On July 30, Colombian press reported that leaders from two of the country's most feared organized crime groups — the Urabenos and the Oficina de Envigado — met on the outskirts of Medellin to discuss a possible truce. If the truce between the two groups is successfully upheld, violence could temporarily decrease in Colombia’s second largest city. Nevertheless, Medellin will remain a critical territory in the country’s lucrative drug trade, and the truce is more likely a momentary reprieve than a definitive end to an ongoing turf war.
Under the terms of the truce, the groups allegedly agreed not only to halt violence against each other, but also to divide up profitable criminal activities amongst themselves. According to reports, the Urabenos would dominate large-scale drug trafficking through the city, and the Oficina de Envigado would be responsible for local criminal activity, such as extortion. The intent is to allow each group to focus on their moneymaking activities without facing a two-pronged threat from both law enforcement bodies and each other. This agreement is the latest event in a decadeslong criminal struggle for Medellin. The Oficina de Envigado, which splintered from the Medellin cartel after Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993, dominated drug trafficking and other criminal activity in the city until it fragmented further in 2008.
Two factions, each headed by a former lieutenant of the organization, eventually emerged as contenders for control of the city. The struggle caused a significant surge in violence, as homicides more than doubled between 2008 and 2009. The emergence of criminal groups after the partial demobilization of Colombia’s paramilitary organizations complicated the criminal struggle for Medellin. The largest paramilitary organization, referred to as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, officially demobilized in 2006, but remnants of the bloc did not cease illicit activities and instead continued producing and trafficking drugs. One of these groups was the Urabenos, which beginning in 2008, began efforts to seize control of Medellin. This brought it into direct conflict with the remnants of the Oficina de Envigado.
Tenuous government control over remote areas of the country allows these groups to grow coca and manufacture cocaine, which remains their primary source of income.These activities are extremely difficult to control given Colombia’s geography, and the government has focused on reducing their criminal activities in densely populated urban areas such as Medellin. Despite the government’s best efforts, control over that city remains lucrative, as it is a major source of extortion income, infrastructure for drug trafficking toward Colombia’s coasts, and a hub for money laundering. For these reasons, criminal truces in Medellin have previously not lasted long.
For example, both dominant factions of the Oficina de Envigado reportedly agreed to not attack each other in November 2009, but were again in conflict by early 2010. Ongoing criminality in Medellin poses a threat to public security and the Colombian government’s security policy aimed at controlling its national territory. Leftist insurgents, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army, continue to be the primary security concern for President Juan Manuel Santos. However, the emergence of consolidated criminal groups such as Los Urabenos have become a second major law enforcement issue in recent years. These groups do not pose an existential threat to Colombia, nor does their expansion threaten a return to the extreme violence of the 1990s. But their existence guarantees ongoing violence and instability even in the event of reaching a peace settlement with the rebels.