Hillside gangs quick to settle scores have been blamed for an increase in killings in the Colombian city of Medellín, yet changes in the city’s underworld are behind the rising body count.
In 2018, Medellín tallied 626 homicides, a 7.6 percent increase from the prior year. Battles among criminal groups were responsible for more than half the murders, El Tiempo reported.
Much of the bloodshed occurred in Comuna 13, a district on the western outskirts of the city that saw the largest jump in homicides, from 48 in 2017 to 91 last year. Neighborhood gangs, known as combos, battled it out on the steep hills overlooking the city in an effort to control local extortion rings and drug sales.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the Oficina de Envigado
Colombia’s second-largest city had seen homicides decline for several straight years. In 2015, it recorded 496 murders, the lowest tally in decades. But killings have ticked up since.
Colombia’s top prosecutor Claudia Carrasquilla said Medellín’s increase in homicides was spurred by the capture of leaders of the Oficina de Envigado, a coalition that controls the majority of criminal activity in Medellín.
“This has generated a realignment in the different organizations for territorial control,” Carrasquilla said in an interview with El Tiempo.
InSight Crime Analysis
Though neighborhood gangs were responsible for last year’s rash of killings in Medellín, their conflicts were fueled with guns and drugs provided by factions of the more powerful Oficina de Envigado. The “Oficina,” as it is known locally, has become erratic due to fragmentation and no longer operates as a top-down entity but rather harbors various leaders, shifting alliances and different factions, which are often at odds and find support from outside criminal groups.
Homicides in Medellín have plunged in the three decades since drug cartels, right-wing paramilitaries, left-wing guerrillas and other criminal groups fought brutal wars in the streets, gaining the city a reputation as the world’s most dangerous in the 1990s.
In the aftermath, the Oficina de Envigado -- a conglomerate of criminal groups who were once debt collectors for Pablo Escobar -- rose to power. From 2003 to 2008, its various criminal structures, including some 120 combos, were under the control of Diego Murillo Bejarano, alias "Don Berna," who kept killings to a minimum.
His capture and subsequent extradition, however, led to the city’s homicide rate tripling as different leaders fought for control of the “Oficina.”
The next major drop in homicides came amid a truce among the remaining factions of the Oficina de Envigado and the Urabeños, Colombia’s most powerful drug trafficking organization, which had tried to violently take over the city. Innovative approaches to security policy -- both on the part of policymakers as well as average citizens -- also played a part in the decrease in violence.
The truce, however, never came close to providing the stability that Don Berna had. Since then, killings in the city have largely resulted from combos battling it out -- sometimes as proxies for factions of the Oficina de Envigado, the Urabeños, and other criminal structures. Some combos also act as independent operators.
SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Homicides
This is what is playing out in Comuna 13, the sprawling hillside district that has struggled for decades with violence but has also become a destination for tourists, attracting visitors to its graffiti art and outdoor escalators.
At least four combos in conflict are behind the killings there. Two are historic rivals; the other two are allies turned foes. Others may also be in the mix.
Powerful criminal groups, mostly splintered off from the original Oficina de Envigado, have sought to escalate these battles, feeding weapons and money to the combos in an effort to control the city’s western frontier, including the San Juan highway. The highway, which leads to northern Antioquia and the Urabá coast, is a strategic corridor for moving drugs, cash, and guns.
Andres Tobón, Medellín’s security secretary, told InSight Crime that organized crime within the city is in “disarray,” and that has led to the killings.
“There is a rupture not only locally,” Tobón said, “but also in the hierarchy.”
One of the leaders of the Oficina de Envigado, alias Ocho, agreed that captures have led to more violence, saying in an interview with El Tiempo that the new bosses “have less control over their (criminal) structures.”
The comuna's residents, meanwhile, suffer the fallout as the killings continue. In the first two weeks of January, Medellín saw 24 homicides, 16 more than the previous year.