MEDELLÍN, Colombia — The sprawling hillside neighborhoods of Medellín’s Comuna 8 are named for landmarks or features: La Granja, the farm; La Torre, the tower; La Finquita, for the ranch-like style of its homes.
To outsiders, these and the handful of other neighborhoods comprising Comuna 8 are indistinguishable — an impenetrable tangle of slanting concrete and brick buildings with corrugated tin roofs. But for the residents of Comuna 8, the invisible borders are exact and, at times, deadly.
The boundaries mark areas where local armed gangs known as combos vie for territory. Army Lieutenant Cristhian Mauricio Florez stood on one such invisible border — a concrete bridge that crossed a small river.
“They come down from the hills, shoot at each other,” he said, “and then run back up.”
The combos fight to control sales of basuko, a smokeable cocaine paste, and marijuana. But what makes the bridge so valuable is its proximity to Tres Esquinas (Three Corners), a commercial district of butchers, grocery stores and small shops that the combos can systematically extort, said Florez, head of a quick-reaction force based in Comuna 8 since April.
After a particularly violent weekend in June, which saw two people killed and five wounded in shootings and the bombing of a building, the governor of Antioquia — the department that includes Medellín — ordered a military clampdown. Sixty soldiers augmented a police force of 120, and together they performed random patrols throughout the neighborhoods. At night, helicopters from the Colombian Air Force buzzed overhead, gathering surveillance.
One recent Friday evening, people crowded into the streets and stores of Tres Esquinas, busily doing their weekend shopping. It was a scene that would have been unlikely three months ago.
“We still don’t leave the house at night,” said one male resident, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution. “But before I was afraid to even leave in the day.”
‘Bloodbath’ of the 1990s a distant memory
Twenty years ago, much of Medellín was entrenched in street warfare far more severe than anything seen in Comuna 8 now. In 1991, at the height of Pablo Escobar’s simultaneous battles against the state and rival cartels, Medellín recorded nearly 6,500 killings — making it one of the world’s most violent cities that year.
After Escobar’s death in 1993, the violence did not abate. Guerillas, paramilitary groups, drug cartels and criminal gangs fought for control of territory. Though they had different goals, they were comparable in their ability to inflict violence.
“This was a bloodbath,” said Diego Corrales, a specialist in urban security and the director of Enciudad, a public-policy group in Medellín.
In the last decade, however, the city has undergone a transformation, with security gradually returning to areas once deemed ungovernable. Corrales said a confluence of factors resulted in the sea charge: the professionalization and coordination of the city’s security forces, the capture or killing of high-level gang members, and the building of schools, hospitals and cable cars in some of the poorest and most dangerous hillside barrios.
Guerrilla groups no longer in control
The transformation began in 2002, with a military takeover of Comuna 13, an outlying community of neighborhoods then considered Medellín’s most dangerous. The takeover, dubbed Operation Orion, was meant to root out three guerilla groups: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the Medellín-based People’s Armed Commandos (CAP), along with several criminal gangs that were firmly in control of the neighborhoods.
On Oct. 15 at 4 a.m., Blackhawk helicopters swooped in, literally raising the tin roofs. Troops and tanks stormed into the barrio, sparking a shootout among the armed groups and the military.
“Medellin had never seen anything like this — the integral intervention of the military and all of its forces,” said Corrales.
The operation reduced the guerilla presence immediately, and other hillside comunas would be subjected to similar takeovers during the next two years.
Meanwhile, the Medellín drug cartel, or what was left it, had morphed into a criminal syndicate called the Oficina de Envigado (Office of Envigado). Its leader, Diego Murillo — better known as Don Berna — ended up with a level of control over the city’s criminal underworld that, some experts say, dwarfed even Escobar’s. An alliance between Don Berna and powerful right-wing paramilitary groups allowed for a semblance of peace. It was a rare window of opportunity for the state to move in, with both hard power and soft.
While the military and police operations continued, a string of mayors built libraries, sports complexes, hospitals and schools. They sent social workers and mircroinvestment specialists into the neighborhoods. A metro system was built, including state-of-the-art gondola lines connecting several of the hills to the heart of downtown Medellín.
The number of murders in Medellin began to decline precipitously. A recent study by University of Antioquia found that in the first hillside comunas to be connected by the gondolas, homicides fell 66 percent — from 188 per 100,000 people in 2003 to 30 per 100,000 in 2008.
Gang violence now the biggest problem
In 2008, Don Berna was extradited to the United States to face drug trafficking charges. Security forces in Medellín faced their next major challenge as his successors fought for control of the Oficina de Envigado. The military and police, however, had been working to turn their forces into some of the most professional in Latin America — with a mixture, Corrales said, of “Britain’s intelligence, Israel’s technology and the special forces model of the United States.”
Police outposts were placed throughout the city, and a new command center was built downtown, with the latest technology to coordinate all the city’s security and emergency services. The Army and police began working together intensively, looking not to only capture criminal figureheads but to disrupt their entire networks.
When gang warfare broke out in several comunas in 2010 and 2011, security forces moved in quickly, but had difficulty stemming the violence. After two years that saw formerly declining murder rate reverse its trend and double, they finally appear to be turning things around.
Medellín police are reporting a 35 percent drop in murders citywide in 2012, with 821 homicides through August compared with 1,256 in 2011. And in just the last six months, authorities have captured two high-level members of the Oficina de Envigado, leaving it weaker than ever.
These days the vast majority of Medellin’s residents walk the streets of a safe and comfortable city. Police, wearing neon green vests, are ubiquitous. Locals no longer live in fear of car bombs or the stray bullets of contract killers, who, in the not-too-distant past, murdered for as little as $200.
But several poor, hillside neighborhoods remain holdouts to that uglier era, representing a final challenge for security forces and the government. For now, Comuna 8 remains disconnected and dominated by combos. Often supported by larger criminal syndicates, these gangs fight out proxy wars in larger territorial battles.
“The criminal organizations that are here are professionals,” Corrales said. “They already have many years in the war in diverse groups, and they know all the tactics.”
But Corrales said the current power vacuum has offered the security forces an opportunity. “They have to enter,” he said, “and keep making their presence total.”
Army, police integration crucial to success
Brig. Gen. Nicasio de Jesús Martínez Espinel, commander of the Fourth Brigade — which has jurisdiction over 91 of the 125 municipalities in Antioquia, including Medellín — said the police and military “complement and support” each other within the city.
Not only do they perform patrols together, but they also set up joint checkpoints to search for weapons and drugs. The Army often offers reinforcements when the police find themselves short of personnel.
“Today we have a wide coordination in all levels,” he said. “We are integrated with the police.”
Col. Carlos Alberto Ayala, commander of Medellín’s Military Police Battalion, said he has about 100 men in Comuna 8, who perform two patrols daily and four patrols nightly, often in conjunction with the police. “They do the investigating,” he said, “And we offer them security so they can do their work.”
During a recent Friday night patrol, the only visible evidence of the combos were walls pocked with gunshots. In La Torre, men sat drinking beer out front of makeshift bars and stores that jostled for space among the maze of wooden homes. The rhythms of cumbia music could be heard along with the shouts of children who ambled along the dark pathways.
Florez, leader of the quick-reaction force, said that by 9 p.m. most of the people will have shut themselves indoors, afraid of the combos. “It can feel like a calm night here,” he said, “but at any moment it can explode.”
With Israeli-made assault rifles slung around their shoulders, the soldiers patrolled the neighborhood. Every so often they stopped to frisk a male resident. The women offered them guarded salutations. The men stayed mute.
“They are afraid to speak,” Florez said. “They know if they do, the gangs will not only kill them, but also their family members.”
Comuna 8’s next generation, though, was more welcoming. Children approached the soldiers with high-fives and greetings of “Hola, soldado” [hello, soldier].