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The Occupied Territories of Medellín

Report prepared by Forrest Hylton, October 2002

 

Introduction

Squeezed On All Sides: Life in Medellín's Periphery

Medellín: A History of Violence

A Closer Look at the People’s Armed Commandos (CAP)

Uribe Ups the Ante: Operation Orion

 


 

Introduction

By now the scene is familiar. In the early morning hours of May 21, 2002, some 700 troops, backed by tanks, moved in while neighborhood militias attempted to impede the advance with machine guns. Blackhawk helicopters rained down bullets indiscriminately on targeted neighborhoods; house to house searches that gave way to looting were conducted with no warrant, and announced with bullets through the front door; young men were dragged into the streets, tied up, beaten and/or killed with children looking on. Heroic neighborhood residents tried to rescue the injured and provide medical attention amidst a hail of bullets fired by agents of the state. People hung white sheets, towels, and shirts from their windows to express their desire for a cease-fire; children armed with sticks and stones confronted soldiers and police, demanding that they leave the neighborhood, shouting, "We want peace! We want peace!" The siege lasted more than twelve hours, and by the time it was finished, nine people including three children were dead, thirty-seven were injured and fifty-five detained.

This did not happen in Nablus, Jenin, or Ramallah, but in Comuna 13—composed of 20 neighborhoods with an estimated 100,000 residents—in the central-western hills of Medellín, Colombia. Unlike the situation in the Middle East, however, there were no international observers demanding to enter the cordoned-off area. Rather, community leaders noted "the apathy of official NGOs and humanitarian organizations, both foreign and domestic, which have not responded, as they should, to the gravity of the urban conflict. They are absent."

Although Jorge Enrique Vélez, then-municipal Secretary of Government, insisted that there were no areas of the city beyond the reach of the authorities, when Medellín Mayor Luis Pérez and an entourage of television and newspaper reporters attempted to enter the 20 de Julio section of Comuna 13 by bus in early May, they were repelled by guerrilla gunfire. Since the combined military/police incursion that began in the early morning hours of May 21, Comuna 13 has been under unrelenting paramilitary fire. And there have been many more police/military incursions, though until last week none of them had been as murderous as that of May 21. As of October 17, more than 450 people had died violently in Comuna 13 this year—six times the national homicide rate, which is already one of the highest in the world—and 500 families have been displaced in the last six months.

Given the manner in which the state asserts itself in poor neighborhoods on the city's periphery, it is easy to sympathize with one resident of Comuna 13 who said, "I didn't lose any children or brothers or friends, but I cried anyway. How do [the state authorities] expect us not to hate them?" Unlike the military massacre of May 21, however, the paramilitary assaults on Comuna 13 do not make headlines. They are buried in the back pages of local newspapers—just as the strategists of low-intensity warfare intend. Only recently, as the conflict has escalated beyond previously imagined limits, has there been any semblance of public debate about the future of Comuna 13. For the most part, indifference and cynicism reign, a fact perhaps best illustrated by Mayor Luis Pérez's recent characterization of Comuna 13 as "a cancer that we have to extirpate."

 

Squeezed On All Sides: Life in Medellín's Periphery

The invisibility that has covered the combined military/paramilitary offensive also blankets the massacres that the army and police committed in Comuna 7—adjacent to Comuna 13—in which a total of 11 people were killed, all of them between 14 and 17 years of age. On February 27, 2002, a fifteen-year-old and her brother were stomped to death on the girl's birthday and their corpses dressed up as guerrillas. The same day, soldiers from the Army's Fourth Brigade captured four high school students as they were leaving their neighborhood in a taxi, tortured them along with the taxi driver, killed them, dressed them up in fatigues and presented them to the media as guerrillas killed in combat. A month later, on March 30, soldiers from the Fourth Brigade, some of them donning ski masks and without identifying themselves, began firing indiscriminately into the neighborhood pool hall, killing four adolescents. Then, in plain sight of neighborhood residents, they dressed up the corpses in fatigues, placed rifles and grenades in their hands, and called in the media, which failed to comment on the fact that the uniforms were impossibly large for the small corpses. House-to-house searches, looting, arbitrary detentions, and physical as well as psychological torture have accompanied army incursions into Medellín's poor neighborhoods.

As one would expect, children in Comuna 7 have been badly traumatized, and according to community leaders, army or police presence causes widespread panic among the 950 students who attend the neighborhood school. There are no doctors—let alone mental health professionals—in the community to deal with the trauma. Teachers, most of them overqualified and underpaid, have had to become psychologists to keep the school running. Education, coupled with the problem of malnutrition that affects a majority of the students, has become nearly impossible: When students are not afraid they are fainting or falling asleep.

Eighty percent of the students' parents are unemployed, and to find employment they have to lie about their place of residence, since the army and paramilitaries see all of the residents of Comunas 7 and 13 as urban guerrillas. The paramilitaries exercise control over various segments of the urban labor market. When they discovered that one worker on a road construction project carried out as part of the "social investment" component of Plan Colombia was from Comuna 7, the paramilitaries killed him. Community leaders insist that Plan Colombia has brought them nothing but the threat of Blackhawk helicopters: the roads and stairs initiated under its auspices were abandoned half-way through, and the sub-contractor owes the workers a month's back pay.

Composed of the neighborhoods La Avanzada, Vallejuelos, Olaya Herrera, Las Margaritas and Blanquizal, Comuna 7 is controlled mainly by the urban guerrilla group known as the CAP (People's Armed Commandos), though the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) control the lower part of Olaya Herrera. That neighborhood, and particularly the lower part of it, has a strong rural feel to it with chickens, gardens, trees, wooden houses, and steep, narrow paths of stairs. The north bank of the river that separates Olaya Herrera from Vallejuelos and Las Margaritas is slated to become part of a new overland transport route—the "Tunnel to the West"—that will link Medellín to the Pacific and the Caribbean through the Urabá region of the Antioquia department. This makes Olaya Herrera part of a "strategic corridor" out of Medellín. Arms and drugs make their way in and out of Colombia through the Atrato River in Urabá and the Caribbean port of Turbo, so fighting for control of the region has been fierce since the early 1990s.

In the genocidal fantasies of the regional bourgeoisie, on display in the pamphlet "Twenty-First Century Antioquia," the transport corridor, a yet-to-be built port on the Pacific coast, and the foreign investment they will attract, will make the region "the best corner of America." Olaya Herrera's community leaders insist that one of the reasons why the regional and national governments refuse to invest in their community is because to do so would raise the value of land. The state wants to be able to buy as cheaply as possible in order sell as dearly as possible to speculators and, eventually, community leaders guess, to multinational corporations.

No one in Olaya Herrera has ever studied at a university, but leaders understand that like their neighbors in Las Margaritas and Vallejuelos, the population of Olaya Herrera constitutes a major obstacle to state planning for capital investment, nearly all of it foreign and much of it North American. The community leaders of Olaya Herrera know that this places them squarely in the sights of the paramilitaries, who control three out of four entrances and exits to Comuna 7, making mobility difficult and extremely dangerous. But many if not most of Comuna 7's residents have already been displaced by paramilitary violence in the Antioquian countryside, and they refuse to move again.

Where would they go? As the war between the FARC and the paramilitaries—the latter working in tandem with the army and police—for control of Urabá, and indeed all of Antioquia, escalates and forces people out of the countryside, Medellín is filling up with more displaced people than it can possibly house. A large percentage of the recently displaced in Medellín are Afro-Colombian peasants with a history of community organizing. But when resources and political will are lacking to deal with the dispossessed peasantry, those driven from their homes and neighborhoods by urban violence do not even qualify as "displaced," according to the legal definition of the term. In Belén Corazón, a neighborhood near 20 de Julio—the epicenter of the confrontation between the guerrillas and the military/paramilitaries in Comuna 13—60 houses were abandoned between January and July, and neighborhood residents estimate that 3 more are vacated every weekend. Appraised at 70 million pesos ($25,000), houses are now selling for 30 million pesos. From June through August, an estimated 700 people had fled the fighting between FARC guerrillas and the paramilitaries in the upper part of El Salado and had taken refuge in a schoolhouse in Las Independencias in Comuna 13. No government effort has been made to mitigate their plight.

 

Medellín: A History of Violence

When the peace process between the FARC and the Pastrana administration ended on February 20 of this year, many analysts predicted that the war would reach the cities where three-fourths of Colombians live. For the most part, that prediction has yet to be born out, except in Barrancabermeja, the oil port along the Magdalena River, though there are signs that the vast savannah in the southern part of Bogotá is becoming more heavily militarized. In Medellín, however, the events of May 21 constitute the most visible evidence that a new chapter in a many-sided conflict between leftist guerrillas, the regional government, right-wing paramilitaries, and street gangs has begun. The majority of victims in this conflict are young people, some of them combatants, but most of them civilians.

Following the breakdown of peace negotiations between the Betancur administration and the FARC in 1986, Medellín, Colombia's leading industrial center, became the homicide capital of the world. In the past twenty years, an estimated 40,000 of the city's young people between the ages of 14 and 25 have died violently. In Medellín's peripheries, a dispute for territory between leftist guerrillas and street gangs has raged on and off ever since both proliferated rapidly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the Antioquian countryside, a counterinsurgent bloc composed of cattle ranchers, Liberal Party bosses, retired soldiers and policemen, leading members of military intelligence, and narcotraffickers gained ground through the selective assassination of Patriotic Union (UP) opposition politicians, peasants, and mine workers, especially in the Magdalena Medio and the northeast (around Segovia, Remedios and Zaragoza). This bloc is now in power at the national level, epitomized by the current hard-line presidency of former Antioquia governor Álvaro Uribe. Many displaced people who fled to Medellín to escape the paramilitary violence, now find themselves—and even more so, their children—trapped in a new dynamic of escalating conflict.

Though Medellín's urban war between gangs and guerrillas was waged block to block, the local conflicts involved national-level actors. Some of the gangs had ties to Pablo Escobar, whose reach was national, and others to the repressive organs of the Colombian state, which used Escobar's former associates, many of them devout anti-communists like Carlos and Fidel Castaño, to destroy him in 1993. For their part, some, though not all, of the local guerrilla organizations had links to the major rural insurgent groups, the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), both of them national-level forces by the late 1980s. When the conflict between gangs and local guerrilla groups reached its peak in 1991, Medellín witnessed 7,000 homicides. The vast majority of the killers as well as the killed were poor men under the age of 25. The conflict de-escalated slightly for a time as the independent guerrilla groups (those without ties to the FARC or the ELN) entered into a process of negotiation and "reinsertion" from 1994-96, but the process of forming a "security cooperative" (COSERCOM) resulted in the killing of many former local guerrilla leaders and the conversion of many others into paramilitaries. Homicide has been on the rise again since the late 1990s. The count for 2001 was 3,445, and as of October 12 of this year, 3,790.

Most of this year's homicides in Medellín have been perpetrated since March, which is to say in conjunction with the electoral calendar. Now that Álvaro Uribe has taken presidential office, the homicide curve may well ascend exponentially again as it did in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Uribe governed Antioquia department from 1995-97 and under his leadership the paramilitary alliance between gangs and the repressive organs of the state was consolidated, formalized, and legalized in 1995 through the infamous CONVIVIRs—or civil defense patrols—which were finally declared illegal in 1999 because of proven ties to paramilitaries. The latter were able to project themselves as a national force during Uribe's tenure as the department's governor. In Urabá, the section of Antioquia that gives way to the Caribbean and U.S.-owned banana plantations, the paramilitaries displaced the FARC and massacred thousands of people during Uribe's term as governor. Hundreds of CONVIVIR members passed directly into the ranks of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and others continued on without overt legal protection but with tacit consent.

Throughout the countryside as well as in Medellín, the paramilitaries expanded in size, operational capacity, and, in spite of committing ever-increasing numbers of massacres, political legitimacy during the late 1990s. An official intelligence report estimates that the AUC currently control 70 percent of Medellín; all that remains to be conquered are the central-western slums—the exit to Urabá and the Caribbean—and several neighborhoods in the central- and north-east (which give way to an important gold mining district controlled by the AUC). While the AUC has generated heated criticism for its massacres of peasants in the Antioquian countryside, a resounding silence surrounds the growth of paramilitarism in the city of Medellín itself. Some of the people displaced from Urabá by the state and paramilitaries during Uribe's time as governor will be slated to disappear during his presidency. Uribe obtained 70 percent of the votes in Antioquia with the expectation that he will "pacify" the city of Medellín, as well as the rest of the country.

Warfare has thus become part of the fabric of daily life along the central-western as well as central and northeastern outskirts of Medellín, and the authorities expect it will stay that way. General Mario Montoya, head of the Army's Fourth Brigade and leader of the scorched earth campaigns in Putumayo in 2000-2001, characterized the May 21 operations in Comuna 13 as unqualified successes: "We have obtained excellent results against the various bands of criminals that operate in the city. We will not stop." For his part, General Leonardo Gallego, head of the Metropolitan Police and also a veteran of the Putumayo campaigns, denied charges of excess in the May 21 operation, countering that the guerrillas had committed excesses against the military and police. Referring to Comuna 13, Jorge Enrique Vélez, former Secretary of Government and currently the leading candidate for mayor, declared, "We need to have it as a zone of conflict, like Caguán or Sumapaz" (two of the principal strongholds of the FARC).

Not to be outdone, Mayor Luis Pérez announced that more operations—in the fashion of May 21, one supposes—will follow: "If we want a city in which there are no areas that are off-limits because of subversion, we will have to apply many violent actions." Both Vélez and Pérez have called for an additional 2,000 police officers—who "can also be soldiers," according to Pérez—as well as the creation of an Urban Mobile Brigade of the Army and the construction of military bases in central-western and northeastern Medellín. Now that President Uribe has declared a "State of Internal Commotion," Pérez has asked for extraordinary powers in order to imprison minors. Following the May 21 massacre, the editorials of Medellín's two major dailies, El Colombiano and El Mundo, both of them right-wing, offered unwavering support for "law and order" solutions, though they called for increased development aid and social programs to go with the repression. They urged citizens to support the army and police for the good of the country. In other words, they dutifully reiterated the basic tenets of the Uribe plan.

Father Jose Luis Arroyave, the priest who administered Comunas 13 and 7, was assassinated by paramilitaries this September. Before his death, he argued that while the authorities speak of the conflict in terms of territory, they should think in terms of social debt. He told one reporter, "This administration has a social debt to this population which is dying of hunger, whose children are badly malnourished, whose people are unemployed." A community leader from Santo Domingo Sabio, a neighborhood at war along the northeastern edge of the city where more than 800 died violently between January and August, voiced his opposition to the Vélez-Pérez scheme: "I don’t think the plan is viable. The government will do what it wants, but there is no need to build bases, because we are capable of managing our neighborhood. We have the capacity to be orderly, to do things, to forgive failures and to work together. And this is not only in Santo Domingo, but in Esperanza, Carpinello, Brisas del Oriente and La Avanzada."

One does not have to look far to find structural causes of conflict. Since the 1980s, the distribution of wealth in Medellín, a metropolitan area of roughly three million people, has been more uneven than in any other large city in Colombia, and the unemployment rate higher. There are today an estimated 70,000 young people without jobs, education, or prospects of obtaining either. Alberto Aguirre, the lone voice of dissent in El Colombiano, described the situation as follows: "Medellín is a hostile city for young people. The statistics: 70 percent of the population under thirteen is poor, and 64 percent of the population overall. More than half the children under thirteen eat only one meal per day, and their following meal is uncertain. In the comunas [poor neighborhoods on the periphery] youth unemployment is up to 60 percent. Twenty-one percent of primary and secondary schools lack teachers, 35 percent lack libraries, and 53 percent of the desks are in bad shape. They are going to close the night schools [for children who work during the day]. They already closed the communal cafeterias. Half of the students lack medical care. Only half of the students from the popular [poor] strata finish high school, and of these, 20 percent enter the university and one in a hundred finishes."

The capital of the cocaine trade since Pablo Escobar's rise to power in the late 1970s, Medellín is currently home to an estimated 400 street gangs with more than 10,000 members. The industry of crime—cocaine processing, distribution, transport, and sales, car and motorcycle theft, arms dealing, jewel theft, money laundering, contract killing, kidnapping—generates more youth employment than any other industry, and brings with it unceasing warfare amongst gangs for monopolistic control of the markets. Although some of the gangs defend their turf in the face of the paramilitary advance, most find it more advantageous to work with the paras as subordinates against a common enemy: leftist guerrillas, known in right-wing argot as "the subversion." In one neighborhood along the central-eastern periphery, the Revolutionary Nuclei of November 6 and 7, an independent militia that has ruled the area since the early 1990s, have been converted into paramilitaries under the direction of the Metropolitan Bloc of the AUC.

One can certainly argue with the strategic logic of armed left projects on the periphery of Medellín—authoritarian socialism in five impoverished hillside barrios?—but one must also recall that paramilitaries have moved into urban neighborhoods with guns ablaze even where guerrillas and gangs were absent. This year, for example, the paramilitaries went to war with a gang, los de Frank, which refused to surrender its fiefdom in the northwestern neighborhood of 12 de Octubre. There is a long history in the Colombian countryside of local self-defense that was transferred to the city in the 1980s in communities of displaced people along the city's hillside edge. When community leaders speak of their problems, they do not point to the urban guerrillas—to which they do not belong—as the cause, but rather to the state and the paramilitaries. Of course this is not to suggest that the guerrillas and the communities in which they operate live together in perfect harmony, but the relationship between them is much more complex than the "armed actors vs. civil society" theory of conflict—the latest French import—that currently reigns in academic circles. The paranoid, counterinsurgent vision that associates community activism with guerrilla activity—a view held by the army, the paramilitaries, and the regional and national government—is of course merely cynical and self-serving, and not worthy of serious analysis.

When asked about the possibilities for dialogue with the state and the paramilitaries, the community leaders of Olaya Herrera laughed. The state and paramilitaries use bullets in place of words, they said. They represent the interests of wealthy Antioquians in particular and of capitalism in general, according to community leaders, and they are trying to finish off the people of Olaya Herrera. The paramilitaries have declared that they plan to "clean up the zone of guerrillas." This is in keeping with the counterinsurgent National Security doctrine, outlined in U.S. military manuals in the 1960s and 1970s and perfected in practice in the 1980s.

The soldiers of the Army's Fourth Brigade do not distinguish between guerrillas, gang fighters and civilians, although ironically, according to community leaders in Olaya Herrera, the paramilitaries and the soldiers are themselves indistinguishable. On one occasion, they told me, the army entered Olaya Herrera, harassed residents, looted stores and houses, and, before leaving, put on AUC armbands, painted AUC graffiti, and exited the neighborhood in the direction of the paramilitary camp below. The paramilitaries had built their camp across the street from a small army base. The base and the camp existed side by side for a time, until the army evacuated the base, which, apparently, had become redundant. As one leader said, "I never saw the army arrest any of them."

The barrio of 20 de Julio, site of the May 21 massacre, rises steeply up a hill the paramilitaries have tried to enter from above while the police and army move in from below. The topography is similar to Old Jerusalem or the Casbah in Algiers: full of narrow, winding stairways and alleys impenetrable to the outsider. This is where the Valley of Aburrá, in which Medellín is cradled, ends and the hillside that leads onto the mountainous countryside begins. As a CAP (People's Armed Commandos) militant explained, "We can handle little gangster paramilitaries trained by the Army's Fourth Brigade that try to get in from above, but when they send in hundreds of trained soldiers from below at the same time, with tanks and helicopters, well..."

 

A Closer Look at the People's Armed Commandos (CAP)

The degree of territorial fragmentation, the variety of authoritarian microstates, and the technological sophistication of the armed conflict make Medellín's situation unique. Comuna 13, composed of 20 neighborhoods including Belencito, Las Independencias I, II and III, El Salado, El Seis, and 20 de Julio, was until recently firmly under the control of one of three insurgent guerrilla groups—either the FARC, the ELN or the CAP. While relations between the FARC and the ELN throughout much of the country are chilly at best, in Comuna 13, along with the CAP, the FARC and the ELN have formed an alliance. This contrasts remarkably with the situation in northeastern Medellín where the FARC and the CAP are in conflict, and with the area around the University of Antioquia where the CAP and the ELN have confronted one another in the not so distant past. That is to say that the alliances formed by various guerrilla groups in Comuna 13 are a product of the present conjuncture, rather than a sign of strategic cooperation at the municipal or national level.

The CAP have been in 20 de Julio since 1996, when they were founded out of the remnants of dissident factions of the ELN and the MPP (an independent militia that negotiated in the mid-1990s), among others. Though they admit to having been heavy-handed in doling out punishment at first, the CAP's founders intended for their movement to avoid the arbitrary authoritarianism that had come to characterize the MPP and to some extent the ELN as well. CAP militants insist that unlike the earlier militias, they do not practice "social cleansing." This means that they do not kill drug dealers, womanizers, drug addicts, and petty thieves as a matter of policy. Instead, the CAP try to help them on the path to reform and, pragmatically, insist that drug consumption and sales take place outside the neighborhood.

The CAP do, however, kill rapists and informers, and in July, in an act of what they call "revolutionary justice," in one central-western neighborhood under their control (La Pradera) they killed nine young people, eight of them girls, who were allegedly gathering intelligence for the paramilitaries. The CAP claims that the community participates in identifying and judging perpetrators, and therefore, they are executing the will of the community. Whereas at first people went to them to intercede in domestic and neighborhood quarrels, which they did, people have begun to resolve those sorts of issues on their own, according to the CAP’s spokeswoman.

The community of 20 de Julio has its own organizations—17 youth committees, for example—and deals with problems of infrastructure, childcare, healthcare, education, and public services like water, electricity, and sewage. 20 de Julio, in other words, is a neighborhood full of community leaders and organizers, many of them women, who have been forced to conduct experiments in local self-government while trying to oblige the state to attend to some of their basic demands. It is reasonable to assume that this level of self-organization scares the authorities more than the guerrillas themselves.

Given the degree of self-activity in the community, the CAP militants, pre-militants, and collaborators focus on armed defense of the neighborhood against the combined state and paramilitary forces, and their spokeswoman stressed that the community organizations are quite autonomous from the guerrillas. The CAP then, like the FARC and the ELN, is an insurrectionary vanguard organization. Though the CAP spokeswoman was quick to insist that the CAP put politics, not arms, in command, their budget goes to sustaining their members and buying arms, munitions, communications, and transport, not into community organizing and infrastructure. The spokeswoman emphasized that though the CAP have study groups in Colombian history, Marxist-Leninist theory, and contemporary politics, and although they screen potential militia members carefully to avoid every Colombian insurgent's nightmare (and all too often, reality)—the guerrilla-turned-paramilitary—the poor quality of schooling experienced by many of its militants is a problem. But there have been only two traitors in the part of 20 de Julio controlled by the CAP. As for recruitment, the CAP spokeswoman said that just as children in bourgeois neighborhoods dream of becoming doctors, young people in 20 de Julio dream of joining the guerrillas. Two of the three leaders I spoke to were women and two more women, heavily armed and masked, showed up at the interview for a photo-shoot. The armed, urban left is clearly no longer an all-male affair.

 

Uribe Ups the Ante: Operation Orion

For the urban guerrillas of the CAP, the ELN, and the FARC, not to mention the residents of Comunas 7 and 13, the future looks bleak. After a police officer and three civilians, including 19-year-old Laura Cecilia Betancur, died in Comuna 13 in mid-October, President Uribe ordered "Operation Orion," in which the supposed leader of the CAP, known as "Mazo," was killed in a combined military offensive that involved the army, the police, the air force, special forces, and members of the intelligence services. A total of 1,000 troops participated in the first phase of the operation. Moving in with tanks and a Blackhawk helicopter with guns ablaze at 4am on October 15, it took the official forces just two hours to reach the heart of Comuna 13—Belencito, Las Independencias, 20 de Julio, and Belén Corazón. There they conducted house-to-house searches. When the operation—which lasted forty-one hours—had concluded on the afternoon of October 17, an additional 2,000 troops had cordoned off the area, and an army officer, two soldiers, a police officer, a civilian, and ten guerrilla fighters were dead. More than forty civilians were injured and 176 suspected militia fighters were detained. Given the scenarios described above, however, we should view official estimates with suspicion. We may never know how many really died, nor how many of them were guerrilla fighters and how many adolescent civilians.

On October 15, the very day that Amnesty International released another one of its innumerable reports detailing the "institutional alliance" between the military and paramilitaries, Mayor Luis Pérez, fresh from a visit to the United States, stuck to the official "armed actors of the left and right" theory: "The guerrillas and the paramilitaries have decided to transfer their war from the mountains to this barrio in Medellín. They want to demonstrate that the cities are important for them and they are measuring forces, even with the state, to see if they can liberate urban territory." It is worth noting that, as mentioned above, while the paramilitaries control over 70 percent of the city, there have been no official efforts to root them out of their domains with military repression—not one paramilitary fighter was killed in Operation Orion. Fittingly, Comuna 13 was attacked again precisely because the paramilitaries have not been able to take it over on their own.

As such, Operation Orion is far from over. Eighty percent of Comuna 13 is now under the direct control of 1,500 army troops, who have continued to conduct house-to-house searches, rounding up suspects while accompanied by informants dressed in ski masks and fatigues. In response, the FARC dispatched approximately 250 fighters from its southern stronghold of Caguán to Comuna 13 in order to prevent the military and/or paramilitaries from gaining control of the strategic corridor leading north toward Santa Fe de Antioquia and Urabá. For her part, Colombian Minister of Defense Marta Lucía Ramírez has called Operation Orion "permanent," implying that a significant number of the occupying troops will stay in Comuna 13 for the indefinite future.

Following the launching of Operation Orion, El Colombiano repeated its editorial line of May 22, opining that military repression ought to be accompanied by social investment. Not coincidentally, the "Tunnel to the West" that will wipe Comunas 7 and 13 off the map is to be named after El Colombiano's founder, Fernando Gómez Martinez. There is a striking similarity between El Colombiano's editorial and the perspective of Defense Minister Lucía Ramírez, who stated, "The house to house searches will continue, and after the state has retaken control of the zone there will be social work and the generation of employment." President Uribe, in a typically Orwellian mode, stated: "There is a total decision on the part of the authorities to return to the inhabitants of the comuna their right to live in peace."

Sadly, Operation Orion is another case of deaths foretold. Municipal Secretary of Government Jorge León Sánchez, debating the merits of a curfew for Comuna 13 with the city council, announced on October 12 that more military operations were on the way. "There is no turning back from a curfew and the installation of a military battalion in Comuna 13," said Sánchez. "Because the administration in Medellín is determined to recover the legitimate monopoly on arms." As expected, on Friday, October 18, Mayor Luis Pérez announced that a curfew, the prohibition of alcohol sales and consumption, and a ban on the use of arms in Comuna 13 would go into effect over the weekend.

In response to the possibility of a curfew in Comuna 13, hundreds of people from NGOs and human rights organizations, led by the Popular Training Institute (IPC), bravely took to the streets to protest a week before Operation Orion unfolded. According to Fernando Quijano, director of non-governmental organization CORPADES (Peace and Social Development Corporation), "The curfew is the first step in the conversion of Medellín into a 'zone of rehabilitation' and of military operations, which will only aggravate the conflict." Presently, in accordance with the "State of Internal Commotion," two rehabilitation zones have already been established in rural Colombia. We should not be surprised if Medellín becomes the first of many cities to suffer the same fate as the countryside, making Colombia a country of displaced people with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

Sources: El Colombiano, Desde Abajo, El Espectador, El Tiempo, La Hoja, Cromos, and interviews conducted by the author.

Forrest Hylton has previously written for Against the Current, Left Turn, Asi es Bolivia, and the Colombian magazine Desde Abajo.

This special report originally appeared in Colombia Report, an online journal that was published by the Information Network of the Americas (INOTA).

 

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