Young Assassins of the Drug Trade

September 25, 2007

For the children of Medellin,
drug trafficking brings the fantasy of wealth and the
reality of death. First it becomes normal to witness
killing and dying; then, to kill and to die.
Chucho, a boy of 19, talks with great animation
about the burial of the chief of the Medellin
drug empire, Pablo Escobar-El Patr6n, as he
is known to Chucho-killed by state security forces
on December 3, 1993. "I had to see it to believe it," he
says. "I never believed the government was capable of
killing Pablo. I believed that man was invincible."
Chucho was one of the 5,000 residents of Medel-
lin-mostly young and poor-who attended the funer-
al. The mourners formed a compact and frenetic mass
of humanity, determined to see and say goodbye to
their idol. The crowd broke the windows of the funeral
home into pieces, and spontaneously carried Escobar's
coffin on their shoulders. Finally, the army had to
intervene to restore order and end the funeral.
Most Colombians, of course, rejoiced at the death of
Escobar. They identified him as the principal violent
protagonist of a decade filled with drug trafficking,
terrorism, murder, and political assassination. And for
the first time in many years, they felt the triumph of
the state as their own, hopeful that they had finally
begun to overcome the long and extensive violence
they had all suffered.
Chucho, on the other hand, thinks that things will
remain the same. And when he affirms this, he thinks
of his own fatalistic life. "Look brother," he says,
"Pablo died but we still have the same poverty, the
same unemployment, the same corrupt authority. So
what road is open to us?" He lives in the Northeastern
District of the city of Medellin, a densely populated
area that extends up an abrupt and towering mountain-
side. There he joined a gang at the age of 14, beginning
his participation, like most gang members, with simple
activities like transporting arms. One day in a gang
operation, he was obligated to shoot, and since then, he
has become a paid killer-a sicario-at the service of
drug traffickers. Although he has squandered much of
the money that has come his way, he hasn't forgotten
the promise he made when he decided to join the world
of crime: to build a house for his mother.
Abandoned by her husband, Chucho's mother works
as a domestic servant for a wealthy family, and though
she is consumed with fear that her son will die a tragic
early death like so many of his friends, she is thankful
that he has provided her with a roof over her head.
"Poverty is better than the risk of death," she tells
Chucho as she ticks off the names of his friends who
have met violent deaths. But he simply shrugs his
shoulders and repeats the same phrase: "Only God
knows when you should die."
The first cartel-connected youth gangs were cre-
ated at the end of the 1970s. Adolescents from
poor neighborhoods were recruited as sicarios
for the confrontations between rival drug groups. Sub-
sequently, as the state attempted to bring these gangs
under control, these same young boys began assassi-
nating policemen and judges. In 1983, a 16-year-old
adolescent discharged a sub-machine gun, killing the
minister of justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. President
Belisario Betancur immediately enacted a treaty of
extradition with the United States-where traffickers
were more likely to be prosecuted-and an armed bat-
tle began in which the young sicarios occupied the
front lines for the drug cartels.
The killing of high officials highlights the role of the
young paid assassins. Most are just like Chucho-
from poor neighborhoods, abandoned by their fathers,
school dropouts, and unemployed. Young boys with
similar social profiles have assassinated newspaper
editors, leftist politicians and state functionaries. One
of the most frightening episodes for Colombians was
Alonzo Salazar is a Colombian journalist and social worker. He is the author of Born to Die in Medellin (Latin America Bureau! Monthly Review Press, 1990). Translated from the Spanish by NACLA.
Two young sicarios-hired assassins-in a doorway in Medellin.
These boys typically charge 500 thousand pesos (US$800) for a
the killing of Carlos Pizarro Lon-G6mez, presidential
candidate of the M-19 party, a former guerrilla whose
party had just joined the electoral process. On April
26, 1990, Pizarro boarded a commercial flight in
Bogoti to fly to the northern coast of the country. A
few minutes after take-off, a young passenger
unveiled a mini-uzi, turned it on the candidate, and
killed him. Pizarro's bodyguards returned the fire and
killed the assassin. After this event, the media spoke
of these young killers as kamikazes-young boys who
carried out actions so surprising and fearless that it
became practically impossible for the government to
guarantee the safety of anyone. Armored cars and
bodyguards became part of the country's everyday
Around the beginning of the 1970s, drug trafficking
started to become widespread in Medellin and the sur-
rounding metropolitan area. The data are very impre-
cise, but by the middle of the decade, police had noted
the existence of 200 gangs and some 5,000 young
gang members. Most were uninvolved with drug traf-
fickers, but all tried to imitate their style. These groups
became involved in territorial wars that bled the poor
neighborhoods, and through the 1980s, drastically
raised the city's homicide rate. In 1980, 730 people
died violently in Medellfn. In 1985, homicide had
become the city's leading cause of death, accounting
for 1,684 victims, and by 1990, there were 5,500
homicides in this city of 1,700,000.
This is a complex phenomenon which is difficult to
interpret. Why did these boys assume such suicidal
attitudes? Why did they engage in operations in which
they were so likely to die? The problem, of course, lies not only in these young delinquents, but also in
the society that continues to produce them. Before
juvenile violence became so widespread, many dra-
matic changes had occurred in Colombia, so first of
all, we must speak of historical factors. The gangs
emerged in areas characterized by massive rural
migration. By and large, the state had completely for-
gotten these areas by the 1970s. Residents were con-
demned to the world of "informality"-a world in
which the rights and obligations of citizenship were
lacking. The sons of these migrants from the Colom-
bian countryside grew up on the edge of legality. They
were treated as second-class citizens, to be dealt with
only by the police. When they organized themselves
to protest their condition, the political system closed
all legitimate channels; it criminalized and repressed
them. These migrant families remained under the cor-
rupt control of the traditional liberal and conservative
parties, and their traditional forms of social cohesion
Toward the middle of the 1970s, when delinquency
began to appear in these communities, the response of
other sectors of society and state security organisms
was in the form of the "social cleansing"-extermina-
tion-squads. Young people who should, perhaps, have been taken to rehabilitation centers for their reso-
cialization were gunned down in the streets and out-
skirts of the city. According to reports of the Attorney
General's office, members of the armed forces were
involved in these extermination groups. In this way, the state began to lose its most essential public func-
tions: defending citizens, regulating conflicts, and
administering justice.
Death became a routine, first for the state and soci-
ety at large, and then for groups of adolescents who
grew up in the crossfire and amidst the indifference to
corpses on the streets. The young sicarios were born
of the absence of any binding principles which might
have given them some respect for one another and for
life itself. They were the result of the absence of moral
and cultural prototypes, and of the multiple influences
of new social actors who made brute force and the
love of luxury the pillars of
social relations. The juve-
nile gangs were the result
not only of a socioeconomic
crisis, but of a crisis of the
legitimacy of social institu-
tions. The actions of these
young people questioned the
meaning of life and death.
We are talking of a genera-
tion that found its strength
in a territory in which all
limits were dissolved.
Pablo Escobar himself
emerged as the chief of the
Medellin cartel by sheer
brute force. For a decade,
his life and activities
acquired mythic dimensions
in the city. Among the poor,
he was idolized, and he
became a symbol of rebel- Pablo Escobar's funeral cortege. For Medellin's poor, the drug trafficker became a symbol of
lion against the establish- rebellion against the establishment.
ment. Under his leadership, the activities of the youth could win over the new urban generations. The gangs
gangs were brought under the influence of the Medel- became the alternative means of socialization. They
lin Cartel via the so-called "offices"-convenient became the way many young people inserted them-
facades, like car dealerships or real-estate offices- selves in a symbolic and "normative" world.
where men of the cartel continue to recruit the chiefs The family-the basic institution of socialization in
of the city's youth gangs. These gang leaders, in turn, our culture-is undergoing a profound rearrangement
control their own sectors of the city, and their power is in all social strata. Among the poor, this crisis has
so great that no delinquent can operate without their been accompanied and exacerbated by other factors.
authorization. Most of the gangs identify themselves The incidence of single motherhood, and the number
with the name of their leader: Nacho's Gang, Crazy of households headed by a single mother have grown.
Uribe's Gang, Duvan's, etc. The leader holds the gang Women have entered the labor market in significant
together, and acts with absolute authority. He decides numbers. Alcoholism and drug addiction, paternal
questions of life and death and, logically, he is gener- irresponsibility, and high rates of unemployment have
ous with his loyal followers, and the implacable all contributed to a situation in which the father has
scourge of those who betray or go against him. Most disappeared from many households.
of the youths in the drug traffickers' "army" die in one The family crisis is reflected in the growing vio-
of the many wars for which they are recruited. A few lence against women and children. In Colombia,
have managed to achieve such power that they them- according to statistics from the Colombian Institute of
selves have become small-time capos and have Family Welfare, every year since 1980 has shown an
amassed considerable fortunes. increase in the number of registered cases of child
abuse. The Institute estimates that there are between
elinquency among boys between the ages of 50 and 100 thousand cases of physical, sexual or emo-
12 and 18 grew during the 1980s. This was the tional abuse per year in the country. In just the first
result of a number of processes. The traditional half of 1986, in the diverse centers of social assistance
institutions responsible for mediating between the in Medellin, 7,500 cases of aggression against minors
individual and the social order had lost their efficacy. were treated. In Medellin's municipal polyclinic, of
New actors began to play a dynamic role as generators 3,073 children treated for injuries that year, 74 were
of life styles. Vendettas became more common, as did treated for gunshot wounds.
the actions of paramilitary groups, guerrillas and These statistics reflect the impact of violence on
social-cleansing groups. Society began to unravel, children, and the effects of an authoritarian and intol-
Neither in school, nor in the family, nor in church erant model of the family. Violence sinks its roots into
were there moral, social or cultural prototypes which this reality. In many families, not only family love, but
the necessary family
discipline which
comes with positive
models of authority is For the missing. This is most
young boys of obvious when the
father has abdicated
the shantytowns, his family role. When
the exercise a young boy joins a
gang, he finds in the
of violence has gang leader the identi-
ty model he never
been one of the found in his family.
ways of getting Mothers frequently maintain an ambigu-
society to ous attitute toward
their delinquent sons.
acknowledge They may not approve
their existence. of what their children
are doing, but they
protect them, and they
are with them until the
end. When their chil-
dren's activities imply a better material standard of
living, the level of tolerance grows.
During adolescence, young people are inspired by
great ideas of one kind or another. They look for para-
digms and heroes. The youth gangs became an expres-
sion of the drug-dealing subculture, in which ideals
and heroes could be found. Drug dealers, and in some
areas sicarios, were idealized in just this way. One of
the aspects of the Colombian drug dealer that allowed
him to be idealized was his image as a "benefactor" of
society. Pablo Escobar, for instance, at the same time
that he was stigmatized by the state and the main-
stream media, was mythologized by large groups of
Colombians, especially among the poor. They consid-
ered him a good man with great powers, on whom the
country's traditional rulers were unfairly trying to pin
all the evils of the country.
In a poll conducted last year in the schools of the
Northeastern District, students were asked whom they
considered the most important person in the country.
Pablo Escobar was named by 21% of those surveyed;
19.6% chose President CUsar Gaviria; and 12.6%
named the goalkeeper of the national soccer team,
Ren6 Higuita. Of all the children surveyed, 56.5%
had a positive opinion of Escobar. Among many
members of the community, the feeling persists that
Escobar tried to do good, but the government's war
against him forced him to do things he really didn't
want to do. To a lesser degree, the middle-level capos
and the sicarios from the barrios are also recognized
as benefactors-as defenders of the well-being of the
The young boys of the shantytowns grow up wanting
to live with intensity, to exercise their own will, to
say: "This is who we are; we exist!" And the exercise
of violence has been one of the ways of getting society
to acknowledge their existence. In the gangs, they
have found what society at large can't offer: friends
and allies with whom they share essential aspects of
their lives. The close-knit crews from which the larger
gangs are formed tend to represent "horizontal"
space-space within which equals can build a life
together. There is no submission to outside authority,
or to norms they don't share. This gives the gangs a
good deal of vitality.
The larger gangs have a system of codes and rela-
tions upon which their cohesion is built. Here, rela-
tions of authority are combined with loyalty and soli-
darity in a way that sustains the cohesion of the group.
The gang leader is a substitute for all the leaders and
structures of leadership that society is unwilling or
unable to offer. Within a subculture, the recourse to
crime and violence is not necessarily considered illicit,
and those who behave violently do not always con-
front accusations of guilt because of their aggressions.
The subculture of violence incorporates the youth into
an order of values different from the formal code of
society at large. The gang works as an isolated envi-
ronment that protects members from attacks on their
self-esteem. The boys lack society's conception of
"good" and "bad." Many become delinquent without
considering themselves "different"; they have their
own positive self-image. These young men don't find
in their criminal actions any reason to consider them-
selves "guilty." They have no clear notion that they
are in any way acting against social norms or a sym-
bolic order.
The boys are attracted mostly by the magnet of
excitement, enjoyment and adventure. In this mascu-
line world, status-and leadership-is attained by
bravery and purchasing power. "That's a man," is said
about someone who does something bold-who is not
frightened by anyone or anything. In the Colombian
gang, this requires the knowledge and use of arms. All
the gang leaders are accomplished gunfighters, and
know how to operate smoothly and efficiently.
If we look at cities like Caracas or Rio de Janeiro,
we find a situation similar to that of Medellin. In those
cities, major drug dealers have formed armies of ado-
lescents in the shantytowns to safeguard their territo-
ries, and use these youths as cannon fodder in their
confrontations with each other and with state authori-
ties. If it weren't for the immense sums that the traf-
fickers get for their commerce of illicit drugs, it would
be virtually impossible to recruit so many adolescents,
purchase sophisticated arms, and in general have the
capacity to corrode and disintegrate society.
boys. With the understand-
ing that in the exercise of
violence there is an eager-
ness for self-expression
and self-recognition, the
methodologies of resocial-
ization attempt to offer
new forms of social repre-
sentation which are mean-
ingful to these boys. Some
of these methodologies are
overtly political. Through
the struggle for local politi-
cal development, a fair
number of young boys
who were fearsome delin-
quents have been trans-
formed into outstanding
community leaders; groups
that previously had fought
each other to the death
Children of La Milagrosa, a barrio constructed by Pablo Escobar on the outskirts of Medellin, have signed peace pacts, pose in front of a chapel built to honor the drug trafficker. uniting to fight for pro-
n 1990, after the assassination of Liberal presiden- grams of community social development. Medellin
tial candidate Luis Carlos Galin, the government today is undergoing a number of interesting attempts
launched a frontal attack on the Medellin cartel, to reconstitute itself as a society. But this is happening
The security forces began by attacking the youth with the full understanding that any solution to a crisis
gangs considered to be the reserve army of the narco- as profound as this one will be a long time in develop-
traffickers. This offensive took place without the least ing.
respect for human rights. It used the same logic as the Pablo Escobar died, but he was neither the begin-
counterinsurgency war: classifying entire communities ning nor the end of drug trafficking. Everyone knows
as enemies of society. To be an adolescent in a poor that as long as the market for drugs keeps growing,
neighborhood meant to be classified as a sicario. The new organizations will form to engage in this lucrative
state offensive, in which thousands of people were business. The developed countries ask the producers
illegally detained, augmented the resentment against to continue the war, though we all know that the war
the security organisms and the state. In this sense, the is hard and useless. The war on drugs confronts the
strategy backfired. Many young people identified implacable logic of the illicit drug market: as long as
themselves with the drug dealers and were radicalized there are buyers, there will be sellers. For the boys of
against the government. Eventually, the national and Medellin, like Chucho, drug trafficking has marked
local governments began to realize that the counterin- them for life. It brought them the fantasy of wealth
surgency model was a mistake, and these frontal and the reality of death. First it became normal to wit-
assaults are now on the wane. ness killing and dying; then, to kill and to die.
Short of a total restructuring of the justice and Juvenile violence became a way in which sectors of
police systems, and a substantial redistribution of traditionally excluded youth-inhabitants of vast terri-
wealth, there are some "social action" programs which tories-sought the recognition of the state and the
hold out some limited hope. Using diverse strategies, "other" society. Young gang members with their defi-
some official as well as private institutions have com- ant actions profoundly questioned a social order sus-
mitted themselves to the resocialization of delinquent tained by discrimination. Violence allowed the "for-
youth. On the one hand, they have tried to offer pro- gotten city" to be represented on the map of the
grams of employment and individual social mobility; collective consciousness. It made socioeconomic
and on the other, they have tried to develop diverse inequity more evident. It made the drama of the very
mechanisms by which gang members-utilizing gang poorest public. Youth violence made the state, which
structures-might transform the negative quality of for years had treated the poor barrios as a police mat-
gang leadership. This latter process has meant work- ter, begin to reconsider its legitimacy and its manner
ing with the social and personal self-image of the of relating to its citizens.

Tags: Colombia, drug trade, child soldiers, delinquency, street children

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