A few months ago, security cameras captured a scene so shocking that it immediately attracted the attention of the press and became international news: a 14-year-old hitman killing two people and leaving another injured. You can see the video and read more about the incident here. Upon being captured, the youth presented his younger brother’s ID with a stated age of 13, which would have lessened his punishment considerably. However authorities later realized he had in fact turned 14 in December 2018. He has been linked to ten other murders, and has since been sentenced to eight years in a juvenile prison – the maximize a minor can receive. The event took place on a commercial premise near Santa Lucia metro station, in the west of the city.
The video went viral on social media, with many at the time wondering if this was simply a one-off incident, or the signs of a new normal, in which Medellín suffers another wave of violence. This article will look at crime statistics in Medellín in 2019 and compare it to other major global cities as well as to the days of Pablo Escobar. Additionally, it will discuss some of the gangs that perpetuate the worst of the violence here in Medellín, and compare crime rates amongst different parts of the city. (Note: Almost all sources in this article are in Spanish, as English language information is not widely available.)
Regarding the case now nicknamed ‘niño sicario’, Mayor Federico Gutiérrez spoke out about the situation, asking families to take care of minors, while also mentioning social initiatives in the city that could prevent similar occurrences. According to a social leader near where the incident happened, few employment opportunities, low social investment, and a harsh family background are factors that lead kids to get involved in the combos (gangs).
These organizations keep their structures supplied with an incessant source of young people to replace those who get arrested or killed. No matter how many gang members get captured in police operations, plenty more are available to fill their shoes. What happens after a successful operation where a gang-leader is captured? Easy: the whole organisation rearranges its structure, so those who started as kids from the bottom are promoted, reaching gradually higher positions.
The challenges faced in keeping young kids out of gangs is formidable; honest work typically pays far less than what some potential gang members can earn. Recently, a group of 6 drug-dealers were apprehended in the notorious Barrio Antioquia neighbourhood and police estimate that between them they had daily criminal revenues of around COP 20,000,000. When criminal activity is so lucrative, especially compared to local wages, convincing children to choose studying or manual labour instead of it becomes all the more difficult.
Is the Mayor’s Office Doing Enough to Combat Crime?
Mayor Gutierrez was elected in 2016, after a campaign in which he promised to be tough on crime. His administration’s efforts against organized crime are laudable, as 143 gang leaders and around 3000 other criminals have been arrested since he took office. However, lately it has become evident that despite its efforts, the current administration has not been able to significantly reduce organized crime. The problem has very deep roots, and no law-making body has been able to seriously disrupt the control that the major gangs have over certain parts of the city. In defending his administration’s efforts in this domain, Mayor Gutierrez recently pleaded with the federal government to extradite gang leaders, as he says they continue wreaking havoc from local prisons. And while many may be critical of the Mayor’s track record for dealing with crime, it is worth noting that Medellin spends more of its budget on security and criminal prosecution than the other major Colombian cities.
For their part, police continue to boost their forces and run operations to capture gang leaders. Recent investments in intelligence systems and technology have helped police efforts, with the SIES-M system being particularly noteworthy. This system integrates 12 government agencies, include Police, National Army, Fire Brigade, Secretariat of Transit, among others. It features a powerful CCTV video surveillance system (which captured the aforementioned double-homicide), automated GPS-based vehicle tracking and dozens of control rooms and analysis facilities allocated across the city. Just as 911 works in the United States and Canada, residents and visitors to Medellin can dial 123 from any phone to access emergency services. Additionally, residents of the city are encouraged to report any crimes using the website www.seguridadenlinea.com. The following video gives a virtual tour of the SIES-M system and was a promotional video put out by La Alcaldía, touting its efforts to combat crime.
A virtual tour of the SIEM-S system, implemented in 2011 and expanded under Mayor Federico Gutierrez
Medellín is not Insulated
Apart from its urban zone, Medellin has a vast rural area, consisting of five townships, called corregimientos. Santa Elena sits to the east, while San Cristóbal, Altavista, San Antonio de Prado and San Sebastián de Palmitas lie to the west. It is also essentially connected to nine neighbouring municipalities to the north and south (see map), which together form the metropolitan area. Medellín and these other municipalities manage economic, politic, urbanisation, transport, security and environmental related affairs together. They are all considered to be part of the geographical framework of the Valle de la Aburrá, which is home to 4’257,000 inhabitants, of which roughly 2’500,000 live within Medellin.
Pain Points – Some Recent Data
Members of the expat community here in Medellín are sure to be aware of anecdotal evidence of an increase in crime in the city. It seems like not a single week can pass without someone sharing a story of themselves or a close friend being robbed, often in an area where many frequent and have thought to be safe. While people do need to be cautious about individual incidents becoming sensationalized by social media, the data does back up the frequently lamented notion that the city is becoming more dangerous.
The chart above looks at homicides in Medellín for the period of January 1st to May 28th, each of the past 5 years. At the time of this writing, June 2019, Medellín has registered more than 300 homicides this year. That’s more than New York City had in all of 2018. By comparison, Medellin had 626 in 2018 and 582 in 2017. The rise from 2017 to 2018 represents an increase of 8 percent, and la Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera is on pace to easily surpass both these figures in 2019.
For further comparison purposes, at the time of writing this article, Miami has registered just 37 murders this year, while Chicago stands at 201. Given that Chicago, considered among the most dangerous cities in the USA, has less murders year-to-date despite a larger population, the stats are worrying. And the most recent stats are trending in the wrong direction, as April 2019 was the most violent month in Medellin in the past five years. It is also worth noting that this concerning trend is not being experienced nationwide, as in 2018 Bogotá had its lowest homicide rate in almost 50 years and the homicide rate in Baranquilla is also going down.
Bello is Currently a War Zone
Looking to the north of the city, the numbers for the municipality of Bello are even more troubling. Bello has recorded 53 murders so far this year, which represents more than a 100% increase over the same time period last year. There appears to be a turf war in Bello and certain parts of that city are very dangerous right now, particularly Niquia. Authorities have stated that they believe the war is between the gangs of Pachelly, Los del Mesa, and Camacol-Niquia. Pamphlets advising residents to remain indoors after dark have been distributed in parts of Bello. Some schools have changed their schedules due to the conflict and the amount of kids staying home from school has reportedly skyrocketed.
Although it is undoubtedly troublesome that murders are on the rise in Medellin and surrounding area, expats and visitors can take some comfort in the fact that the vast majority of these homicides are gang-related. Officially referred to as GDO’s by La Alcaldía de Medellín (grupos delincuenciales organizados), the perpetrators and victims of these acts tend to come from GDO’s as opposed to the general public. While innocent people can occasionally be caught in the crossfire, most of the deaths come from those who have chosen a life of crime. Along with Bello, El Centro, Comuna 13, Manrique, and the north-western zone of Robledo are areas where this type of activity is most prevalent.
A second leading cause of homicides in La Valle de Aburrá is intra-family violence, something that is also unlikely to be a factor for expats and tourists. In the past 10 years, approximately 50 foreigners have been murdered in the Medellín area. Most of these incidents occurred because the individuals were themselves involved in nefarious activities, or resisted during the commission of a robbery. If you are the victim of an attempted robbery you should always immediately cooperate and relinquish your belongings. This tragic case of a Japanese tourist in Laureles trying to struggle for his cellphone on his first day in Medellín is an example of what can go wrong if one tries to keep their belongings.
From a homicide standpoint, thankfully, El Poblado and Laureles are safe parts of the city. While it may be comforting to think that this would hold true for other crimes as well, unfortunately that is not the case, as robberies are very common in both areas.
Although the murder rate is increasing, some expats may be surprised to learn that the number of robberies in the city is actually on the decline. Between January and March of 2019, there were 7311 robberies in the city, and although that may seem like a staggering number, it actually represents a 0.4% decline compared to the same period in 2018. Perhaps one of the reasons the expat community may feel as if robberies are on the rise is due to the fact that in El Poblado and Laureles, these type of crimes are up. Bucking the trend city-wide, El Poblado has experienced a 12% increase in robberies so far in 2019, while the increase in Laureles has been 1%. The following table outlines the robbery trend in Laureles and Belen, comparing early 2018 with early 2019.
The strata 5 and 6 communities of Laureles and El Poblado are natural targets for thieves, as everyone is aware that many wealthy Colombians and expats live there. After La Candelaria (El Centro), Laureles ranks second and El Poblado third for areas with the most robberies. On a daily basis, 57 people are robbed in Medellín, with an average of six in Laureles and five occurring in El Poblado. Note that in the table above, Laureles suffers more than 1.5x the amount of robberies as Bélen does, despite Bélen having a much larger population. (197,000 residents to 122,000 residents according to the most recent data).
Who is Committing the Crime?
The main criminal organization in the La Valle de Aburrá is called La Oficina de Envigado, and they wield an extensive territorial control over the city. Recently, the Secretary of Security in Medellín stated that they believe La Oficina de Envigado is in fact composed of an affiliation of seven different gangs, which sheds some light on why there could be these turf wars. These organisations benefit from extortion, drug traffic regulation and from managing and orchestrating common crime, like robberies.
A separate gang, also active in the Medellín area and surrounding pueblos of Antioquia is called the Clan de Golfo. They gained international notoriety last year after they put a 200 million peso reward out for a hit on a drug-sniffing dog because it had disrupted so much of their cocaine smuggling activities. It is estimated that the Clan de Golfo is responsible for around 10% of the criminal activity in Medellín and surrounding areas, while La Oficina and its affiliated gangs compose the rest.
One of the gangs most associated with La Oficina de Envigado is called La Terraza, which, despite their leader being captured in April 2019, is one of the largest and most feared gangs in the city. Both La Terraza and La Oficina De Envigado are successor organizations to the Pablo Escobar-led and now defunct Medellín Cartel. Escobar was instrumental in funding these organizations in their early days, which means, as much as many Paisas won’t like to admit it, Colombia’s greatest villain has a legacy that is alive and well today.
Pablo Escobar and a City with Mixed Feelings
“In the morning he was good and in the afternoon he was evil; one day he set off a car bomb and in the afternoon he fed the poor; in the morning he got a Minister killed and later on he provided the elderly with medicine”
That’s how a former neighbor described the perished drug lord. In 1982, while running for Congress, Pablo Escobar founded a barrio. Many people were living near a garbage pile in Moravia, and after he confirmed that they were indeed homeless, he gave them houses in what is now referred to as Barrio Pablo Escobar. The project was called ‘Medellin sin Tugurios’, and the city has tried to force the barrio to rename it as such, or incorporate it into Barrio Loreto, even threatening to withhold public funding. But the more than 16,000 residents who live there, located high up the hills of Comuna 9, still refer to it as Barrio Pablo Escobar. Between the donation of these houses, and building more than a hundred soccer fields across the city, he must be considered a generous man. At the same time, one might argue that it is easy to be generous when you have hundreds of millions of dollars of ill-gotten cash. Those that knew him have said he was charismatic, an admirable father and maybe not-so-admirable husband.
Although some argue the political elite made the first move to approach Escobar for his immense wealth and grassroots support, and not the other way around, he was a man with political aspirations. Fans of Narcos may remember how he managed to be elected to Colombia’s House of Representatives before being outed as a narco-trafficker and publicly embarrassed.
When you get to actually talk to the ordinary citizen, you realise they’re never going to make their minds up. There is no place for common consent in Medellín. Pablo Escobar, the most notorious drug dealer ever, is loved and despised among his own people.
Medellín Still Affected by the Legacy Left Behind by Escobar
More than 25 years after his death, there are some clear examples of the devastating legacy that Escobar left behind.
- A highly-organised territorial control system, relentlessly pumped by drug-sourced money; operated by heavily armed crime organisations in control of the most socially vulnerable sectors of the city.
- Manipulation and indoctrination of minors in order to steadily supply these structures with new blood. The 14-year old hitman mentioned at the start of this article is just one example of many.
- La Oficina de Envigado, successor organization to the Medellín Cartel. Currently responsible, among others, for much of the crime-related issues plaguing the city today.
- Decaying of social values related to hard work. Traditional, handed down values from Paisa ancestors such as honour and verraquera, a local term that often expresses courage, resilience and determination, have given way to the ability to make tons of money quickly and easily. This easy money has tempted some of the most promising Colombian youth.
- The infiltration of drug mafia into pretty much every social domain. Narco-politics, narco-paramilitarism, narco-terrorism and narco-populism.
- The drug-related stigma that Colombians, and especially Paisas, bear across the world.
- Approximately 47,000 violent deaths between 1983 and 1994, of which 4,000 were ordered directly by Escobar. Many friends and families of these victims are still alive today, and face constant reminders of the pain he caused them.
Is the Current Crime Situation Comparable to the Days of Escobar?
Despite the fact that the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ is struggling with harsh crime issues inherited from those difficult days, Medellin is no longer the forbidden destination that use to be back in the 90’s.
As you can see, the murder rate reached its peak in the early 90’s (at a terrifying rate of 395 deaths per 100,000 residents – more than triple what Caracas, Venezuela is experiencing today). A temporary upswing in the early 2000’s has given way to a steady decline since then, and Medellín is now in line with averages nationwide.
From 2014 on, it has remained relatively steady, fluctuating around 20-22 murders per 100,000 residents. Those living in the city may have noticed the aforementioned rise in crime this year. One can only hope that it is a temporary blip in the wrong direction and that the downward trend started in the 90’s will continue. If the rate of homicides continues for the rest of 2019 at the same rate that we’ve seen for January to May, Medelliín will register about 722 homicides this year, which would represent a rate of approximately 28 per 100,000 residents.
How does Medellín Compare to the Rest of the Continent?
Excluding the active war zones of Syria and Yemen, Latin America continues to be the most dangerous place on earth, containing 42 of the 50 cities with the highest homicide rates per capita. Medellín is not on this list, while US cities of St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans and Detroit are. The most violent cities in the region are located in Mexico, Venezuela, and Brazil, while Colombia, compared to its neighbours, is relatively underrepresented (just Cali, Palmira, and Cúcuta make the list). However, given the trends we are seeing this year, this could change after 2019 and Medellín could find itself back on a list that it has been so triumphantly removed from. While the increase in violence in the city this year is indeed troubling for those who have chosen to make Medellín their home, the violence is nowhere near the levels seen in the early 90’s. For the expat community, Medellín is still a (relatively) safe place to call home.
This graphic footage from April 2019 illustrates why Caracas is now the most dangerous city in the world. At its peak, the murder rate in Medellin was much higher than it is in Caracas today.
The Bottom Line
- Crime and violence-related problems are mostly linked to organised crime structures dispute for territorial control; and tourists and expats are not a target for them. The majority of violent crime happens in neighbourhoods where foreigners are less likely to visit.
- Expats and tourists are much more likely to be the victims of a common robbery than a homicide.
- Medellín is much safer and nicer, both to visit and to reside, than back in the days of the Cártel de Medellín. Yet, it is also true that the city is still struggling with some issues inherited from those days and is still dangerous, particularly in certain areas.
- No dar papaya, which means don’t put yourself into a risky situation or make yourself an easy target for crime; don’t leave your belongings unattended, move around with caution and try not to draw the wrong kind of attention – leave your expensive jewellery and flip-flops at the hotel. Get used to this expression that sums up a prudent, cautious attitude and some common sense to get around the city.
SOURCES: Ministerio de Defensa, Alcaldía de Medellín, Sistema de Información para la Seguridad y la Convivencia (SISC), El Clarín, Diario El Colombiano, Semana, MSN, HSB Noticias, El Espectador, El Tiempo, BBC Mundo, Miami-Dade.gov, Chicago Sun Times