The Medellin mafia, fragmented through bitter infighting, has called a truce and made an agreement with their rivals the Urabeños, seeking to rebuild the criminal hegemony once enjoyed by the legendary underworld figure known as "Don Berna." However, creating a Berna replica, which relied on strong connections with the country's elite, may prove difficult.
The latest mafia war in Medellin has ended after the different factions of the Oficina de Envigado, which has run much of the city's underworld since the time of Pablo Escobar, and the rural-based Urabeños have made peace. The Oficina/Urabeños nexus is now planning to restore Medellin as Colombia's criminal capital, using the model created by Diego Murillo Bejarano, alias "Don Berna."
Don Berna ruled all the different gangs in the city, and was also a major league drug trafficker, projecting power from Medellin into much of the rural areas where he controlled drug crops, movement corridors and departure points for cocaine shipments.
After Don Berna's extradition to the US in 2008, different leaders in the Oficina de Envigado fought for his criminal throne. However none had the power or authority to unite the disparate criminal elements in Medellin. Fighting broke out and the murder rate, along with internal displacement, spiked between 2009 and 2011.
Fragmentation and violence also erupted in the countryside, where different "bandas criminales," or BACRIM, as they are known, fought for strategic drug trafficking real estate.
While no winner emerged in Medellin, the BACRIM known as the Urabeños became the most powerful criminal organization in the country. It turned its attention to Medellin, the country's biggest criminal prize, and from its rural base began to squeeze the city, taking over some of the peripheral neighborhoods and allying themselves with dissident factions of the Oficina de Envigado.
The fighting was bad for business in Medellin, be it transnational drug trafficking, micro-trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, gambling or money laundering. A powerful group of white-collar criminals, described by Luis Fernando Quijano, a former left-wing militiaman and an now expert on Medellin's violence, as "The Commission," decided the violence had to stop.
The Commission has existed, in one form or another, since before the rise of Escobar and the Medellin Cartel in the early 1980s. It is primarily made up of members of Medellin's social and economic elite who operate in both the legal and illegal worlds -- the underworld and the "upperworld."
There are some members of this top tier of the criminal world who have been identified. One of them is Guillermo Valencia Cossio, formerly director of the attorney general's office in Medellin, brother to a former Interior Minister, and a member of Medellin's "aristocracy." He was sentenced in 2011 to 15 years in prison for working with the Urabeños. Another was Marlon Javier Vergara, once seen as one of Medellin's most promising and well-connected young entrepreneurs until his arrest in 2010. He was sentenced to 37 years in prison for a murder he commissioned the Oficina de Envigado to execute.
These elites, for the most part, have not engaged in violence themselves. For that they have relied on men like Pablo Escobar, and later Don Berna. Since Don Berna's extradition, they have been looking for a new strongman to impose discipline on the underworld, and facilitate their interests, which include drug trafficking, money laundering and their businesses in the upperworld, where they gain an advantage through their discreet use of violence and intimidation.
After the arrest in August 2012 of Erickson Vargas Cardenas, alias "Sebastian," perhaps the last leader of the Oficina de Envigado with a chance of uniting the different factions, the Commission met in May 2013 at a house in the historic district of the city of Cartagena, according to an underworld source. At this meeting, a group of five "facilitators" was created who reached out to the five major factions of the Oficina de Envigado, and to the Urabeños, who were tightening their grip on the outskirts of the city. The aim was to broker a truce before Medellin's Feria de Flores, (Flower Festival) in August of this year, when the city opens up to national and international tourism.
The facilitators were extremely successful, brokering meetings mainly through imprisoned members of the Oficina and the Urabeños both in Colombia and the United States. The result, according to police and criminal sources consulted by InSight Crime, was a criminal summit, held on July 13 at a luxury house in San Jeronimo, a picturesque little town less than an hour away from Medellin.
Attending the summit were representatives from the remaining factions of the Oficina de Envigado, while the hosts were the Urabeños, led by alias "Don Daniel," whose real name is unknown but who is allegedly in charge of the Urabeños operations in Medellin. Accompanying him were four Urabeños underbosses, who are responsible for certain Medellin neighborhoods. From the Oficina de Envigado, representatives from the five most powerful factions were present, among them were many of the aliases whispered on the streets: "Tuto," "Tom," "Fredy Colas" and "Diego Chamizo."
These different factions represent between them up to 17 of the most powerful "oficinas de cobro" or as the police refer to them, "ODINs" (Criminal Organizations Integrated With the Narco Trafficking - Organizacion Delincuencial Integrada al Narcotrafico), and up to 120 different "combos" or street gangs, of Medellin. These oficinas de cobro are criminal structures developed under Don Berna, the organizations through which he maintained control over the Medellin underworld.
Oficinas de cobro, by definition, command several combos, exercise territorial control in parts of the city, have their own money laundering structures, and a group of "sicarios" or assassins. They engage in a variety of criminal activities from extortion to assassination, and are sophisticated enough to accept subcontracted work from national and even transnational criminal organizations.
A nonaggression pact was negotiated in San Jeronimo, with a clear delineation of territory within the city. The Urabeños promised to stop their offensive in the city, and to facilitate the external drug-trafficking operations of the Oficina of Envigado with their control of rural areas. The members of the Oficina pledged to stop fighting and impose discipline on the street gangs in their territory.
The truce appeared to have an immediate effect. On July 15, in the neighborhood of Belen Rincon, six leaders of powerful combos met and drank beer as their members played football together. This was replicated across Medellin during July as combos obeyed the rules set out at the summit. Homicide rates in Medellin have since plummeted.
However, this truce does not come close to replicating the power that Don Berna once held. The Commission would love to find a figure who could forge the kind of relationships with the bureaucratic elites that Don Berna had.
Don Berna began his criminal career as part of the Medellin Cartel. When his boss was killed by Pablo Escobar, Don Berna became a key member of the PEPES (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar) and set about destroying the Medellin Cartel leader. During the time of the PEPES, according to Chris Feistl, a veteran Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent with years of experience in Colombia, Don Berna acted as a liaison to the police unit tasked with hunting Escobar down, the Search Bloc, and forged links to the very highest levels of the police force, links that became one of the cornerstones of his criminal power. Later, as a commander in the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), Don Berna established links at the very highest levels of the army.
While the Urabeños have been seeking to create alliances with these bureaucratic elites in these public institutions, like Valencia Cossio of the attorney general's office, so far they have been unable to create a network to rival that of Don Berna. However, should the agreement between the Oficina de Envigado and the Urabeños transform itself into a real alliance, their combined power may once again be able to corrupt the higher ranks of the bureaucratic elites and recreate a criminal syndicate capable of controlling much of Colombia's cocaine trade.
The research presented in this article is, in part, the result of a project funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.