The Legacy of Colombia’s Vigilante Security: the Convivir

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When Colombia approved the creation of citizen security groups in the early 1990s, it was supposed to bolster the state’s fight against violence and crime. Twenty years later, these groups linger on, running shadowy criminal networks in Colombia’s second largest city and still charging residents for their “security” tax.  

Parque Bolivar is the very image of the contradictions of life in the center of Medellin. It is a green and shady plaza in the historic heart of the city, but in the shadows of its faded grandeur are drug addicts, alcoholics, child prostitutes, and gangs of thieves. It is watched over by both Colombia’s secular and its sacred deities, a statue of “The Liberator” Simon Bolivar and the grand old church where the rich used to pray in days gone by. But also watching are the eyes of its current criminal lords and masters – the Convivir.

It is a name known by every business and resident as well as every drug dealer, pimp and fence in the center of Medellin. Meaning to coexist, to get along with, it is a name the Colombian government bestowed on groups created by its own security initiatives, but that twenty years later evokes crime, corruption and violence.

Once hailed as part of the solution to Colombia’s security crisis, today’s Convivir in Medellin are instead the regulators of a shadow economy worth countless millions in drug sales, extortion, prostitution and sex trafficking, contraband, adulterated alcohol, loan sharking and theft as well as the vice dens of strip clubs, casinos and nightclubs that often walk the line between the legal and the illegal. They are connected to powerful drug trafficking mafias, but many continue to provide their own brutal brand of vigilante security and their activities continue to be facilitated by corrupt factions of the Medellin authorities.

“They have created a monster of many heads,” said Guillermo Peña, a community journalist and resident of Medellin city center for the last 20 years. “The Convivir have become a phenomenon of violence, instability and illicit business.”

Twenty years after their creation, today’s Convivir stand as a stark warning to Colombia’s Latin American neighbors. Around the region, the boundaries between legal and illegal, state and citizen are becoming blurred as authorities seek radical solutions to runaway security crises. But as the Convivir continue to show, such measures can unleash dangerous and unpredictable forces.

The Criminal Citizen Security Model

Colombia in the early nineties was a country under siege by its own security failures. Drug cartels wielded enormous power, guerrilla rebels occupied much of the country and paramilitary counter-insurgents were on the march.

In 1994, the government proposed a controversial new measure to directly involve ordinary citizens in efforts to stem the violence by creating new citizen security groups and networks of informants. In April 1995, it passed a law christening these new groups the Convivir.

By 1997, there were over 400 Convivir groups and, according to Convivir spokesmen, 120,000 members. Although officials say that the government only armed about 10 percent of these groups, records obtained by Semana magazine show that those that did receive weapons were provided everything from sub-machine guns to mini-Uzi pistols.

Once hailed as part of the solution to Colombia’s security crisis, today’s Convivir in Medellin are instead the regulators of a shadow economy worth countless millions…

The policy quickly began to take a sinister turn. Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary movement began using the Convivir as fronts for their activities, and as a way to funnel funds through legal channels into their illegal army.

In Medellin, most of the first Convivir started out by offering private security services to businesses. However, this quickly turned into an extortion racket run by criminals armed, equipped and supported by the state.

“Instead of providing security, it became blackmailing businessmen and traders because they would say there would be reprisals if they didn’t pay,” said Peña.

Those who became involved in the Convivir with good intentions quickly found themselves in above their heads.

“There were a lot of good people who began to work with these Convivir, and when they realized that [the Convivir] were criminals, they had to stay silent and continue collaborating out of fear,” Peña said.

The Convivir installed a regime of vigilante security and social cleansing, driving out petty criminals and mercilessly policing “undesirable” elements: drug addicts, sex workers, and the homeless.

While many businesses were forced to pay the Convivir security tax, it was not without its commercial benefits. The Convivir installed a regime of vigilante security and social cleansing, driving out petty criminals and mercilessly policing “undesirable” elements: drug addicts, sex workers and the homeless.

However, the Convivir were not content with their protection rackets. By 1997, they were also involved in a raft of other illegal activities, including murder, robberies, threats, hijackings, and assaults, according to a recent administrative court ruling, which condemned the Medellin authorities for their “ignominious” role in the spread of the Convivir.

The evidence of the Convivir’s abuses around the country soon became too scandalous to ignore, and a series of rulings throughout 1997 and 1998 set out first to limit their power, and then dismantle the groups, which slipped either into obscurity or illegality.

In Medellin, the Convivir became an important node of the complex new underworld that was emerging at the time, where counter-insurgency, drug trafficking, business and street gang interests all converged. But when the balance of criminal power shifted dramatically in Medellin in the late 2000s, the Convivir would mutate once again, evolving in step with the ever more fragmented city mafia.

The Downtown Shadow State

Today’s Medellin is an unstable criminal landscape based on shifting alliances between mid-sized criminal structures known as oficinas or “offices.” The Convivir are a critical part of this dynamic.

Each Convivir is allied to one of these criminal organizations. The relationships not only give the oficinas a stake in one of the most lucrative and strategically important criminal territories in the city but also define how each individual Convivir group operates.

“There are umbilical cords, communicating vessels between the Convivir and the drug barons and the diverse criminal groups from the slums of Medellin,” said Luis Guillermo Pardo, a security analyst whose organization Consultation Center for Urban Conflict (C3) carried out a two-year investigation into organized crime in Medellin’s city center.

The Medellin police say there are around 20 Convivir active in the city center today, but analysts believe there as many as 42 groups. Experts consulted by InSight Crime estimate they have between 750 and 1,200 members.

Extortion remains the lifeblood of the Convivir and has become a cost of doing business in the center of Medellin for all but the biggest companies.

Sources indicate the more traditional Convivir operate with relative autonomy but pay a cut of their profits to their oficina patrons. In return, the oficinas offer protection and access to drugs, guns and criminal contacts. However, many of the newer Convivir are often little more than glorified street gangs, run by salaried coordinators put in place by their oficina bosses.

This diversity has created a patchwork of criminal dynamics, where what crimes are committed in Medellin city center, who can commit them, and who profits from them is determined by the individual Convivir groups.

In some parts of downtown Medellin, the Convivir run criminal businesses such as drug dens or prostitution rings independently or on behalf of their oficina chiefs. In other zones, they take a cut of profits or rent out the “plaza” to smaller, specialist criminal groups.

However, all over the city there is one constant – extortion, which remains the lifeblood of the Convivir and has become a cost of doing business in the center of Medellin for all but the biggest companies.

According to the National Federation of Traders (Fenalco), 90 percent of Medellin’s traders pay protection money. However, experts say this is just part of the Convivir extortion portfolio and that in some parts of the city even the wandering street vendors eking a living from selling individual cigarettes must pay.

“As [the Convivir] put it, “I’ll look after you and you pay me,” said Edal Yurient Monsalve Bran, a community leader in the city center. “And because the citizens with their businesses don’t see any legal authority present, they go to the illegal ‘authority.'”

What businesses receive in return for these payments again depends on which Convivir they are paying.

Some Convivir now show little interest in providing security, instead acting as the regulators and organizers of street crime, charging gangs of thieves from strongholds of their oficina masters for the right to steal in the city center or even organizing their own robbery crews.

However, the more traditional Convivir groups maintain their commitment to vigilantism, checking in with businesses, patrolling city blocks and even acting as guards.

“For many businesses, for better or worse, the presence of the Convivir helps.”

“For many businesses, for better or worse, out of collaboration or fear, the presence of the Convivir helps,” said Fernando Quijano, president of the Corporation for Peace and Social Development (Corpades), which last year released a report on Medellin’s Convivir.

And it is not only businesses. Residents who spoke to InSight Crime fear the Convivir and despair that they are in their hands. But, they say, the Convivir are also the only reason they feel safe to walk the streets where they live.

One resident, who did not want to be named for security reasons, described how her first encounter with the Convivir started with extortion demands, but ended with a new sense of security.

“When I first came to live downtown it hit me hard,” she said. “I would say to my husband, how am I going to go out and do the shopping if I’m too scared?”

Soon after she moved in, the local Convivir told her she had to pay extortion fees. But when they discovered she was a nurse, they told her she would be exempt from payments, and could count on them for security.

“[Now] I can go out at any time of day and nothing has ever happened to me,” she said.

The residents added that many in the city center will turn first to the Convivir rather than the police if they are victims of robberies or petty crime. They also said the Convivir, not the police, are the only authorities capable of restoring order during public disturbances and flare ups of violence.

It is this paradox, where only criminals can provide a sense of security, that has turned the Convivir into a criminal shadow state in downtown Medellin. And the smooth functioning of this shadow state benefits illegal and legal interests alike.

“The Convivir are good for everything, for control, for not allowing the entry of destabilizing elements to the city center, for regulating crime and violence,” said Quijano.

“Who wouldn’t be interested in having one sole organism that controls life in the center, even if it is a criminal group?” he added.

Continuing Coexistence?

The Medellin authorities publically insist that today’s Convivir bear little resemblance to the groups they nurtured in the past.

City Ombudsman Rodrigo Ardila denies the Convivir maintain any social function, and claims there is little to distinguish them from common street gangs.

“[The Convivir] have become totally criminal,” he said.

However, others believe the legacy of the relationship between the state and the Convivir cannot be dismissed so easily. One official from the Public Ministry, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, said the Convivir have become a convenient instrument for preventing Medellin city center and its illegal economies from descending into criminal chaos.

Whether the mutual benefits of the Convivir criminal-security model is an accident of history, or the result of a tacit understanding or even a clandestine agreement between the Convivir and the government is a topic of fierce debate.

“This instrument operates in Medellin like nowhere else,” he said. “The concept is something illegal, but with a structure that has its roots in legality.”

However, relying on the Convivir to keep less unpredictable criminal forces at bay comes at a price: the city government has essentially ceded a certain amount of control to criminal groups, the Public Ministry official said. “This makes victims of the whole population,” he added.

Whether the mutual benefits of the Convivir criminal-security model is an accident of history, or the result of a tacit understanding or even a clandestine agreement between the Convivir and the government is a topic of fierce debate.

Ardila insists the ties between the state and the Convivir are now limited to street-level police corruption, and the higher ranks of the security forces are no longer involved with these groups.

But Quijano, who recently reported receiving death threats from the Convivir, has publicly claimed he has information about high-level police officials meeting and striking agreements with Convivir leaders. However, there is nothing more than circumstantial evidence to corroborate this.

Either way, there is little doubt the Convivir owe much to their legal past. Twenty years on from their creation, their continuing existence is a stark warning to the numerous other countries around the region that have been striking similar Faustian pacts; Mexico with its semi-legalized vigilantes, Brazil and its police militias, Guatemala’s rogue community police units, and El Salvador’s anti-gang death squads.

The message for these countries from Medellin is that any short term security gains come at a high long term price.

“The security model of Medellin should not be imitated by anyone,” said Quijano. “Handing over a portion of security to criminals has no public benefit, there is nothing democratic about it and it cannot help build a state of social rights.”

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