The arrest of Medellín's security secretary in north Colombia has rocked the city establishment and challenged the political elite's prevailing narrative it has spent years promoting. But was he mediating with criminals for the sake of peace and security or working at the service of the mafia?
At a July 5 indictment hearing, Medellín prosecutors laid out their evidence that the now ex-Security Secretary Gustavo Villegas struck a series of "sinister agreements" with the Medellín mafia known as the Oficina de Envigado for personal and political gain.
Utilizing testimonies from Oficina bosses supported by wiretaps and covertly filmed videos, the prosecutor's case focused on the relationship Villegas developed with Julio Perdomo, the alleged leader of a powerful criminal network and the man considered by the police to be the Oficina's "new political spokesperson." Villegas cultivated the relationship with Perdomo to try and broker deals with Oficina leaders for them to surrender and cooperate with the authorities.
As security secretary, Villegas oversaw the surrender of several mid-level gang bosses over the last year. Investigators believe these were coordinated with high-ranking Oficina chiefs who were prepared to sacrifice their underlings in return for a lower police presence in their territories, allowing them to maintain their criminal activities, reported El Tiempo.
Prosecutors also presented evidence of coordination with top level imprisoned Oficina members such as Edison Rodolfo Rojas, alias "Pichi," Julián Andrey Gómez, alias "Barney," and Leonardo Muñoz, alias "Douglas," who were already collaborating with the authorities in return for judicial benefits, although they later ended cooperation after personnel changes in the Attorney General's Office.
However, according to prosecutors, Villegas' cooperation with the Oficina went beyond judicial negotiations, and he allegedly became what prosecutors labelled an "advisor and strategist" for the mafia, according to El Tiempo.
Villegas allegedly passed information on police operations targeting Oficina leaders, including Perdomo, who was himself arrested in March, and offered mafia bosses advice on avoiding the attention of the authorities. Police sources told El Tiempo that his efforts included interfering with police organizational charts detailing the Oficina hierarchy to make it seem like mid-level members were principal leaders.
SEE ALSO: Colombia Elites and Organized Crime
At the hearing, the prosecutor argued Villegas' interest went beyond these negotiations. They also accused him of using his connections to Oficina chiefs for his political and personal gain.
The prosecutor described that when a video of three youths holding up a car in the north went viral as a symbol of insecurity in the city, Villegas used his contacts to force the youths to turn themselves in, which was then presented as a triumph of Villegas' boss, Mayor Federico Gutiérrez.
Villegas was not only working for the benefit of that administration, investigators believe, but also with an eye on his own run for office in the next elections. In one meeting to encourage Perdomo to continue with the negotiations he allegedly promised the mafia leader "things would get better," if he became mayor of Medellín.
Aside from the political points scored, Villegas also allegedly obtained benefits for his personal businesses. Prosecutors claim he contacted Perdomo to secure the return of a company vehicle that a criminal gang had retained and demanded payment for, and also secured a guarantee that his business would receive a free pass from extortions.
Allegations of shady contacts and criminal behavior have hung over Villegas throughout his long political career.
Between 2004 and 2007, Villegas headed the Medellín government agency overseeing the demobilization of the Bloque Cacique Nutibarra, the first such process in the nationwide peace process with the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). The demobilization of the BCN has been widely discredited as a little more than a sham designed to wipe clean the records of the Medellín mafia and cement the control over the city of BCN commander and head of the Oficina de Envigado, Diego Murillo, alias "Don Berna."
As part of this process, Villegas worked closely with the Corporación Democracia, a non-governmental organization set up by the demobilizing paramilitaries. The organization has also been dismissed as a political façade for the continuing illegal activities of the Oficina.
In 2008, Villegas was forced to resign his new post overseeing the staging of the South American Games in Medellín due to his connections to Felipe Sierra, a businessman convicted of colluding with paramilitary leaders, drug traffickers and corrupt officials.
The most damning, although currently unsubstantiated, allegations against Villegas came in 2011, when former paramilitary and drug trafficker Juan Carlos Sierra, alias "El Tuso, " alleged Villegas worked "like brothers" with Oficina chief Daniel Mejía Ángel, alias "Danielito," even taking payments in return for freeing up casino licenses.
InSight Crime Analysis
Contact and mediation between authorities and organized crime, while always problematic, is not intrinsically bad, and there can be times when the need to lower violence is more urgent than the wider aim of breaking the mafia or gang stranglehold over a territory. In such cases, the line between mediation and collusion will always be blurred as any such contact necessarily involves an element of quid pro quo; no mafia boss is going to cooperate unless the boss can see how he or she personally benefits.
However, the Villegas case threatens to expose a truth that observers of Colombia's second city have long suspected: in Medellín, the line is not blurred; the line has retreated into the distance. Whatever his intentions -- and even if, as the evidence suggests, his personal profit was incidental and relatively minor -- Villegas represents a city elite prepared to sell out its poorest residents in return for a positive international image and a lucrative business environment for everyone from entrepreneurs to international cocaine traffickers.
Villegas' plan of negotiating with organized crime has its own logic and such negotiations can undoubtedly yield benefits. There are few who would sneer at the drop in murder rates Medellín has witnessed in recent years, no matter what the reasons behind them.
However, Medellín has played this game before, with Don Berna. The results were a phenomenon known in Medellín as "Don Bernabilidad," a pun derived from "gobernabilidad," or governability. Following the demobilization of Don Berna and the BCN, Medellín experienced a dramatic drop in violence, which became the foundation of the transformation that has won Medellín international praise for its renaissance. But the price was Don Berna's control of the city. It was peace at the point of a gun.
SEE ALSO: Oficina de Envigado Profile
Nearly 15 years on from the BCB demobilization, and with outside events long having overtaken the reign of Don Berna, violence in Medellín is historically low, but once again it is criminal pacts rather than security policy that is the main cause.
In Medellín, low violence has not been used as a base to break the stranglehold of organized crime, but instead has become an end in itself. The price remains the same. And while Medellín's elites bask in the international praise, the city is still an epicenter of drug trafficking and money laundering with thriving internal criminal economies. In large swathes of the city, residents still live under criminal rule, in constant fear and with little recourse to justice.
Villegas, as a central participant in the era of Don Bernabilidad, surely understands the Faustian nature of this bargain better than most, a fact that casts a long shadow over his proclamations of innocence and good intentions. The evidence that he allegedly helped Oficina leaders avoid justice only reinforces the notion that he was willing to make the same deal as before: image over reality.
The surrender and cooperation of major Oficina figures would likely have had some short-term security benefits along with major political ones for Villegas and his allies. However, the current organized crime dynamic in Medellín makes clear the limitations of the strategy.
Villegas was negotiating with powerful factions of the city's mafia, but factions nonetheless. Any deal would almost certainly have resulted in one of two outcomes: either those negotiating would once again have used their cooperation as a façade to maintain their criminal interests, or they would have cut a deal for their personal benefit while the networks they left behind were coopted by other actors.
As InSight Crime has documented, the story of organized crime in Medellín is a story of a three way marriage. On one side stand the mafias, who lower or raise violence according to their own interests and conflicts by jerking the strings of the street gangs that control the city neighborhoods. At another stands the city's corrupt social and economic elites that maintain a foot in both the underworld and the legal world, and whose primary interest is a good business environment for anything that makes them money, legal or illegal. And at the third stand the corrupt bureaucratic elites, i.e., the security forces, as well as judicial and political officials that facilitate and protect criminal activities for their own personal or political gain.
Even if we are to take Villegas at his word over his pure intentions, his plan would have done little to undermine this structure, to which he firmly belongs. The status quo would almost certainly have remained intact. And, after 15 years of these sort of clandestine dealings, the status quo is that Medellín remains a mafia city.