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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?

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.