The Oficina de Envigado has evolved from a debt collection agency for Pablo Escobar to a mafia federation that regulates almost all criminal activity in Medellín.
Today’s Oficina is a coalition of mid-sized criminal organizations that provide services to transnational drug traffickers and other mafia elites, and use alliances with gangs to control territory and criminal activities in Medellín. As such, it is perhaps the most complex example of the Colombian mafia today: a tangled web of service providers and subcontractors involved in everything from money laundering and the international cocaine trade to street level drug sales and micro-extortion.
Pablo Escobar set up the Oficina de Envigado in the 1980s as the first “oficina de cobro,” or criminal debt collection agency. The Oficina de Envigado was literally an office in the town hall in Envigado, the small municipality adjacent to Medellín where Escobar grew up. Escobar used the municipal offices to collect debts owed him by other drug traffickers of the Medellín Cartel. Any trafficker who fell behind on his payments could find himself threatened and beaten by the Oficina de Envigado, or even assassinated by its “sicarios,” or cartel hitmen.
After Escobar’s death, organized crime in Medellín was taken over by Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” a former cartel enforcer who had turned on Escobar. Don Berna established himself as the chief mediator, regulator and debt collector in the underworld using the Oficina de Envigado as his vehicle to power. He also established wide-ranging links with Medellín’s security forces, judicial sector and political and business elites, establishing ties between the Oficina de Envigado and the city elites that endure today.
In the late 1990s, Don Berna became a commander of the paramilitary umbrella organization the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). He used this position to camouflage the Oficina with the banner of counterinsurgency, setting up rural factions and rebranding the Oficina’s urban hitmen networks as the Cacique Nutibara Bloc of the AUC.
Around the turn of the century, Berna, working in conjunction with the city elites, began a pacification of Medellín. His Oficina units, disguised as paramilitaries, wiped out guerrilla militias, put down a rebellion of one of Medellín’s most feared sicario networks, La Terraza, and destroyed a rival AUC faction, the Metro Bloc, which challenged his hegemony in Colombia’s second city. After seizing complete control of Medellín, Don Berna ordered the Oficina to keep murders at a minimum, resulting in a dramatic fall in the city homicide rates and a period in the city known as “donbernabilidad,” — a pun on the Spanish word “gobernabilidad,” or governability.
Don Berna demobilized with other AUC leaders in 2003, along with several hundred of his Cacique Nutibara Bloc troops. But he was imprisoned in 2005 when authorities connected him to the assassination of a local politician after talks between the government and the AUC had begun. Nonetheless, in prison Don Berna continued running his operations at a safe distance from his enemies, while on the outside, his spokesman, Carlos Mario Aguilar, alias “Rogelio,” along with a former paramilitary, Daniel Alberto Mejía, alias “Danielito,” managed the Oficina’s drug trafficking and assassin networks.
Don Berna was extradited in May 2008 to the United States, along with 13 other paramilitary leaders. His departure triggered a splintering of the Oficina and a power struggle among would-be successors.
On the one side of this war of succession stood Maximiliano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano,” one of the Oficina’s most powerful international drug traffickers, who controlled important trafficking routes through the Caribbean coast. On the other stood Erick Vargas, alias “Sebastian,” who had little influence in the transnational cocaine trade but commanded the loyalty of the majority of the gangs of Medellín.
Sebastian eventually emerged as the winner in the war and his victory was sealed when Valenciano was arrested in Venezuela in 2011. However, with Valenciano’s arrest and defeat, the Oficina lost control of its primary trafficking routes. Power had shifted from the Oficina’s drug trafficking wing to its armed, territorial wing.
Sebastian had little time to enjoy his success as the Oficina immediately faced a new foe, the Urabeños, who had gained a foothold in the city by supporting Valenciano. They also inherited many of Valenciano’s drug routes after his arrest. The Urabeños ultimate aim was to merge their rural drug trafficking empire with the city’s lucrative criminal economies and money laundering potential. They offered money and military grade weaponry to local gangs to turn them against the Oficina, which enabled them to seize several key strategic areas in a bloody war played out in the city’s peripheral neighborhoods.
In 2012, the Oficina suffered a further blow with the arrest of Sebastian and several other key leaders in August, followed by a massacre in December in which one of the leading candidates to replace him was killed. Into the power vacuum, stepped Juan Carlos Mesa Vallejo, alias “Tom,” a gang leader who had risen from the streets to head the Los Chatas criminal organization and one of the leading suspects in the December massacre.
However, the Oficina was no longer a hierarchical structure and Tom was no maximum leader. The various oficinas de cobro that had made up the Oficina de Envigado were by now largely independent, and Tom was simply the most influential voice at the table rather than a supreme commander. Behind him stood even more powerful figures, hidden transnational drug traffickers known as the “invisibles” and white-collar criminals from the city elites.
In mid-2013, a truce was brokered between the Urabeños and the Oficina at the behest of certain invisibles, who were concerned the conflict was affecting both their criminal and legal business interests. The deal saw the Oficina gain access to their rivals’ international drug trafficking routes in exchange for allowing the Urabeños to stake their claim to territory in the Medellín underworld. The impact was an immediate and drastic drop in the city murder rate.
Despite localized outbursts of gang violence, the criminal peace has largely held ever since. However, Tom’s reign at the head of the Oficina de Envigado came to an end in December 2017, when he was arrested at his own 50th birthday party.
Leading figures within the Oficina retain significant stakes in the drug trade, maintaining contacts with Mexican cartels and control over drug trafficking routes. However, the Oficina de Envigado as an organization is less a drug cartel and more a service provider to drug traffickers. The composite parts of the Oficina specialize in assassinations, kidnappings, and the collection of drug debts as well as running extensive money laundering networks.
Each of the different factions of the Oficina de Envigado is also financially self-sufficient and today they run wide-ranging microtrafficking and extortion networks as well as controlling or taking a cut from a broad range of criminal activities such as robberies, contraband, the sex trade and adulterated alcohol sales.
Since Tom was captured, Colombian authorities have continued to target La Oficina’s leadership, arresting Juan Carlos Castro, alias “Pichi”, believed to be Tom’s successor in August 2018. Two other key leaders, John Eduard Barbosa, alias “Barbosa,” and Jhon Fredy Yepes Hoyos, alias “Clemente,” were captured in 2019.
Leadership and Structure
Today’s Oficina de Envigado is a federation principally comprised of eight mid-size oficinas or, as the police call them, Criminal Organizations Integrated With Drug Trafficking (Organizaciones Delincuenciales Integradas al Narcotráfico – ODIN): Los Chatas, Picacho, Caicedo, La Terraza, La Union, Robledo, Trianon and San Pablo. These oficinas control territory and criminal activities in Medellín through alliances with gangs known as “combos.” The oficinas that together form the Oficina de Envigado control around 65 percent of the city combos, with the rest working for either independent oficinas or those allied with the Urabeños.
These individual oficinas work together as a loose-knit coalition. However, their primary concern is their own interests, and internal divisions are common. With the arrest of Tom in December 2017, no one leader has been publicly identified as the head of the organization as a whole. However, behind these visible armed structures, lie the true powers of the Oficina de Envigado: elite drug traffickers and white-collar criminals that move between the underworld and the legal world and pull the strings of the oficinas.
The Oficina de Envigado’s territorial base is the city of Medellín and the towns in the Medellín metropolitan area such as Envigado, Bello, Itagui and Sabaneta. Oficina factions also control international drug trafficking routes, especially from the north of the country, and their presence has been reported in the drug production zones of the department of Antioquia.
Allies and Enemies
Since the truce struck in 2013, the Oficina’s principal enemies, the Urabeños, have become important drug trafficking allies. They also work closely with Mexican cartels, in particular the Sinaloa Cartel. Today, their principal threat comes from internal divisions and disputes between factions.
The operational lifecycle of visible leaders of the Oficina de Envigado is short and getting shorter. After leaders such as Rogelio surrendered to the US authorities, and others, including Sebastian, cut deals after being arrested, US and Colombian law enforcement have been armed with a wealth of insider information that has helped them take out leader after leader. Most of the network’s best-known figures are now in prison and those that replace them can expect a similar fate once they have been exposed. However, these arrests have little bearing on the functioning of the Oficina as a mafia network, and both the criminal activities it runs in Medellín and the drug trafficking that Oficina-linked figures run or contract out will likely continue unimpeded for the foreseeable future.