After supposedly ‘demobilising’ and turning in their guns in highly publicised ceremonies broadcast live throughout Colombia, resurgent paramilitaries have returned to Medellín’s comunas, assassinating political and barrio organisers and terrorizing communities through forced conscription and displacement.
In testimonies and interviews, residents in the El Salado barrio in Medellín’s central western Comuna 13, and in the Santo Domingo Savio and La Esperanza barrios in Comuna 1 in the northeast, relate how ‘armed men in black’ have returned to militarize their communities.
The paramilitaries don’t patrol on the streets with guns in hand… it is an invisible control, with threats, with guns hidden in belts, with forced displacement. Their control is more subtle.
–Antonio, Barrio de La Esperanza
There are no men with automatic rifles, but the pressure is felt and it increases… the paramilitaries demand 5,000 pesos each week or there are death threats. The illegal trades in drugs, gasoline and guns are under their control, the girls on the streets at night are theirs… it is true that there are less killings than before, but it is not necessary to have deaths to feel fear.
–Cristina, Barrio de El Salado
Paramilitaries take Medellín
The far right paramilitaries became a strong military force in 1998 after taking over the drug trade after the Medellín cartel had splintered under state onslaught. But fighting for control in the Comunas against leftist influenced militias such as the Comandos Armados Populares, which had been organised to provide ‘justice’ and ‘security’ in workers’ barrios in response to the state’s absence, the paramilitaries were soon forced to rely on the military to intervene.
A nine hour assault on Comuna 13 began at dawn one day in May 2002. Black Hawk helicopter gunships hovered over the densely packed barrios as soldiers fought Comandos in the steep, narrow alleys and passages between the houses. This first inconclusive battle left 15 dead, including nine civilians, and led to further overt collaboration between the paramilitaries and the Colombian military after the hard right president Álvaro Uribe Vélez was sworn in for his first term that August.
One thousand soldiers, Black Hawk helicopters and armoured personnel carriers stormed the same Medellín barrios in October 2002 to begin a military occupation that lasted until December and resulted in almost 20 deaths. As the soldiers cleared the streets, the paramilitaries entered the barrios – within a year there were reports that at least 46 people had been ‘disappeared.’
The paramilitaries were primarily organised in the Bloque Cacique Nutibara, whose commander was Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano – ‘Don Berna’ – who had been a narco boss in the Medellín criminal cartel ‘La Terraza.’ In addition to fighting leftist Comandos, Berna’s paramilitaries fought other far right militias and threatened to kill criminal gang members if they didn’t join his force.
Through assassinations, threats and forced displacements, the Bloque Cacique Nutibara consolidated its control over Medellín’s barrios, profiting from the illegal drug and gun trades. State paramilitarisation – collusion between the far right death squads and Colombian politicians and military commanders – culminated in the attacks on Comuna 13 that defeated the Comandos and allowed the paramilitaries free reign across the entire city.
Paramilitaries legalised and legitimized
After Álvaro Uribe’s election as president, and the subsequent negotiations that accorded paramilitaries virtual impunity for their crimes, the Bloque Cacique Nutibara laid down their arms in front of the television cameras in November 2003. As barrio residents testify however, the paramilitaries remained in control in the Comunas and even sought to legitimise this control by attacking barrio and political organisers and taking over democratic organisations such as the Juntas de Acción Comunal.
Peasant workers who had been forcibly displaced as a paramilitary war tactic on the Caribbean coast, and who had settled in Medellín’s Comuna 1, were attacked again as they tried to organise the Movimiento Social de Desplazados de Antioquia, (Social Movement of Displaced People of Antioquia), and earlier this year an activist in the community organisation Madres de la Candelaría, Judith Vergara Correa, was assassinated in Comuna 13.
Two months later on 23 June, another local leader organising barrio workers in the leftist Polo Democrático coalition, Julio César Gómez Cano, was also shot dead, this time at his own home in Barrio Tricentenario in front of his two children. Later, threats to leave Medellín or be killed were attached to rocks smashed through windows at the coalition’s offices in the city centre.
Residents in the Santo Domingo Savio barrio in Comuna 1 in Medellín’s northeast also relate that killings continue despite the paramilitaries having supposedly ‘demobilised’. Threatening leaflets against community leaders and barrio organisers continue to be pasted to light posts as before, but political assassinations are now more often carried out with knives rather than assault weapons to make the attacks appear like common crimes.
The narrow passages and steep streets in the barrios are deserted after dark. Despite residents attempting to organise in the Polo Democrático Alternativo political coalition, the Madres de la Candelaría community association, or the Movimiento Social de Desplazados de Antioquia and other barrio organisations, the resurgent paramilitaries, legitimised and legalised under President Uribe’s protection, continue to control Medellín’s comunas through fear, forced conscription and threats.
Rodrigo was 15 when the paramilitaries took him. He was ‘conscripted’ but he came back in December 2005 after the paramilitaries demobilised. He came back changed… he wasn’t a happy child as before. Soon after, he began to receive calls – they shouted at him and insulted him. I asked him what was going on but at first he didn’t want to tell me. Then he said that he was being ordered to go back as just the paramilitary commanders were demobilising but the others had to return. Once, I received a call and the man said that Rodrigo knew he should return because he didn’t have much time left. Rodrigo told me he didn’t want to go back to that life, so I gave him some money and told him to stay with a friend in Pereira. After he left, a man came to my home and threatened to kill my other son if Rodrigo didn’t return to Medellín, so he came back. He came back after midnight and went with the man who had threatened to kill his brother. After a few days Rodrigo came home and started to collect his things together… he wanted to leave and told me that I should leave the barrio too. He tried to leave, but they killed him on 17 October, 2006.
In the barrio Altos de la Torre, so high that Medellín’s lights appear below as though from an aircraft, the paramilitaries control the night. Peasant workers displaced from Chocó on the Pacific coast, or Urabá on the Caribbean, attempt to begin again in the wood and tin shacks crammed against each other in what one resident called ‘the city’s lost barrio.’
This fear has created ghost barrios in Medellín that the paramilitaries have returned to control. But although these far right terrorists now have virtual legal impunity, shared political affinities with the president, and the assurance that, in the last resort, they can rely on the military’s Black Hawk helicopters to terrorize the comunas, some residents are determined to resist.
To the criminals who want to take our lives… you have no right to be in our barrio. On one side you want to be politicians, but you have a stone to throw that is hidden in your hand. But the paramilitaries can’t kill us all… with all our heart we will make justice in our own land.
–Astrid, Comuna 13