Authorities in Colombia have recently arrested three leaders of the Oficina de Envigado, a mafia that began under Pablo Escobar and has long controlled Medellín's underworld since his death. But the impact of such arrests is not what it used to be.
John Eduard Barbosa, an ex-police officer and Oficina lieutenant, was captured May 8 while driving in Sabaneta, on the outskirts of Medellín. He had recently returned from Spain, where he had been hiding out after an attempt on his life by a hitman.
Barbosa, who worked in the police’s special investigations unit when he began to moonlight for the Oficina, had a 50 million peso (about $15,000) bounty on his head and had been seeking out plastic surgeons to transform his appearance when he was arrested, El Colombiano reported.
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A month ago, Mauricio Zapata Orozco, alias “Chicho,” was arrested at his parents’ home in the wealthy El Poblado district. Orozco came to lead “La Terraza,” one of the Oficina’s subgroups, after his release from prison two years ago. An organized crime prosecutor said at the time of Orozco’s arrest that his criminal history went back more than two decades and that he is suspected of participating in as many as 18 murders.
Authorities also nabbed Iván Darío Suárez Muñoz, alias “Iván el Barbado,” during a March 23 raid on a luxury condo in Piedecuesta, a town in the northeast department of Santander.
Medellín authorities have touted the arrests as evidence that their efforts to hobble the group are working.
After the most recent captures, Mayor Federico Gutiérrez tweeted an image of a bullseye superimposed on the mug shots of 20 Oficina operatives and leaders with the headline: “Oficina’s Board of Directors” (Cuerpo Colegiado La Oficina). Red crosses marked the faces of 15. Only five silhouetted heads remain.
InSight Crime Analysis
The conglomerate of criminal groups that make up the Oficina de Envigado learned long ago how to run without a dedicated top boss, working with a more fragmented leadership that is interchangeable but somewhat less powerful.
Beginning as a debt collection agency for Pablo Escobar, the Oficina de Envigado evolved into a potent mafia under paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna.” While under his command, the Oficina, as locals came to call it, grew to control nearly all organized crime in Medellín and its surrounding municipalities over a 30-year period.
Don Berna, who viewed bloodshed as bad for business, kept killings to a minimum by bringing the violent street gangs, known as combos, in line through “oficinas de cobro,” or debt collection offices. These collection offices, each of which commanded several combos, controlled territories, set up money laundering structures and hired out contract killers, or “sicarios.”
“The Oficina was born as a way to resolve mafia conflicts,” said Juan Diego Restrepo, a journalist who wrote a book about the Oficina and director of Verdadabierta, an investigative news website in Colombia.
Don Berna’s 2008 extradition, however, left an enormous power vacuum in the city. For the next four years, violence reigned as two of his key lieutenants battled for the top spot. The internal struggle left the organization divided and vulnerable to the Urabeños, a drug trafficking group which fed cash and guns to combos in its bid to violently take over the city.
The carnage only ended when the leaders of five Oficina factions came together to strike a deal with the Urabeños at a summit held in a luxury villa in San Jerónimo, a picturesque town about an hour north of Medellín. A powerful group of white-collar criminals brokered the pact, marking a new period of peace and deep-seated changes for the Oficina.
The organization no longer operated as a top-down entity but rather harbored various factions, whose leaders are not drug barons in the mold of Escobar or paramilitary commanders like Don Berna, but hardened gangsters.
The groups that now make up the Oficina act less like the once powerful Medellín Cartel and more like independent mafias providing crime services, such as drug debt collection, contract killings and cocaine shipment protection for Mexican cartels. The mafias -- which are dubbed by authorities as Criminal Organizations Integrated with Drug Trafficking (Organizaciones Delincuenciales Integradas al Narcotráfico – ODIN) and have names like “La Unión,” “Robledo” and “Trianón” -- also take a cut from all underworld activities in their dominions. This includes extortion rackets, local drug sales, robberies, sex trafficking, contraband and even loan-sharking activities, known as “gota a gota” (drop by drop).
Juan Carlos Mesa, alias “Tom,” for example, was a gang leader who commanded a group known as “Los Chatas” when he rose within the Oficina structure in 2012. He drew his power from his role as the main liaison between the Oficina and the Urabeños, which had set up cocaine production laboratories in rural Antioquia.
Though Tom was a powerful voice in the organization, he feuded with a longtime “oficina de cobro,” known as La Terraza, which was operating under a jailed leader named José Muñoz Martínez, alias “Douglas.”
Authorities arrested Tom in December 2017 as he celebrated his 50th birthday -- tipped off by an order for several cases of his favorite whiskey, Chivas Porcelana. Among those in attendance was “Iván el Barbado” and Jhon Jairo Velásquez, alias “Popeye,” one of Escobar’s top sicarios.
A journalist who has investigated the Oficina de Envigado and asked to remain anonymous told InSight Crime that Iván is a drug trafficker allied with the Oficina, but not someone of great influence in the city. He said Iván’s arrest would not compromise the organization.
The same goes for the recent arrest of Orozco, the leader of La Terraza, who was still subservient to Douglas, he said.
The recent arrests have, however, produced one visible result: a spike in killings.
A fractured Oficina leadership has given free rein to the street gangs, who are quick to settle scores and project power as criminal dynamics in the underworld shift, said Restrepo.
“The loyalties and accords are fragile,” he said, “and that results in explosions of violence.”
In 2018, Medellín tallied more than 600 killings, the most since 2014. By mid-April of this year, homicides had surpassed 200. The month closed with 71 murders -- the highest body count for a single month in the past three years.
Today, Tom and Douglas, both of whom are being sought for extradition by the United States, control various factions of the Oficina from prison and continue to battle it out on the streets through proxy combos. Few have shown the ability or support to take charge of the Oficina, especially after the string of arrests.
The organization, however, will find its next front men.
A local government source who requested anonymity told InSight Crime that the Oficina has shown itself adept at replacing those in charge when necessary.
“Rapid changes within the leadership are foreseen by [the Oficina],” he said. “Having a lot of experience in replacing their leaders, the arrests do not represent a sensitive and structural blow to the organization.”
And as authorities tout these high-profile captures, powerful white-collar figures continue to lurk behind the fallen leaders.
“They go after the capos,” said Restrepo. “They don’t go after the money. The structure reconfigures itself and the businesses in some way continue. And it's there where the hidden networks are."
Mafia boss Sebastián Murillo Echeverry, alias “Lindolfo,” even passed himself off as a Medellín businessman with interests in entertainment and real estate. He lived in an exclusive high-rise apartment building and had a long-term relationship with television personality Vaneza Peláez.
Peláez was with him when police came knocking in 2018. Authorities said Echeverry collected massive criminal debts and was in charge of the “Caicedo" gang, present in the comunas in the eastern part of the city. At the same time, he had access to police information through a WhatsApp group meant to facilitate communications between business owners and authorities.
Echeverry was convicted in September of arms trafficking and murder. During his trial, prosecutors revealed through Blackberry chats that he ordered his lieutenants to dispose of the body of a fellow gangster who shot himself dead playing Russian roulette.
The next day the corpse was found disjointed and stuffed in a suitcase.