Authorities in Colombia are responding to a recent wave of violence in Medellín with large-scale security force occupations and targeted arrests of crime bosses, but the factors fueling the clashes remain unclear and the security strategy may be exacerbating tensions.

During the last two weeks of April, a spate of homicides and violent clashes between criminal groups in northwest Medellín have spurred security officials to deploy more than 1,000 police officers and soldiers to patrol the area while authorities pursue top crime bosses.

According to Medellín Mayor Federico Gutiérrez Zuluaga, the eruption of violence — which has included frequent gunfights and the burning of a bus and a taxi — is part of a plan among criminal groups to “generate terror.”

Gutiérrez cites conversations between criminal bosses that were intercepted by Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office as evidence that crime groups are coordinating to “destabilize security” in the city following the recent arrests of several prominent leaders of the criminal network known as the Oficina de Envigado.

In response, Medellín Security Secretary Andrés Tobón announced on April 25 that 300 police officers and 120 soldiers were being deployed to several neighborhoods in an area known as Comuna 13 as well as nearby Comuna 7 and Altavista.

On April 30, local and national security officials, including the heads of Colombia’s police and military, announced that reinforcements of at least 500 more police officers and an unspecified number of soldiers will be deployed to the area.

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In addition to the massive deployments, security officials announced that they are targeting a new list of the city’s top ten most-wanted criminal bosses. The list included Juan Manuel Piedrahíta Giraldo, alias “Juancito,” who was arrested on May 1 after being identified by authorities as the main instigator of the wave of violence in Comuna 13.

Juancito, the alleged boss of Comuna 13’s Betania crime group, is accused of ordering recent attacks on public transportation, distributing threatening pamphlets, and instigating violent clashes against rival crime groups for territorial control.

The day after Juancito’s arrest, on May 2, authorities arrested another boss from the most-wanted list: Iván Cardona Gallego, aliases “Cucho Iván” and “El Mono,” the alleged head of finances for the Robledo crime group, which is thought to operate in Comuna 13 and Comuna 7.

Police in Medellín have also arrested 25 alleged members of criminal groups and confiscated dozens of weapons in the areas under occupation.

InSight Crime Analysis

Colombian security officials have responded to the recent spike in violence in northwest Medellín by deploying large numbers of police and soldiers with the aim of discouraging further violence and effectuating arrests. However, this approach may be inadvertently fanning the flames of insecurity, while the forces behind the violence remain largely obscured.

Comuna 13 has been widely lauded in recent years as exemplary of Medellín’s positive “transformation” from one of the world’s most crime-ridden cities to a relatively secure, prosperous metropolis. A variety of factors played into the drop in violence, including innovative approaches to security policy — both on the part of policy makers as well as average citizens — and a 2013 truce between the Oficina de Envigado and the powerful Urabeños criminal group.

But the underworld stability created by the truce may now be coming partially undone as arrests open power vacuums in Medellín’s criminal landscape.

In the last three years, Medellín authorities have arrested nearly 2,500 members and 96 bosses of criminal groups, including Juan Carlos Mesa Vallejo, alias “Tom,” a leading figure in the Oficina de Envigado. Arrests like these may be fueling a split within the criminal organization. According to some analysts, the recent clashes in northwest Medellín may be between a faction of Oficina that has remained loyal to incarcerated boss Freyner Ramírez García, alias “Carlos Pesebre,” and dissident groups that have opted to attempt to grab power for themselves.

Organized crime prosecutor Claudia Carrasquilla supports this theory. In a report by El Espectador, Carrasquilla suggested that territorial clashes are likely being fueled by internal disputes between small, Oficina-aligned gangs known as La Agonía, La Pradera, El Coco, La Torre and Betania. According to Carrasquilla, these local gangs are likely fighting for control over lucrative extortion and drug dealing activities.

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However, some residents of Comuna 13 have suggested that the violent clashes may involve bigger criminal actors rather than simply being the result of disputes between local Oficina-backed gangs. According to news outlet Caracol, residents say members of the Urabeños and dissident members of the largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) may be aligning themselves with local gangs. Medellín Security Secretary Tobón has denied these claims, arguing instead that as security operations are weakening local gangs, “desperate bandits” are fabricating stories about FARC or Urabeños involvement to generate fear among residents.

While it remains unclear which criminal groups are engaging in violence and why, what is clear is that Comuna 13 residents are uneasy about the militarized security approach authorities are taking. While community leaders have supported a greater police presence, they have also expressed concerns that military deployments could lead to an occupation similar to two operations in the early 2000s during which security forces committed human rights violations against residents, Caracol reported.

Tobón, Gutiérrez and Medellín Human Rights Ombudsman Carlos Negret have all attempted to reassure Comuna 13 residents that there will not be a military intervention like those of the past, but rather that soldiers are being deployed to support police operations.

Although the response to rising violence has focused mainly on heavy-handed security operations, Gutiérrez has repeatedly emphasized in recent days that his government has invested nearly half a billion Colombian pesos into social projects in Comuna 13 over the last two years, and will continue to support these initiatives.

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