MEDELLIN, Colombia — A city synonymous with murders and drug cartels had finally started to shed its image.
Paramilitary fighters gave up their weapons. The city poured money into re-integrating ex-gang members while increasing basic services like running water to neglected hillside barrios.
Homicides plummeted. Headlines about a “transformation” and “re-birth” started to appear to describe what had once been one of the world’s most dangerous cities.
But now Medellin's redemption no longer looks so absolute. The city has returned to its old ways, throwing into stark relief just how difficult it is to reclaim a city from drug traffickers.
Murders doubled last year as two gang leaders started vying for control of the drug-trafficking trade. It's just the latest reality in a city that seems doomed to suffer from waves of cyclical mayhem.
“It’s not about two men,” said a former paramilitary fighter who maintains ties with the criminal world. “It’s a structural problem.”
Medellin had finally found some respite. In 2003, thousands of paramilitary fighters started putting down arms under a peace deal with the government — more than 4,000 demobilized in Medellin. The paramilitary forces had brought the city's many drug gangs operating under their control and used the drug money to bolster their fight against the left-wing guerrillas.
The city offered education, vocational job training and monthly $200 subsidies to the ex-fighters so they wouldn’t need crime as a source of income. At the same time, it improved services to poor neighborhoods and prioritized education and youth programs.
But behind the new and relative calm was a strong, criminal hand: Diego Fernando Murillo, a drug kingpin who monopolized Medellin’s drug trade — even from prison. Many attribute the drop in killings in the mid-2000s not so much to the city efforts, but to the overlord’s regime, dubbed “Donbernabilidad.” (Murillo was known as "Don Berna," hence the name.)
Murillo wanted to reduce the immense bloodletting while at the same time controlling Medellin’s drug trade, gaining him the reputation as a peaceful drug lord of sorts. Those who didn’t live by Murillo’s rules were simply killed, but others operated in a state of “pacific co-habitation" with other gangs, said a former drug boss serving under Murillo who did not want to be named out of concern for his safety.
The relative peace Murillo enforced was “the best that a criminal has ever done. Better than the authorities,” said the former drug boss.
But residents living in the poor barrios blanketing the city’s hillsides say they never escaped the control of armed groups. “This period of calm was superficial,” said one community leader. Like others interviewed for this story, she did not want her name used. Several residents said they had received threats from local gangs and feared repercussions.
The violence became more selective, with gangs targeting each other as well as civilians who crossed them. “It’s more clandestine,” said another community leader. They said threats against residents didn’t abate nor did the control drug gangs held over the local population.
Despite efforts to increase the role of the state by pumping up the police presence and social services, the power dynamic never reversed. “It was a depressed war, but the war never went away,” said Leo Arango who works with Culture and Liberty, a group that uses hip-hop, art and culture to keep youth in violent neighborhoods away from crime.
As a result, it resurfaced full-force.
Along with 13 other paramilitaries, Murillo was extradited to the U.S. in 2008. “Everyone knew that when he got on the plane, that’s when peace would fall apart,” said the former paramilitary member.
Murillo's departure left a power vacuum that the middlemen started fighting to fill, trying to grab their piece of the Medellin drug trade. Their promises to demobilize, it turned out, had been more ruse than true renouncement.
Murillo and his close associates purposefully didn’t hand over their complete armies, according to reports by human rights groups and interviews with several former members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the umbrella group of paramilitary forces. Instead, to fill the quota they had promised the government, they often paid civilians or arms-length collaborators to turn themselves in. They often handed over their oldest and worst arms, keeping the better weaponry.
Many who demobilized picked up their monthly subsidy checks from the government but returned to criminal life — some even as they attended job-training or educational opportunities afforded them.
“I’ve seen guys who are moving ahead and others who have taken up arms again,” said Carlos Gonzalez, 31, who demobilized in 2005.
“The money is tempting,” said Gonzalez. As a former hit man, he could make between $1,000 to $2,500 in one night for a kill; now, he sells sweets and started taking high school classes this year. He says he remains steadfast in rejecting any temptations to earn more money via criminal activities. “This is my hour to study,” said Gonzalez. “This is my hour of opportunity.”
As the former home of Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel, criminal networks have been firmly rooted in the city’s social and financial fabric since the 1980s — gang members infiltrate community councils, they make financial contributions to national politicians and penetrate the justice system, police and army through threats, bribery and violence.
Part of Medellin’s response has been to beef up the presence of police and military in violent areas, and more investigative police continue to be dispatched to the city.
Juan Felipe Palau, Medellin’s secretary of government, warned that as focus turns toward pursuing criminals in response to the spike in violence, the importance of crime prevention should not be overlooked. “This is harder to do than bombing a neighborhood or capturing people,” said Palau.
Medellin continues to invest in offering alternatives to crime. Until recently, Palau directed the city’s largest program for marginalized youth, Fuerza Joven. The program’s 1,700 participants — mostly demobilized paramilitary fighters, but also youth at risk of following their path — are provided with counseling and education and participate in projects in the same communities some of them terrorized. He said 25 percent have been expelled due to criminal activity or left voluntarily.
Medellin Mayor Alonso Salazar has declared paramilitaries collecting government subsidies by day and committing crimes by night will have their benefits withdrawn. Palau says programs like Fuerza Joven have increased monitoring of demobilized fighters to ensure double-dipping does not happen.
But many fear that as long as there is demand to sustain the drug trade, Medellin will not be able to ever fully emerge from the violence it breeds. “As long as you have narco-trafficking, you’ll have people who will pay you to kill,” said the former paramilitary member who served the organization’s upper echelons. “I say this to you with great sadness. This has no end.”
Read about Medellin residents living at the intersection of a drug war.