Nightly clashes between criminal gangs and a questionable police operation have engulfed one of Colombia’s most famous neighborhoods, with residents fearing a return of the conditions that marked the bloody era of powerful drug cartels. While authorities work to unravel the confusion, violence seems to be rebounding in Medellín.
Four gang-related homicides occurred on July 8 in Medellín in an area of the city known as Comuna 13. The newest rash of killings brings the total number of homicides there to 44 so far this year, according to news outlet El Colombiano.
Medellín Security Secretary Andrés Tobón stated in a press conference that Comuna 13 has “long-standing criminal structures” and added that the current conflict demonstrates the “reality of criminal destabilization throughout the entire territory.” Tobón concluded by saying the city government would maintain presence in the area to protect the community.
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Some residents of Comuna 13 -- which has been recognized for its transformation from a violence-wracked sector of the city to one of its most popular tourist attractions -- have accused the police of entering houses without warrants and accompanied by gang members, supposedly to capture those involved in the clashes. However, there are no records of injuries, arrests or disappearances resulting from such home entries.
According to Tobón, there is no concrete information on the allegations of collusion between the police and the gangs during police operations.
At the end of April, Medellín Mayor Federico Gutiérrez announced plans to militarize Comuna 13 and the neighboring areas of Robledo and Altavista in order to control the wave of violence. But with gang confrontations continuing as if nothing has changed, the anticipated results of the government crackdown remain elusive.
InSight Crime Analysis
Comuna 13 is home to several of Medellín’s outlying neighborhoods that have expanded up into the steep hills surrounding the city. It has long struggled with public security, and used to be considered a major hub of violence in the capital city of Antioquia department.
Currently, more than 30 street gangs or “combos” operate throughout Comuna 13, controlling territory, drug dealing and extortion.
In tandem with these new developments in its criminal structures, however, the neighborhood has been working hard to persevere against them. While nighttime brings gang violence, by day, Comuna 13 grows increasingly popular as a destination for guided tours, attracting national and international visitors alike to witness its colorful transformation.
Most of the neighborhood combos report to different factions of the Oficina de Envigado, a coalition of criminal groups with near-total control over Medellín’s underworld. These factions have been shifting territory as power vacuums are left when the authorities make major arrests, such as those of Juan Carlos Mesa Vallejo, alias “Tom,” and Juan Manuel Piedrahita, alias “Juancito.”
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Comuna 13’s geographic location makes it a strategic corridor for illicit goods being shipped between Medellín and the Caribbean coast, which is home to ports that can be used for sending drugs abroad. This is how the drug trafficking gang known as the Urabeños has gotten a foothold in Medellín. It now has various cells in the metropolitan area and could be forming alliances to maintain power.
Community members and leaders have also complained of possible alliances between the police and criminal groups, which has generated mistrust and fear in an area that has already been the victim of security forces in the past. The militarized Operation Orion took place in Comuna 13 in 2002, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights recently condemned the Colombian government for abuses that occurred while it was underway. Dozens of people were arbitrarily detained and disappeared during the operation.
The ineffective response to the situation in Comuna 13 has rendered authorities unable to quell violence there, highlighting Medellín's vulnerability as well as the capacity of organized crime to destabilize the city from the area that has struggled for decades to serve as an example of how to overcome its bloodstained past.