In Medellín, a Disturbing Comeback of Crime

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Raul Arboleda / AFP / Getty

A soldier patrols a neighborhood in Medellin plagued by a high crime rate.

This is a day in the life in Medellín. One recent morning, students waved white flags calling for peace — even as they mourned a 13-year-old classmate killed by a stray bullet just days before. In the afternoon, police captured 21 alleged criminal gang members who had slipped back into the paramilitary drug world after pledging to give it up. By night, around 10:30 p.m., police were hauling a dead body into their "necro-mobile" — a truck that collects bodies — and remarking how light a night it had been so far. It was only the second murder of the night.

Medellín has always had trouble living down its reputation. In the 1980s and '90s it was one of the most dangerous cities in the world — first as the headquarters of Pablo Escobar's cocaine cartel and then as the playground of right-wing paramilitary groups. But Medellín's murder rate dropped steadily after paramilitary fighters started putting down their arms in 2003 as part of a peace agreement with the government — and the city, one of the most dynamic industrial centers of Colombia, slowly re-established itself as a metropolis to reckon with.

But last year was not a good one for Medellín. Murders doubled in 2009, to 2,899, according to the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science. It was the largest number of homicides since 2002, when there were some 5,000 murders (there were an estimated 6,500 in 1991). The situation is directly attributable to a drug war that has once again engulfed the hillsides ringing the city. Reports in the Colombian press had the number of murders at 230 in January of this year. Behind the surge of violence is a battle over power and territory between warring factions of a cartel-like network of criminal bands called the Office of Envigado that controls the vast majority of drug trafficking in Medellín.

A prominent group of Medellín citizens, dubbed the Notables, recently negotiated a cease-fire between the feuding gangs. "We approached them with one request: stop the killings," says Jorge Gaviria, a member of the Notables and the former director of Medellín's peace-and-reconciliation program. Since Feb. 1, the first day of the truce, Gaviria says, murders have dropped significantly and conditions are ripe to negotiate a more permanent peace. But the green light the government in Bogotá had granted the Notables to hold talks wasn't renewed after Feb. 12, stoking fears that bullets will fly again.

That's because much of the relative calm of recent years may have been due to the dominance of one local overlord. Paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo, a.k.a. Don Berna, had a monopoly over the drug trade, ruling his empire and followers even from prison. But when Don Berna was extradited to the U.S. in 2008, mid-level narco-traffickers started fighting to fill the power vacuum the capo had left. "Little cats became tigers," says a former drug trafficker. Many demobilized paramilitary fighters picked up arms again instead of pursuing the work training and education opportunities offered by the government.

Today, the two leaders of the Office of Envigado, whose aliases are "Sebastian" and "Valenciano," are feuding for total control over its drug-trafficking network. "There are two bosses, and there can only be one," says "Eduardo," a pseudonym given to a narco-trafficker ruling over several of Medellín's most violent neighborhoods, who spoke on condition of anonymity. As an estimated 150 to 300 criminal bands fight over control and turf, "the civilian population is caught in the middle," says Ana Patricia Aristizábal, the human-rights delegate of Medellín's ombudsman's office.

Criminal gangs are extorting larger amounts from local shopkeepers and bus drivers. They use unsuspecting residents, including children and women, to transport weapons or drugs. They recruit youth to fill the spots of their murdered members. "If you don't collaborate by giving them food or hiding them from police, you'll have to leave the neighborhood," says a community leader who has received death threats and did not want to be named for security reasons. Eduardo says criminal bands like his have to kill the family members and friends of enemies in order to win their battles. "This war touches everyone," he says. As a result of the drug wars, the number of people forced to leave their homes has surged, says Aristizábal. Last year, 2,650 displaced people registered with Medellín's ombudsman's office.

In response to the escalating violence, the government dispatched an extra 900 police officers to Medellín last year, according to police, and an additional 1,300 are expected. While many residents of hard-hit neighborhoods welcome them, others complain that police are often at the service of the drug gangs. Eduardo says he often tells police not to patrol where his men are planning "an operation." At other times, Eduardo claims, police have stepped out of uniform, put on face masks and carried out killings using weapons given to them by criminal bands. "There's a lot of police who work for us as civilians," he tells TIME. Colombia's commander of the national police refused a TIME request for an interview and a response from Medellín's police chief.

To fight crime in Medellín, President Álvaro Uribe made a controversial proposal last month to pay 1,000 students $50 per month to serve as informants by sharing intelligence with authorities. Medellín's mayor and others have criticized the strategy, fearing it will turn students into targets of the conflict. Eduardo says the criminal underworld will be forced to respond by hiring people to spy on the student informants. "We'll have to involve a new bunch of people in this war," he says.