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Like Colombia, Iconic City Remains a Place of Promise and Peril

Medellín, COLOMBIA , Jun 3 2010 (IPS) - The homes of the barrio of Comuna 13, tightly packed improvised brick and concrete structures that take on a semi- rural nature the closer one gets to the murky swift-moving Río Cauca, blanket the hills of the western edge of this city of 2.5 million.

A district of some 135,000 inhabitants, Comuna 13 represents the complicated renaissance of a city famed for producing both Colombia’s most famous painter (Fernando Botero) and the world’s most notorious drug trafficker (Pablo Escobar).

Abutting this grindingly poor area is the Parque Biblioteca José Luis Arroyave, a sparkling new multipurpose complex that features a library, an exhibition hall and a community- run cafeteria. Within view of its doors, a new metrocable system ferries commuters to and from their hillside dwellings at dizzying heights in a series of cable-propelled eight-passenger pods, cutting travel time for community residents in half.

“In a zone very affected by violence and poverty, we wanted to organise this project and work trying to reclaim public space and benefit the population here,” says Mauricio Mejía, who works with the Proyecto Urbano Integral, an urban development project based on similar initiatives in Brazil and originally spearheaded by Medellín’s former mayor, Sergio Fajardo.

Along with the city’s former director of urban projects, Alejandro Echeverri, in 2009 Fajardo – in office from 2003 until 2007 and currently running for vice president on a ticket with former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus – was awarded the Curry Stone Design Prize, an eminent architectural award that cited the duo’s “bold and ambitious public works plan” for Medellín as having “helped revitalise its poorest neighbourhoods”.

The award set out for particular commendation the city’s 42,200-square-foot Orquideorama (a botanical garden topped by a wooden meshwork roof somewhat resembling unfurling flowers), and the nearly-prehistoric looking obsidian Parque Biblioteca España.

However, Medellín continues to exist as a paradox: On one hand a lush, green city vibrating with life and stunning modern architecture, and on the other hand a place of frightened people who speak in whispers of criminals they refuse to even name. And it has remained quite a deadly place for many of its inhabitants.

During the first three months of 2010, Medellín’s murder rate increased 54.8 percent from the previous year. Only steps away from the Parque Biblioteca and in other barrios around the city, drug gangs continue to dominate, the fallout, many locals say, of an incomplete or ineffective demobilisation process of the country’s far-right paramilitary groups undertaken by the government of outgoing President Álvaro Uribe.

“This is a war where impunity reigns,” says a church worker who has been active in Medellín’s poorest neighbourhoods for many years and who did not wish to be named. “There is silence, fear, and people can’t talk about what’s going on.”

An umbrella group of paramilitary factions, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), were formed by Carlos Castaño in 1997 and thereafter acted as a ruthless counterpoint to the Colombian state’s war against Colombia’s two rebel groups, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the smaller Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). During the most violent years of Colombia’s civil war, it was the AUC, not the Colombian army, that succeeded in driving the FARC and ELN from the comunas around Medellín.

Linked to dozens of massacres throughout the country, the AUC began a demobilisation process in 2002 whereby significantly reduced sentences were offered in exchange for paramilitary members confessing their crimes, making amends with their victims and ceasing criminal activities. Castaño himself was murdered in April 2004, allegedly in a dispute centered around the AUC’s deepening involvement in the drug trade, and his body recovered two years later.

In Medellín, this demobilisation process took on a particularly chaotic and violent nature.

One of the most powerful leaders of the AUC, Diego Murillo Bejarano aka Don Berna, was (like Carlos Castaño’s brother Fidel) a former close associate of the drug trafficking Medellín Cartel, having acted as one of the top enforcers for a faction run by the Galeano family, who were eventually dominated by sectors loyal to the late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

Having commanded the AUC’s Bloque Cacique Nutibara, which had around 1,000 members, as well as the Bloque Héroes de Granada, which was thought to have numbered slightly over 2,000, amidst demobilisation Murillo Bejarano’s faction of the AUC fought a brief, vicious war of attrition in Medellín’s slums with the Bloque Metro of Castaño loyalist Carlos Mauricio Garcia, alias Double Zero, who was found murdered in May 2004.

Following the demobilisation process – which many in Medellín claim was largely a charade where non-paramilitary actors were recruited from around the city to go through the motions of pacification – Murillo Bejarano, despite sitting in a Colombian prison under the terms of the country’s Justice and Peace Law, is said by residents and authorities to have become the dominant criminal figure in the city.

Murillo Bejarano’s omnipotence over what is colloquially referred to as the Oficina de Envigado (named after the Medellín neighbourhood where many narcotraffickers live) extended to such an extent that the tit-for-tat slayings and turf wars that have marked the city over the last two decades gradually decreased as he solidified his control over many of the city’s criminal gangs. There was even a term used by locals for the enforced calm Murillo Bejarano brought to the city’s criminal underworld, donbernabilidad, a mordant pun on the Spanish concept of gobernabilidad, or governability.

It was, however, a consolidation that had deadly consequences for those who questioned it. A number of community leaders in Medellín, such as Haider Ramírez from Comuna 13 and Alexander Pulgarín from the La Sierra neighbourhood, have been murdered in recent years, with the latter killing being characterised in a report by Colombia’s government as “a premeditated act” designed to silence a voice that would not go along with criminal system being put in place in the slums.

When Murillo Bejarano was deported to the United States in May 2008 along with a slew of other top AUC leaders to face drug trafficking charges, the Oficina de Envigado is said to have badly fractured. One of the group’s chieftains, Fabio León Vélez Correa, alias Nito, was murdered in September 2009 and two remaining factions have formed with guns drawn behind one of two leaders, known by their aliases as Valenciano and Sebastian.

Colombian government estimates say that the groups operate in of Colombia’s 32 departments and boast around 400 members.

It is the chaos of this power struggle, residents say, that has led to the palpable spike in violence as ever- diminishing and reorganising groups of traffickers vie for control of the city and access to the Río Cauca, a key conduit for cocaine and arms smuggling, as well as human trafficking.

Despite the palpable sense of hope in Colombian cities such as Medellín these days, the incomplete demobilisation of the paramilitaries, along with the continued threat of the not- yet-vanquished rebel groups, will continue to present a serious challenge to whoever wins this month’s presidential contest to succeed the eight-year tenure of Álvaro Uribe.

“These groups basically took the generous offer of demobilisation by Uribe,” says Bruce M. Bagley, the chair of the Department of International Studies at the University of Miami and a longtime Colombia observer. “But demobilise is a relative term.”

*Michael Deibert is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University and the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press). His blog can be read at

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