen, child recruitment and sexual abuse remain the norm, and disappearances have increased dramatically.
SEE ALSO: Oficina de Envigado Profile
Despite the new community-based policing policies, there is little trust in the police, who Quijano accuses of only acting against gangs breaking the ceasefire while leaving peaceful groups free to operate.
“There are gangs that have rebelled [against the pact] and all of the power of the security forces has fallen down on them,” he said. “The question is why it doesn’t fall on those in the pact.”
Police corruption in Medellin is deep-rooted, and even Mejia admits there is a danger of corrupt police regulating the pact on behalf of criminal paymasters.
“It is possible, you can’t rule it out,” he said. “Here — not only in Medellin but throughout the country — it is one of the problems we have had, corruption on the inside of the security forces.”
The police did not respond to requests for an interview.
While the city streets remain quiet, the small cabal of drug traffickers at the apex of the Medellin criminal hierarchy have been profiting from the other side of the Urabeños-Oficina pact — the international cocaine trade.
“The real heads of the Oficina, the top brass, those that do the big business, have negotiated with the Urabeños and are earning a lot of money,” said Quijano
Medellin’s criminal pact marked its first anniversary earlier this month, but the peace it has brought is looking increasingly fragile. Cracks have begun to appear in several strategic locations (see map below), each with a distinct criminal dynamic that highlights weak points in the agreement.
In the two northern districts, Castilla and Aranjuez, there has been a wave of shootouts and murders as the pact has been unable to contain rivalries between local criminal groups. But this has little to do with relations between the Oficina and the Urabeños, according to the MP official.
“They are localized conflicts over local revenues and historical hatreds, but about the large scale shipping of cocaine — no,” he said.
According to Corpades’ sources, the Urabeños hierarchy even stepped in to force the gangs into a new truce in Aranjuez.
However, in downtown Medellin, the Urabeños have been unable to resist interfering in a local conflict in the city center, according to a newly released Corpades investigation.
In recent weeks, a spate of gang hits and grenade attacks announced the start of a new conflict between rival groups of Convivir — the gangs that act as criminal overseers of the city center.
The battle is for control of the multi-million dollar profits to be made from criminal activities such as drug sales, extortion and the sex trade. But Corpades believes it is evolving into a war by proxy after the Urabeños were enticed into backing one side in the conflict with the offer of access to what has until now been a virtually impenetrable Oficina stronghold.
“The Oficina and the Urabeños are applying the Cold War model,” said Quijano. “We are in a truce, so we don’t touch the leaders, but we finance groups below so they expand, and the business continues to spread.”
Tensions are also building in the western hills far on the very outer limits of the city. Violence in La Loma, which sits on a key strategic drugs and arms trafficking chokepoint, is often an early warning sign of worse to come in Medellin, and the sector is again reaching breaking point.
La Loma is one of the few zones left standing between the Urabeños and total control of movement in the west of the city and reports coming from the zone suggest they will not let the pact stop them seizing it for much longer.
La Loma has yet to explode into violence, but various residents contacted by InSight Crime said the situation was so tense they would not discuss it, even anonymously, because they feared they would be displaced — something that has already happened to several families recently.
Whether the pact endures or not, its impact certainly will. It has helped Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel build influence in the city, and benefited a range of both legal and illegal actors in Medellin’s conflict. It has also left one clear winner.
“The Aburra Valley police win in the sense that the supposed reduction appears to have followed their strategy, the mayor wins because he can say we are at peace, but the real winners of the supposed pacification of Medellin is the Urabeños,” said Quijano.
The Urabeños have lusted over Medellin since as far back as 2007 and thanks to the pact it is now within their reach. The truce has given them the opportunity to directly communicate with the often divided factions of the Oficina, and try coax them on board with a taste of what they have to offer. It has also helped cement ties with the biggest cocaine buyer of them all, the Sinaloa Cartel.
“The Urabeños are going to end up with everything, production and the routes, and what will be left for the Oficina?” said the MP official. “This is what the Urabeños want, to control the Oficina, absolutely all of it, and how are they doing it? Bit by bit.”