Homicide rate plummets amid ‘gangster peace’ in Medellin

Homicide rate plummets amid ‘gangster peace’ in Medellin


Seven days without a single murder: The month of August marked a security record for Colombia’s second largest city, Medellin, once the fiefdom of notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar.

“In Medellin, safety is measured in lives saved,” said Mayor Daniel Quintero as he welcomed the breakthrough.

Medellin has seen a staggering 97 percent drop in homicides in the 30 years since Escobar’s death, transforming a once-violent world city into a popular tourist destination.

The success is attributed in large part to an unofficial but mutually beneficial understanding between narco gangs, paramilitaries and the security services.

“Peace is good for business,” said Medellin drug dealer “Joaquin” (not his real name), explaining the human traffickers’ motivation to avoid violence.

Joaquin is 37 years old – two of them behind bars. He wears an oversized baseball cap and saggy jeans.

A Beretta pistol peeks out from under his hoodie.

Joaquin is a “capo,” a junior boss who oversees drug trafficking on the streets of “Comuna 6,” a slum on a hillside in northwest Medellín.

He belongs to a gang, which he does not want to be named, which follows the rules of an organized crime “federation” known as the “Oficina de Envigado” or “Office of Envigado” after the name of a nearby town.

Joaquin claimed the Oficina and its member gangs acted “in solidarity with the community”.

This included exercising “parallel justice” when the system failed to do so.

“Escobar? He was way too violent. Too many dead for nothing,” Joaquin told AFP.

– ‘The population with us’ –

“Everyone lives in peace on our territory,” says the capo, who likes to portray himself as a good Samaritan.

“We don’t want to scare the traders and the people. We need the population with us.”

Thirty years after Escobar was shot dead on a rooftop in Medellin while trying to evade capture, the drug trade still dominates many poor neighborhoods in the city of nearly three million people.

A stone’s throw from a soccer field where mothers watch their children play, heavy foot traffic past a small, nondescript house indicates the presence of a drug den.

A black garbage bag covers the window where money is traded. The purchased goods fall down from another floor in a tin can at the end of a string.

A variety of products can be found here: marijuana, cocaine, and ‘tucibi’ or ‘basuco’ – two cheap and particularly toxic new drugs akin to unrefined ‘crack’.

“Everything is organized, it’s like a business. There are those who take care of sales, logistics, soldiers. The bosses pay our salaries, we do the job,” Joaquin said.

He and his colleagues move through the labyrinth of sloping alleys and small, rickety brick houses with incredible ease and security. Neighborhood teenagers are sneaking around and act as security.

Joaquin and his accomplices saunter into store after store, shaking hands with acquaintances everywhere while casually shoving a gun in a bag here, delivering a package there.

Medellin’s traders are largely able to operate in peace, communicating with both rival gangs and members of the security forces – many of them on the run.

As long as they keep the streets peaceful, the gangs say the police will turn a blind eye to their lucrative illegal deals.

Joaquin calls it a “gangster peace”.

“There’s nothing like peace,” added “Javier,” a staffer who met with Joaquin and another colleague at a squat.

They pack their guns on a table among religious ornaments in a dingy, lightless living room where horse posters vie with a crude depiction of the Last Supper on the wall.

“Each group manages its territory as it wishes… The bosses talk to each other. Everything will be settled calmly,” said Javier.

– ‘City of Bandits’ –

After Escobar’s death, the face of organized crime in Medellin changed. The drug trade, long controlled by a single cartel, is now shared among multiple gangs under the Office umbrella.

The gangs had previously worked with paramilitary groups and the security forces to put an end to Escobar’s Medellin cartel and oust left-wing guerrilla groups trying to fill the power void it had left.

As things settled down and each group found its place in the new reality, Medellin’s homicide rate dropped from 350 per 100,000 people in 1992 to 10.2 per 100,000 so far this year — nearly half the national average.

“The armed groups are driving the peace and war agenda in the city,” said Luis Fernando Quijano, director of the Corporation for Peace and Social Development, an NGO.

Colombia’s new left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, has vowed to bring “total peace” to conflict- and crime-torn Colombia, including by offering an amnesty to gangsters willing to give themselves up and stop trading.

“We are ready to listen. We will do what the bosses decide,” Pedro said of the plan.

But for Joaquin, “the thought of everyone giving up is a dream.”

“Never forget one thing: Medellin is and will remain the city of bandits,” he emphasized.

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