The ride into Medellín, Colombia, is spectacular, especially at night, when lights sprawl up the western hills about a mile below the mountainsides.1 There are two ways in from the airport: descending from the southeast via Las Palmas through the city’s greenest, most exclusive and fortified areas (Envigado and El Poblado), or the northeast via Guarne, Zamora, and Playón, the last a peripheral neighborhood in one of the toughest of the city’s 16 wards (comunas). Downtown is tropical, clean, frenetic, and congested with people, vehicles, and the shattering noise of motorcycle traffic and hydraulic brakes. Towering edifices of glass, steel, and cement dominate a skyline surrounded by barrios populares and their dwellings made of concrete brick, wooden planks, and bareque (a mix of clay, manure, and straw). Above them, lush green mountains with rapidly receding tree lines rise steeply above the ever-shifting divide between town and country.
From the west, there is another way into Medellín, no less spectacular, but one that few tourists see, past San Cristóbal, a picturesque corregimiento (rural subdistrict) of white, one-story adobe buildings that serves as a paramilitary checkpoint regulating the flow of people and goods between Medellín, the newly built Tunnel to the West, and the Caribbean lowlands of Urabá. In August 2003, on a nearby ranch on San Cristóbal’s border with Comuna 13, a common grave of 13 people was uncovered. The victims were some of the 70 people “disappeared” from Comuna 13 by paramilitaries who took over the ward following Operación Orión, an incursion of 1,500 soldiers and police, coordinated with paramilitaries and carried out in Comuna 13 in October 2002. Leftist militias were vanquished and radical community activists and leaders were jailed, injured, disappeared, and displaced. Since then, massacres and disappearances have became less common than selective assassinations, which continued throughout the administration of the city’s young “independent” mayor, Sergio Fajardo, elected in October 2003, whose successor and former secretary of government, Alonso Salazar, won municipal elections in October.
Recent news reports and travel pieces in English emphasize that the city is now as marvelous as the paisas—residents of the department of Antioquia and Medellín, its capital city—have long claimed it is. In contrast to the years when it had the highest homicide rate in the world and became synonymous with Pablo Escobar, Medellín today boasts a homicide rate lower than Baltimore’s and Atlanta’s, and the city is a magnet for tourism, the culture industry, business conventions, and large-scale capital investment. In October, Fajardo, speaking the fluent English acquired during doctoral work in math at the University of Wisconsin, lobbied the U.S. trade secretary and congressional representatives for a free trade agreement. He took them up the eastern mountainside via the new cable car system to visit one of his showpiece public works projects, the library-park España—named in honor of King Juan Carlos, who inaugurated it—in Santo Domingo, Comuna 1, until recently one of the city’s most dangerous, insurgent hillside neighborhoods. After looking around the library-park’s two pod-like black structures, which resemble nothing so much as a military research installation, the visiting dignitaries talked to demobilized paramilitaries. One U.S. official called the city’s progress “nothing short of a revolution.”
The previous April, months after Fajardo inaugurated another library-park in Comuna 13, a pair of teenage gunmen killed Judith Vergara Correa on her way to work downtown. Associated with local, regional, and national peace organizations, Vergara, 32, was the president of the community board (Junta de Acción Comunal) in her neighborhood and a candidate of the opposition party (PDA) for the Junta Administradora Local for Comuna 13. She left behind four children, aged 17, 15, 10, and 8. Her murder took place a month and a half after the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office published a report detailing the need for an early warning system to prevent the death of community leaders in the district.
Vergara had publicly denounced extortion and other crimes committed by ostensibly demobilized paramilitaries. Following the demobilization of 867 members of the paramilitary Bloque Cacique Nutibara in November 2003—presided over by Medellín’s “boss of bosses,” Diego Fernando Murillo, alias Don Berna, alias Adolfo Paz—paramilitarism was officially declared “over.” Yet as Amnesty International noted in early 2005, paramilitaries had not so much been demobilized as they had become loosely regulated by the state, more or less legalized, and given a free pass.
Though Fajardo and Salazar, then secretary of government, disputed Amnesty’s conclusions, they admitted that Don Berna continued to manage organized crime from his prison cell after he was “captured” in mid-2005. Under Don Berna, organized crime meshed with right-wing paramiltarism and propertied interests to make Medellín safe for tourists, investors, real estate speculators, urban redevelopment, and, under the right-wing administration of President Álvaro Uribe, even “independent” municipal politics. In his open, nonbinding testimony in July, Don Berna expressed frustration at not having been given the credit he deserved for “pacifying” Medellín. A record 13,000 people, meanwhile, officially claimed to have been victims of his crimes, making Don Berna a leader among paramilitary chieftains. Today, having served his purpose, Don Berna no longer controls narco-paramilitarism in Medellín. But the city remains a graveyard for those fighting to improve the lot of its working-class majority.
Today’s odd mix of paramilitary and “progressive” municipal politics can only be understood in light of the city’s long-term historical and geographical development. Medellín first made its mark on Colombia and the world in the late 19th century, when economic liberalism was hitched to ultramontane Catholic conservatism, as dictated in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891). On the basis of coffee, banking, and light industry, which expanded dramatically in the first four decades of the 20th century, Medellín set the pattern for Colombia’s national economic development through the 1970s, as it appears to be doing again in the 21st century.
Yet an earlier period, when gold production exploded during the Bourbon Reforms, provides the key to understanding ruling-class and regional formation. Gold mining took off in the second half of the 18th century in the lower Cauca River region, and then after 1780, in highland valleys, which were quickly settled in a widely dispersed network of towns. But it was through long-distance contraband trade in gold and British textiles that upwardly mobile, racially mixed entrepreneurs made room for themselves toward the top of a class hierarchy dominated by criollos.
In the new highland commercial centers of Medellín and Rionegro, black became a synonym for poor, reflecting the coexistence of race mixture and racism (one third of the highland population was composed of slaves). Precisely because race mixture between “white” and “black” was so common in the 19th century (usually the result of informal unions between elite men and working women), these terms could be used to describe classes of “rich” and “poor” after slavery was abolished at mid-century. The language of class in Antioquia reflected the area’s peculiar racial ideology and regional settlement patterns.
Untouched by the Wars of Independence (1810–25), Antioquians became the country’s leading merchant bankers but did not dominate export production, of which there was very little during the first three decades of the republic. That came later, in the last third of the 19th century, when land-hungry paisas fanned out to the south to settle what became known as the “coffee axis,” the center of national economic and cultural development through the 1960s. Rather than controlling land and labor, as they did in much of Antioquia, paisa merchant-bankers controlled commercialization, credit, pricing, and transportation in the coffee axis. In some cases they financed the settlement of new towns and incorporated a class of peasant smallholders into the clientelist networks of the Conservative and, to a lesser degree, the Liberal Party. Coffee smallholders shared with their rulers a sense of racial, cultural, and regional superiority. The church had strong, durable roots and institutional presence in schools and private lives throughout the country, nowhere more so than in Antioquia.
The first textile mills were imported from England at the beginning of the 20th century, but the merchant bankers would not fully transition to industry—food, beverages, cigarettes, chocolate, liquor, and especially textiles—until after World War I. Crucial to understanding the city’s subsequent evolution, however, is the fact that the political culture in factories reproduced, in the urban setting, the vertical, clientelist pattern of class domination set in the coffee municipios.
No independent working-class culture and organization developed in Medellín as it did in cities throughout the country, where trade unions, revolutionary left parties, and followers of radical-popular Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán grew in strength and numbers during the 1930s and 1940s. The organizational and ideological vigor with which the Catholic Church and Medellín’s business leaders repressed and isolated radicals, and co-opted the factory proletariat, made the city different: Its working class was fragmented and divided by differential access to waged employment in industry. As much as the city’s impressive skyscrapers, boulevards, parks, universities, cinemas, and theaters, this paternalist command over labor may have influenced Life magazine’s 1947 profile of Medellín as a “capitalist paradise.”
Fast-forward two decades. Most leading cocaine capos, including Pablo Escobar, got their start in the late 1960s as underlings in networks of contraband imports of U.S. manufactured goods run by older contrabandistas. These networks linked Miami and Colón, Panama, to Turbo, Antioquia’s Caribbean port in Urabá, as well as the string of towns in the Antioquian lowlands leading out to it. In keeping with regional tradition, Escobar and his generation were ambitious contraband entrepreneurs: Each had his own labor networks based on kinship and friendship, and collectively, they quickly displaced or killed the old men who had trained them.
Though portrayed as the leader of a “cartel,” Escobar was more mafioso than trafficker. By the mid-1970s, he had established a monopoly on protection, making him the first among equals in a cocaine export consortium that included both a traditional ruling-class family and people of relatively “low birth”—men of mixed racial backgrounds from undistinguished families, i.e., “blacks.” Others were better at exporting cocaine—purchasing coca paste in Bolivia and Peru, flying it to Colombia, and refining it in clandestine laboratories before shipping it to market—but they had to pay Escobar for each kilo they moved. Through Escobar, “blacks” became rich.
The cocaine export business was far more dynamic than traditional manufacturing industries at the height of their expansion in the 1940s and 1950s, and created more jobs in the licit as well as illicit economy. More wealth was redistributed through patronage, clientelism, and corruption in the 1970s than had ever been redistributed during the previous era’s oligarchic model of industrial development, in which each sector was monopolized by one or two family firms. And the generalized economic crisis of the 1970s meant that the new narco-entrepreneurs, with Escobar at the top, could tap into a vast pool of skilled and semi-skilled labor in a city with industrial rhythms and infrastructure. Many people from these working-, middle-, and upper-middle-class layers became part of Escobar’s retinue, earning more than their counterparts in the licit economy.
Unprecedented amounts of illegally obtained cash had to be laundered through front businesses—car dealerships, hotels, auto shops, urban real estate companies, interior decorating and graphic design firms, modeling agencies, retail stores, restaurants, and upscale discotecas—and bogus accounting practices. For these jobs, only well-educated men from decent families (doctores) would do. Colombian banks in Panama, Miami, and Medellín, many of them owned by traffickers through intermediaries, sprang up to meet the new demand for laundering. This helped the shift toward an economic model in which construction, real estate, insurance, and financial services were primary, while industry, excepting cocaine, was secondary. Escobar and company faced little state repression, or even rhetorical sanction, and certainly none who could resist the offer of plata o plomo—silver or lead.
Following the shift away from protected manufacturing toward banking, real estate, and financial services, the narco-entrepreneurs, whose influence radiated out to those above and below them, precluded the emergence of a national-popular bloc, the seeds of which were destroyed by state and semiprivate paramilitary violence, the latter financed with cocaine profits. Under Escobar’s leadership, the upstart mafia carried out a bloodless coup within the region’s ruling class; after Escobar was killed in 1993, the new criminal strata took over the reins of business and society from the old industrial and coffee-exporting families. Yet no one could have imagined the firestorm of urban warfare Escobar would unleash once he was barred from formal politics and subject to extradition to the United States. More than 70,000 people in Medellín, the overwhelming majority of them young men, died from homicide between 1982 and 2002.
The vector of this multiplying murder and mayhem—one that turned the city into a war zone on par with Beirut—was not the cocaine business itself. It was the determination of a reformist wing of the Liberal Party, on the one hand, and the Reagan administration, on the other, to drive Escobar out of politics and extradite him and his business partners to the United States. In 1982, not long before Uribe was appointed mayor of Medellín—by then, the city had become known to traffickers as “the sanctuary”—Escobar became an alternate deputy for one of the Liberal Party’s consummate political bosses (caciques) after being publicly expelled from the “New Liberalism” by two rising young stars within the Liberal Party, Luis Carlos Galán and Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. Through his cacique and an intermediary, Escobar tried to expose Lara Bonilla’s alleged ties to drug money in Congress, but Lara Bonilla retaliated, working to deprive Escobar of parliamentary immunity and to extradite him. In March 1984, Lara Bonilla also oversaw an operation that seized 15 tons of cocaine at the cartel’s Tranquilandia laboratory complex.
This was tantamount to a declaration of war. In April 1984 Escobar had Lara Bonilla killed by a young assassin on a motorcycle and then fled to Manuel Noriega’s Panama. Escobar and his associates, who now called themselves “the Extraditable Ones”—the Castaños, Galeanos, Moncadas, Ochoas, and El Mejicano—offered to turn themselves in and dismantle their business if the government refused to implement the extradition treaty signed with the United States. Under pressure from domestic public opinion as well as the U.S. government, the administration of Belisario Betancur declined. In July 1984, the judge investigating Lara Bonilla’s assassination was murdered; the following November, Escobar’s men set off a car bomb outside the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. As Mike Davis notes, Escobar would soon became the “true empresario of the car bomb in the Western Hemisphere.”2
In its war against Colombia’s numerous incorruptible politicians, civil servants, police, and journalists, the region’s cocaine export mafia turned select groups of young men from Medellín’s comunas, particularly in the northeast (Comunas 1–4), into a private army of snipers and hit men. DEA operatives as far away as Miami lived in fear of them. This “armed wing” of the mafia operated through a series of “business offices” (oficinas), which managed relations between Escobar and gangs like Los Priscos, Los de Rigo, and La Germania in the northeast, “Tyson” and “Kika” Múñoz Mosquera in the northwest, and La Ramada in Bello (an industrial town on the northern border of Medellín). The army and police, in turn, targeted young men in the comunas and Bello for massacre. Continued urban warfare spurred the specialization, concentration, and professionalization of gangs as the cell forms of organized crime in Medellín. A pluralism of violence overtook the city: A 1987 government study concluded that it was impossible to speak of la violencia in Colombia; one now had to consider las violencias, especially in Medellín.
Though Escobar had close ties to the M-19 guerrilla group, his anti-Communist associates—Fidel Castaño, El Negro Galeano, El Mejicano—had opposed the peace process between the government and rural insurgencies initiated by President Belisario Betancur, himself from Antioquia. Following the precedent set in the Middle Magdalena region (where Antioquia, Santander, Cundinamarca, and Boyacá meet the Magdalena River), which had been “cleansed” of Communists, the counterinsurgent bloc of traffickers announced its determination to rid the country of “subversion” by exterminating the UP, a broad left political party founded by the FARC and the PCC in 1985. The peace process unraveled in 1985–86 after the M-19 seized the Palace of Justice, and in Medellín death squads hit factories, universities, and high schools where the insurgencies and the UP recruited most heavily; around the country, some 500 UP militants and candidates—including popular presidential candidate, Jaime Pardo Leal—were murdered. In 1989, when Antioquian governor Antonio Roldán Betancourt publicly condemned massacres carried out by right-wing death squads against UP supporters, Escobar and his associates killed him with a car bomb. They also car-bombed the Bogotá offices of El Espectador—which stubbornly supported extradition after “the Extraditables” assassinated its distinguished editor, Guillermo Cano, in 1986—and assassinated Luis Carlos Galán, Escobar’s bête noire, an unusually popular politician sure to have won the Liberal Party nomination. Galán would likely have reopened negotiations with left insurgents. Prospects for peace receded in the wake of his death, and armed left militias spread throughout Comunas 1 and 2.
A besieged President Barco invited greater U.S. military and DEA involvement in fighting the Extraditable Ones, and U.S. anti-drug aid to the Colombian military and police would jump from $300 million to $700 million between 1989 and 1991. With the Medellín and Cali organizations at war with one another in 1989, a U.S.-trained and -funded elite joint task force of out-of-towners—the Bloque de Búsqueda, or Search Bloc—was formed to hunt Escobar and the young men who worked for him in Medellín. Escobar put a price on the head of each policeman not working for him. Often coordinating with local National Police loyal to Escobar, hired killers from las oficinas eliminated the out-of-towners in rapid succession. In the first 15 days, 30 were killed.
In November 1989, one of Escobar’s lieutenants blew up a passenger plane in mid-flight, killing 110 people, in a botched effort to kill César Gaviria, Galán’s successor in the Liberal Party (and future president). The following month, a truck bomb exploded in front of the headquarters of Colombia’s secret police (DAS)—the largest ever detonated outside the Middle East—creating a crater that demolished 23 city blocks and killed 59 people, injured 1,000, and destroyed more than 1,500 buildings. In return, the Bloque de Búsqueda massacred young people by the hundreds. There were 4,000 homicides that year in Medellín.
In 1991, the new Constitution drafted by President Gaviria’s Constituent Assembly barred the extradition of Colombian nationals to the United States, and Escobar finally “turned himself in” to the prison he had built and staffed with handpicked police and bodyguards. But the war on the streets between the Bloque de Búsqueda and Escobar’s lieutenants and soldiers continued. Some 500 members of the Bloque de Búsqueda were murdered in 1990–91, and in the comunas 20 to 40 young men were killed every weekend. There were 6,595 homicides in 1991, over 1,000 more than in 1990, and 2,500 more than in 1989, and in 1992, the year Escobar escaped, the number dropped to a still astronomical 5,834.
The tide turned decisively against Escobar only in early 1993, after he escaped from prison, once the high technology of the U.S. Army’s top-secret Centra Spike satellite surveillance unit was supplemented by the local knowledge of “Los Pepes,” Escobar’s former associates. The group was founded by the Castaño brothers, Carlos and Fidel, the Ochoas, what remained of the Galeanos, and the Moncadas, including Don Berna, along with a retired military official, “Rodrigo 00,” who had led anti-guerrilla death squads in the countryside with the Castaños.
Unlike Escobar, the Pepes wanted to work for the establishment, and their alliance with it was “informal” in name only. Their “local knowledge” consisted mainly in fighting fire with fire: Using money and intelligence from the Cali cartel, the Pepes’ kidnappers, torturers, killers, arsonists, and car bombers eliminated the infrastructure of Escobar’s organization, the remaining oficinas of criminals and hired killers loyal to him, and businesses and properties owned through intermediaries. They fed intelligence and information to the Bloque de Búsqueda (who also received it from the CIA and Centra Spike), and vice versa. Don Berna met with the Bloque commander in the presence of Delta Force and DEA agents; the latter used Don Berna’s men—who lived down the street—as bodyguards when going on missions off the military base to which they were theoretically confined.
The Pepes had been given not only a license to kill but to massacre in the name of “law and order,” and the carnage was epic. In 1993, homicide remained at 1990 levels: 5,500, and the Pepes were killing as many as six of Escobar’s people per day. Victims would appear in public, with signs around their neck containing messages signed by the Pepes, who took advantage of the climate of fear they had created in order to take over organized crime in the city. Soon after Escobar was murdered in December 1993, several dozen trade unionists were slaughtered throughout the Valle de Aburrá, and the killing of Escobar’s family and former associates continued unabated.
If nothing else, this was a signal that Carlos Castaño, Rodrigo 00, and Don Berna had arrived to stay. The latter’s job was to take care of high finance and investment in the city, as well as to manage gangs of hit men, oficinas, and, not least, politicians, from the local, neighborhood level all the way up to congressional representatives and senators. In the early Clinton years, no one in Washington was remotely concerned about former U.S. allies in Antioquia. With the network of contacts developed during the Pepes period, Don Berna and La Terraza, a gang of gangs based in Manrique (Comuna 3), became the principal conduit through which cocaine from the emergent “cartel” from the northern part of the department of Valle del Cauca—where Don Berna was born—flowed through Urabá toward U.S. consumer markets.
When Uribe was governor of Antioquia from 1995 to 1997, government-financed and supervised civilian militias (Convivirs) proliferated in the city and its rural hinterlands. Thus was paramilitarism first legalized and regulated by the regional state, and while homicide dropped in Medellín, it shot up in the tropical lowlands.3 In this period, under Carlos Castaño’s command, the paramilitaries took over the port of Turbo and Urabá—where homicide rates surpassed records set in Medellín—by cementing an alliance with multinational capital (principally the Chiquita banana company), local landed elites, politicians, and the army, police, and customs agents. This gave paramilitaries a corridor for exporting cocaine and importing arms, making their expansion from Antioquia and Córdoba to the rest of the country materially possible.
The stage was set for the pacification of Medellín. Working with Castaño and his growing narco-paramilitary enterprise, Don Berna would lead one paramilitary bloc, Rodrigo 00 the other. Together, between 1999 and 2003, as Plan Colombia went into effect, they took over the city’s 200 gangs, vanquished its remaining left militias, and “cleaned up” the city center, at which point Don Berna, with the help of state security forces eliminated Rodrigo 00 and his bloc. By the time he demobilized the BCN in November 2003, Don Berna had become the undisputed don of dons in Medellín, accomplishing what Escobar could not: the unification of organized crime with the establishment. When Don Berna was arrested in mid-2005, control of the transport sector allowed him to direct a two-day general strike in protest. Unlike other strikes in Uribe’s Colombia, this one did not meet military or police violence.
Today, real estate speculators, bankers, and mortgage lenders, working with the regional government, have fueled a construction and housing boom that would be impossible except for massive infusions of cocaine capital; apartment towers have sprouted like mushrooms in middle-class neighborhoods of low-density, single-family homes. The metropolitan area is full of newly built luxury housing, casinos, malls, and shopping centers, where new modes of surveillance and private security are essayed. Conspicuous consumption—much of it debt-financed, as in the United States—has become a pastime for the middle class, commodity fetishism a virtue. Antioquia is touted by civic boosters as nothing less than the “Best Corner of the Americas.” Nowhere is President Uribe more popular than in Medellín.
If neoliberalism represents a restoration of ruling-class power, in Medellín it has been infinitely bloodier, and more tinged by a Cold War history of counterinsurgency, than elsewhere in the hemisphere.4 Unable to continue converting their power into official political representation, narco-paramilitary bosses like Don Berna have seen their power wane since the “para-gate” scandal began in late 2006, but narco-paramilitarism continues to invisibly rule Medellín, and much of Colombia. It is a form of neoliberalism in extremis, in which private economic-political power supplants the state in the form of a parastate, one that performs state functions but is not subject to democratic accountability. Paramilitary organization depends largely on unquestioning loyalty and obedience, and is not responsive to its foot soldiers, much less the citizenry of barrios populares. Organized along mafia lines, the parastate has led to the deepening of neoliberalism through political terror, extra-economic coercion, and rent extraction backed by threats, intimidation, and violence. The popular economy of the slums has been incorporated into paramilitary rackets—protection, drugs and guns, public works, transportation, labor, licit commerce, rental housing—while the city center has been made safe for banking and financial services, tourism, “culture,” business conferences, real estate speculation, and local as well as foreign capital investment. Private security firms, many of them paramilitary-owned, guard downtown.
In her life and political work, Judith Vergara represented the new face of radical-popular movements for justice, equality, and peace with deep roots in Colombian history. Right-wing narco-paramilitaries have inflicted terrible bloodshed to sever those roots so that popular democratic expressions cannot interfere with the dictates of capital investment, which rests on state-sanctioned impunity. As Vergara’s murder demonstrates, paramilitaries exercise power of life and death, guaranteed by impunity, over people who live in peripheral neighborhoods they control. That private power, fused with the repressive forces within the police, military, and intelligence agencies, sets the parameters of local politics, excluding radical-popular expressions through massacres, intimidation, disappearance, and selective assassination.
Public-private violence disorders the lives of the slum proletariat, creating the demand for “order” and “security” that is then satisfied by greater recourse to violence, which generates further disorder, especially in the lives of women and children. This type of violence therefore shatters the family structures of radical activists in order to allow freedom for privatized consumption and private property, but not for the people represented by Vergara. In Medellín, a “thin citizenship” modeled on an individualistic, U.S.-style consumerism has replaced earlier, more radical demands for collective social rights and citizenship. Vergara’s murder symbolizes the transition.
Regional state investment, we note, arrives only in the wake of military-paramilitary operations. The new order, with its progressive, democratic facade, is anti-democratic to the core, and not only accepts appalling levels of inequality, but blankets the entire issue in silence. Although Don Berna no longer runs organized crime in Medellín, and may yet negotiate a deal with the U.S. government that includes his extradition and the repatriation of his family, neither his gradual departure from the local scene nor the Fajardo-Salazar demobilization program has ended narco-paramilitarism. One can only hope that Medellín’s homicide rate continues to drop, but intensified competition for control of narcotics exports, organized crime, and urban neighborhoods, especially on the city’s periphery, could lead to yet another round of warfare. As the murder of Vergara illustrates, Medellín’s peace is partial, and the new order is highly unstable, despite its superficial legitimacy.
Forrest Hylton, a Ph.D. candidate at New York University, is writing a
dissertation on indigenous movements for self-government in late-19th-century Bolivia. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006) and, with Sinclair Thomson, Revolutionary Horizons: Bolivian Politics Past and Present (Verso, 2007).
1. This account is based on fieldwork carried out in