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Medellin's failed redemption

This violent city seemed to have found a path to normalcy. Why did it revert to its old ways?

Children look at investigators carrying the body of a man killed by gunmen in Medellin, Sept. 26, 2009. (Albeiro Lopera/Reuters)

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.”

(Read about Medellin residents living at the intersection of a drug war.)

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.