By Federico Rios
MEDELLIN, Colombia – Medellin has once again become one of Colombia’s most violent cities, with more than 500 murders reported in the past three months amid a gang war over drugs and turf.
The former fiefdom of drug trafficker Pablo Escobar and with a reputation for being Latin America’s most dangerous city, Medellin underwent a renaissance that is now proving illusory as warring gangs terrorize a neighborhood.
Gang members yell insults at each other and open fire at all hours of the day and night in Comuna 13, a neighborhood nestled in the hills that surround Medellin and ruled by the gangs, known as “combos.”
“A combo is like a family, like a brotherhood. You live, eat and die in the combo. In the gang wars, you have to protect your life and those of your partners, here we take care of each other,” a man who identified himself by his gang name, “Caliche,” told Efe.
Caliche belongs to one of the armed groups – made up of 30 or 40 young men – that control drug sales and run extortion rackets targeting merchants and bus operators.
The new gang started in October 2002 after “Operation Orion,” a combined military and police deployment that cleared the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and National Liberation Army, or ELN, guerrilla groups out of Comuna 13.
Violence “has always been present in the neighborhood, but it was the ‘ragfaces’ (guerrillas who covered their faces), the people’s militias, Operation Orion to get the guerrillas out, and later a false peace because it was the ‘paracos’ (militiamen) who were here,” a man who goes by the nickname “Pipe” said.
“We got tired of the abuse from those people and decided to stand up and defend our area so there would be coexistence and peace ... so unknown people could not attack us,” the man said.
Militiamen took control of the area after Operation Orion, turning it into a place where fear took root amid a steady stream of abuses.
The combos arose in this environment, becoming uncontrollable, as the fire that destroyed the ramshackle dwellings of some 200 families last week and was apparently set by one of the gangs shows.
“We were young and had our hand in everything, until the paracos came in ... they let us have it, and that, more than anything, is why we’re here,” a gang member calling himself “Boa” said.
In the beginning, each combo had its own drug territories, but the disputes started little by little, some went over to the enemy or betrayed their gang, leading to the current high level of clashes.
“You live at war here from the time you’re born. I know how to multiply, divide, add, subtract and kill,” a gang member called “El Bola,” who was stabbed 19 times at the age of 12 for being a snitch, said.
El Bola took up arms from that age on.
“Everybody has a price on his head” in Comuna 13, a gang member calling himself “El Gato” said. “And the enemies put the prices on, a killing can pay a ‘melon’ (1 million pesos/$508) or two, but if it’s a tough guy from another combo, it could be worth 5 sticks (also 1 million pesos).”
El Gato said he started each day by checking the neighborhood, making sure “that nobody sneaked in, if you get up and see a snake, you go out giving it lead.”
All the gang members, however, agree that the war will never end.
“Where there is poverty and pain, and so much blood has been shed, that’s something that’s impossible,” Pipe said.
“El Calvo,” another gang member, said the war ends only “when death or prison come for you.”
The gang war, which rages unseen by most of Colombian society, left 503 people dead in the first quarter of the year, a figure that was up 54.8 percent from the same period in 2009, official figures show.
Murders of minors alone were up 138 percent, mostly due to the fact that the gangs are increasingly recruiting children and teenagers. EFE