MEDELLÍN, Colombia — For decades, motorbikes have been the cheapest and most convenient mode of transport on Medellín’s sinuous streets, where they dart and weave nimbly among traffic.
But motorcycles are also a deadly tool here, used by sicarios, or hitmen, to get close to their victims. The sicarios ride in pairs, with the driver and gunman sidling up alongside their targets, disposing of them with a few shots, then racing away.
In recent years, authorities have tried to stem motorcycle hits by requiring all motorcyclists to wear reflective vests and helmets that display their license plate numbers.
However, such measures have been slow to work. During the first 10 months of 2012, Medellín recorded 176 murders on motorcycles — or 15 percent of all homicides, according to Eduardo Rojas León, Medellin’s secretary of security. And motorcycles were used in more than a quarter of carjackings and half of motorcycle thefts.
To curb the number of crimes in which motorcycles are used, Medellín Mayor Anibal Gaviria Correa has signed a pilot law preventing men — and even male children — from riding as passengers on motorbikes in Medellín and nine surrounding municipalities from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. The law, also adopted in nine surrounding municipalities, is effective through the end of January, and if it reduces motorcycle crimes, may become permanent.
“Here always we have in mind,” León said, “that a motorcycle with a male passenger is synonymous with sicarios and danger.”
Sicarios popularized by Medellín cocaine cartel
Before 1970, motorcycles were actually a rare sight in Medellín, with only a single company, Auteco, manufacturing an Italian-style scooter called the Lambretta. In 1972, the first Kawasaki motorcycles appeared, and three years later Yamaha sold its first bikes in the city.
In his recent book, Colombian journalist José Guarnizo writes that Griselda Blanco — known as the “godmother of cocaine” for her blood-soaked style of street justice — instituted motorcycle killings back in the early 1970s. Before that, Medellín’s hitmen had killed from cars, but Blanco mandated that all hits be carried out on motorcycles after two of her men were caught in traffic while doing a job and were captured by police.
“In the mid-1970s, there were these type of killings using motorcycles but not so much,” said Fernando Quijano, an organized crime investigator and director of the Medellín-based human rights group Corpades.
The practice exploded during the 1980s and was popularized by the Medellín cocaine cartel led by Pablo Escobar. It first captured the attention of Colombians at large when Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, the nation’s minister of justice, was killed by motorcycle on Escobar’s orders.
Trend worsened after Escobar’s death
On the night of April 30, 1984, Bonilla had left his office in Bogotá and was driving his white Mercedes when two men on a new Yamaha motorcycle pulled up behind his car’s right rear fender and shattered the rear window with bullets. In an ensuing firefight with authorities, the gunman was killed, but police arrested the driver: Byron Velasquez Arenas, a 16-year-old from Medellín who had never finished high school.
“Byron was very young,” Quijano said, “and that had a strong impact.”
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, during Escobar’s simultaneous battles against the state and rival cartels, motorcycle killings became ubiquitous. Medellín’s poor youth received $2,000 from Escobar for every policeman or soldier they killed, causing the ranks of sicarios to swell.
After Escobar’s death in 1993, the homicides continued apace as the armed and experienced young sicarios looked for work, charging as little as $200 per murder. The sicarios always used the fastest and nimblest motorcycles, Quijano said, and the drivers often were hitmen themselves, who taught the younger riders how to kill.
“The motorbike became symbol of power,” said Quijano. The sicarios rode “with a pistol in one hand and a woman wrapped around the other.”
Hugo Acero, a security consultant who has worked for the mayor of Bogotá, said the freelance hitmen came to be hired not just by narcotraffickers looking to resolve their problems, but also by ordinary citizens. “People used them to recover debts, to avenge an unfaithful lover,” he said. “In the case of Colombia, the sicarios were used to punish.”
In 1999, when Acero was working as Bogotá’s security secretary, journalist and activist Jaime Garzón was killed by a motorcycle hitman. Garzón was sitting at a stoplight on a Bogotá street when the two men on a motorcycle pulled alongside him. During the investigation, Acero said, several witnesses reported the same facts: the faces of the motorcyclists had been obscured by helmets with dark face shields, and seconds before pulling out his gun, the rider had covered the license plate with a cloth.
The lengths to which the assassins went to conceal their identities led Bogotá’s mayor to institute a law requiring all motorcyclists to wear vests printed with reflective material, displaying their license plates in large numbers and letters. The same number was also printed on the back of their helmets.
That law reduced homicides in Bogotá, and had other unforeseen benefits: the number of people killed or injured in motorcycle crashes decreased because the bikers were more visible at night. The law was soon copied by other Colombian cities, including Medellín.
Motorbikes remain criminals’ vehicle of choice
Acero said Medellín’s pilot law doesn’t represent the first time that authorities have tried to restrict passengers on motorcycles. Bans on having any passengers have been used occasionally in Medellín and other Colombian cities during threats to public order, including riots or incursions by armed groups.
“What is new in Medellín,” he said, “is to solely prohibit male passengers and leave female passengers. That is unique.”
Motorcycle killings are now ubiquitous throughout Latin America. In Honduras, which has the world’s highest murder rate, Congress in 2011 banned all motorcycle passengers. “As the crime of narcotrafficking has moved to other countries,” Acero said, “of course the governments also adopt methods of control that have served in other countries.”
In the last decade, homicides in Medellín have plummeted, but motorcycles still figure heavily in them, and other crimes. Bands of criminals known as combos vie for small territories where they can sell drugs, extort businesses and rob citizens. Their main method of transport, León said, is the motorcycle.
“The motorcycle has become the tool of their trade, León said. “In a way, this stigmatizes everyone with a motorcycle.”
To limit the impact on citizens, the pilot law was put in effect only during December and January, two months when schools and universities are closed for vacations. León said a decision on whether to make the restriction permanent won’t be made until after January.
Quijano said that if the law does become permanent, lower-income people — many of whom use motorbikes as their only mode of transportation — will either reject or ignore it. “The only ones this will affect are the poor here, those who use motorcycles to transport their families.”
Medellín authorities see huge drop in bank robberies
Acero said that he believes the new measure will reduce homicides in Medellín, though not drastically. The law could have other benefits, he said, such as cutting thefts and robberies by motorcycle passengers.
Since the law went into effect, holdups of bank tellers diminished from 36 cases in November to four in December, according to Medellín police. There were drastically fewer robberies at cash machines, he said. Nearly 600 motorcycles have been seized by police, and more than 1,400 citizens cited for flouting the law, León said.
“What I hope for is a reduction of these offenses,” León said, “and also to have an effect on the perception of security for citizens.” Quijano, the organized crime investigator, was less optimistic that the law would reduce crime in a lasting way.
“The criminal organizations here are structured as paramilitaries and mafias,” he said. “Each day they have more experience, and each day they adapt better to the responses offered by the city. They will use whatever means necessary, whether that be motorcycle, bus, car or approaching by foot.”
And gangs will use women, which they rarely did two decades ago, Quijano said, noting that in Medellín, the number of women involved in sicario-related crimes is increasing.
León, the city’s security secretary, said he thought it was unlikely the law would have the unintended consequence of more women being dragged into crime. “It is men who are involved in these activities,” he said.