MEDELLIN, Colombia — Even the prescience of 13-year-old Luis Serna Varela couldn't save him.
He worried he would find himself caught in a shootout, or even with his finger pressed to the trigger of a gun, just another teenager unable to escape the gang warfare in his poor neighborhood atop Medellin. He asked his mother one morning: "Why don’t we leave from here?”
Now it's too late for his mother to do more than wonder about what she could have done differently. Luis went to buy eggs and cheese for his family’s breakfast in January when he was killed by a stray bullet.
He is yet another homicide victim in a city where 10 year olds carry guns and where the police's "necro-mobile" patrols the streets nightly, collecting dead bodies.
Yet for a few years it had looked as if this violent city might have found a path to normalcy. Thousands of right-wing paramilitary gang members started demobilizing in 2003 and the government made it a priority to increase basic services. Murder rates plummeted.
(Read about how Medellin tried to shed its violent past.)
Now bloodshed has returned.
“There’s more of everything now. There’s more people, more money and more drugs,” said Jaime, a pseudonym for a drug-trafficker in charge of several of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.
Last year murders jumped by 100 percent to 2,899 in a city of 2.5 million, according to the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science. Behind the wave of violence is a battle for control of the city’s drug-trafficking trade between two warring factions of the “Office of Envigado,” a network of criminal groups.
Residents and community leaders, who did not want to be named for security reasons, paint a terrifying picture of life at the intersection of the drug war.
“There are kids in high school who can’t cross from one street to another because there might be a shoot-out,” said Juan Pablo Mora, 25, who lives in the poor, violent neighborhood of Santo Domingo, where he carries out social projects with the Franciscan religious order.
Ever more criminal bands are demanding extortion payments — known as "vaccinations" — from shopkeepers and bus drivers. Young women who refuse to be the girlfriends of gang members may face death. Children and women are often used to transport weapons or drugs.
The gangs are stepping up their efforts to recruit youths as murder rates put a dent in their membership. Jaime had 15 of his 150 men killed in four months. One mother said her 22-year-old son was told by paramilitary gang members to carry out a job. “When he refused, they told him he should leave, or stay and be killed,” his mother said. Her son moved outside Medellin.
There are many more like him. Medellin’s Ombudsman’s office registered 2,650 victims of inter-urban displacement last year — 90 percent of whom had received direct threats.
Jaime said drug-trafficking groups like his must often punish their enemies by murdering their friends and family members. “People are sometimes on the wrong side.”
The escalating violence prompted a group of influential Medellin citizens to spend months making jail visits and approaching gang middlemen to get the warring leaders to agree to a cease-fire. The mediators succeeded in brokering a truce that began Feb. 1, after which murders dropped by about half, according to Colombian press accounts. But in mid-March, the pact crumbled and murder rates soared back to previous levels.
Since then, one of the leaders of the Oficina de Envigado has distanced himself from the group as authorities have stepped up their manhunt, leaving more than 150 drug gangs vying to take advantage of the shake-up, said Jaime Panesso, a member of the citizen’s negotiating commission.
In response to Medellin’s worsening security scenario, national authorities sent more army troops throughout the last year. The police force is awaiting 1,300 reinforcements in addition to the 900 officers dispatched to the city last year, according to police.
Some residents welcome them. Others fear they may become part of the problem — several residents said they have been victim to, or witnessed, violence and threats from police who collaborate with, rather than fight, the drug gangs.
Jaime said he sometimes calls police commanders to get them to pull patrols out of areas where Jaime’s group is about to carry out an operation. After work, some police change out of uniform, put on ski masks and, using arms given to them by drug gangs, carry out killings for them, said Jaime, whose account was echoed by several residents.
“There’s a lot of police who work for us as civilians,” Jaime said. Colombia’s national police declined to authorize Medellin’s police chief to give an interview.
To help authorities capture those behind the spiraling violence, President Alvaro Uribe proposed in January to pay $50 a month to 1,000 student informants in exchange for sharing information with authorities. The idea sparked controversy as critics, including Medellin’s mayor, fear the scheme will draw students into a conflict that is not theirs.
“This proposal will only increase violence,” said Mora, who studies at the University Pontifica Bolivariana, fearing it will foment distrust among students, make them into the targets of gangs and generate false intelligence. “If I get paid 100,000 pesos [$50], I can find anything to sell,” said Mora.
The plan may set off a domino effect: Jaime says he and other criminal groups will hire their own student informants to spy on those snitching on them. “We’ll have to,” said Jaime. “If someone is watching you, you have to have an eye on them too.”
Read about why Medellin hasn’t been able to shrug off the violence it has known for decades.