By Rainiero Patiño M., CAMBIOColombia, January 21, 2023


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Merchants murdered, businesses closed, the citizens terrified; some of the consequences of the criminals’ war that’s being experienced in the streets of the capital of Atlántico Department. Solo Asocentro reports 400 cases of extortioners’ calls every month, and says that, “the majority of merchants are paying the extortions.” This is the analysis:

Luis Felipe Sánchez Camargo sat down for a moment at the end of the afternoon to rest in the doorway of his motorcycle business. His attention was on his telephone. A contract killer takes advantage of the distraction and comes into the picture. The man, dressed in light-colored bluejeans, dark baseball cap, and blue shirt, runs toward Camargo and shoots him at point blank range. In spite of the impacts, the merchant reacts, gets up and takes out his pistol. Another man, apparently someone the victim knows, takes the weapon and tries to shoot the hitman, who flees with an accomplice on a motorcycle. Minutes later, Camargo is dead. Those events happened last January 5, at the corner of 8th and 44th streets, in the southern part of Barranquilla. Because of the undercount and the fear of filing a complaint, we don’t know exactly how often this has happened in recent months.

Behind the wave of Colombian tourists who visit, and the campaigns of positive advertising by officials because of the recent projects that have changed the face of some parts of the city of Barranquilla, there is a silent nightmare that has the inhabitants terrified and cornered. The robberies, the attacks by paid killers, and above all, the extortions, are converting the everyday landscape into a kind of epidemic being suffered by many, but few dare to talk about its symptoms and causes in public.

The main explanation for the wave of crime and violence in the city, according to studies of the subject, is clear: the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC or Clan del Golfo), Los Costeños, and Los Rastrojos Costeños are maintaining an open war for control of the territories in Barranquilla and several of the municipalities in Antioquia Department. Added to these organizations, with their large and medium size structures, are small organizations without much capacity for power, that’s to say, bands, gangs, or “combos”. The result of that macabre equation is a kind of snowball of violence that seems to be advancing out of control.

The reality is that the great majority of merchants downtown, and in the southeast and the southwest of Barranquilla are paying extortion right now. And that phrase is not the result of a lightweight analysis, but a statement made by Dina Luz Pardo, Director of the Merchants Association of Downtown (Asocentro in Spanish). It’s the reality, she reiterates without euphemisms.

The majority prefer not to talk about it, nor file any complaints, but Pardo says that she receives reports of an average of 400 cases of so-called extortion every month. That’s why she says that this is a problem that has affected the city’s merchants for quite a while, and one that has increased a lot since 2019. It is somewhat cyclical, with seasons, with peaks, but it has never stopped happening. And that many merchants have preferred to close their businesses and leave the city, rather than live with the uncertainty of wondering when something will happen to them.

The authorities have even admitted that there is an undercount because of the fear of making a complaint. Pardo believes that the discrepancy in the statistics is also because sometimes the Police themselves suggest to the merchants that it’s better to pay and avoid consequences, or because they themselves fear being cannon fodder if they carry out an operation. Nevertheless, what is without doubt is that the constant attacks in recent days are serving to prove not just the seriousness of the problem but also the lack of pressure from the authorities, as well as the failures of the legal system. “The city needs more judges. The Police do their jobs, but they haven’t known how to make the process go beyond the arrest. The accompanying legal system isn’t functioning at the national level; we have to solve the prison problems so that they can’t keep on committing crimes,” she concludes.

The criminal pyramid

Among the voices that have spoken out energetically about this matter are the researchers from the University of the North, Reynell Badillo and Luis Trejos. They have established that three distinct types of armed organization coexist in Barranquilla. And that these differ by their territorial reach, the crimes they commit, and how much space is affected by their crimes. Even though it may seem that they are all the same, in reality, there are certain criminal hierarchies that differentiate them.

The first are the criminal organizations that are part of international networks, like the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC or Clan del Golfo). The AGC function like a logistical operation for the exportation of chloralhydrate of cocaine. In Barranquilla, their preferred formula has been to subcontract to local groups, as Professor Trejos pointed out to CAMBIO. That mode of operation, he says, with those alliances, avoids having to combat the local gangs and the high costs and attention by law enforcement.

In a second level, criminal organizations whose range of activities is limited almost just to the metropolitan area, are operating in Barranquilla. These are Los Costeños and Los Rastrojos Costeños. “They concentrate on control of microterritories (neighborhoods, drug trafficking plazas, etc.), administering some illegal revenue locations, like “ollas”[1], and preying on legal revenues through extortion. They also often offer other services, like contract hits or paybacks. It’s necessary to mention that this category is usually very diffuse; other groups like the Papalópez, Las Vega, and Las Paisas have come in and gone out of those things,” explains Trejos.

At the end of the chain are small organizations without much capacity of momentum. They are dedicated to simple theft and robbery, stealing auto parts, and in very particular settings, to extortion and distribution of drugs at the local level.

The viral universe

Three men with their backs against a brick wall. They are wearing ski masks. The one on the left, wearing a baseball cap and camouflage pants, is carrying a rifle; the one on the right is holding a revolver. The one in the middle, under the shade of a tree, is reading some kind of threatening statement. They identify themselves as members of the Flamingo Márquez war front. They explain that their message is directed to the merchants of the city and to those citizens that earn a monthly income of more than ten times the minimum wage.

They demand that he “collaborate”. They recommend that he be ready for a knock at his door, for their phone calls, their messages on WhatsApp. The man in the middle looks directly into the camera. “This is our second call, and this will be the last one; the third call will be a dead relative of every merchant, or a grenade for every store or house,” he threatens. The video was showered over the people of Barranquilla.

The criminals even make reference to recent violent acts. They talk about attacks by hit men on bus drivers, of the massacre that took place in the Las Flores neighborhood, and the murders of merchants. Next, they refer to some people by name. “We had given them a lot of time. The way we treat you depends on you, yourselves, because you know that we know the location of all of your family, of every one of the merchants we have called,” they add. The video could be taken as just one more threat, but the confidence and the precision they talk with causes terror.

In other images, from his cell in the La Picota Prison in Bogotá, Ober Ricardo Martínez, alias Negro Ober, the top boss of Los Rastrojos Costeños, threatens a merchant. “Do me a favor, tell your bosses that they have from now to noon to call me. So I don’t kill just anybody today,” the criminal that was caught last October in an operation in Melgar (Tolima Department) says in the video.

If the system is terrifying on social media, silence reigns in the streets. The problem has reached this point, according to the researcher Trejos, due to the fact that for a long time the local governments denied it or downplayed it. They produced reactive measures that sought to improve the perception of security, but that didn’t attack the causes of the insecurity. “In other words, the public policy on security has failed because it’s based on mistaken diagnoses,” he sums it up bluntly.

One of the principal mistakes, according to specialists, is that when the armed groups struggle for control of territory, they are sending evidence, mainly the killings, so the local governments and the National Police start big operations to weaken one of the parties to the dispute. But by attacking just one kind of criminal organization, or attacking the three unequally, they provide incentives to those that have more operational capacity; that strengthens them. “Unintentionally, the government can be turning into a participant in a war among armed groups,” he explains.

For researcher Trejos, that method of using threatening videos shows how the internet has been transformed into a key factor in the criminal dynamic for the control of information, because it permits, among other things, the transfer of funds, the diffusion of their own narratives, and the widespread growth of their messages. He believes that the authorities in Barranquilla (and several communications media) have responded to the wave of violence with the narrative of common crime, meaning that the attacks and extortions are by criminal gangs, so criminals are the problem, and not organized crime.

Killing everybody that doubts their existence and refuses to pay extortions is, in practice, impossible and too costly. Therefore, the social networks turn into a medium for amplifying their message much more effectively. One single murder, blasted forth on social networks, could lead to outweighing the official narrative,” explains the researcher from the University of the North.

In an assessment of criminal behavior in 2022, presented by the district and departmental authorities, they admitted that there had been days “with huge challenges”, and insisted that the principal crimes had been reduced. According to their report, homicides had diminished by 6% in comparison with 2021. They said they had been able to seize 1,165 kilograms of illegal drugs and 1,721 weapons, of which only 48 had legal permits. The Commander of the Metropolitan Police of Barranquilla, Brigadier General Jorge Urquijo Sandoval, even pointed out that “of the whole Caribbean coast, Barranquilla was the main city that achieved this important reduction.” He explained that the reduction of 3 between the district and the metropolitan area “means more lives saved compared to the previous year.” He also highlighted the arrest of 4,279 people in Barranquilla, and the dismantling of 59 criminal organizations, resulting in the arrest of 506 persons.

On the subject of extortion, the official pronouncement only reported the production of 12 checkpoints by the Military Command in the department, 30 anti-extortion campaigns, and the re-activation of the Élite Military Command. But the statistics of complaints filed, killings related to extortion, and arrests for the crime of extortion were not offered.

Hours after the murder of the merchant Camargo, a stun grenade was found in the doorway of a commercial establishment in the sector known as the Zona Rosa in the south. And, according to what the Barranquilla Police established, criminal organizations had forbidden the owners of dozens of nightclubs and discos to open their doors. The violent acts in that area, according to the Mayor of Barranquilla himself, Jaime Pumarejo, were because of a territorial dispute between Digno Palomino and Jorge Eliécer Díaz Collazos, alias Castor, long-time bosses of Los Costeños.

The Ombudsman, Carlos Camargo, asked the authorities to redouble their efforts or the troop strength to put together actions leading to the prevention of more events that put at risk the lives and bodily integrity of the residents of Barranquilla and its metropolitan area. Last week Cell 54 of Pavilion 8 at La Picota Prison in Bogotá where Negro Ober is confined was searched; they found a cell phone. The Barranquilla Police reported several arrests for extortion. And Mayor Pumarejo demanded more results from the Police and he turned around and complained about the judges in the city. Last weekend the metropolitan area had 8 murders. General Urquijo said the majority of those victims had criminal records for crimes of homicide and extortion. Every day we learn of new cases, the statistics make you shudder while the merchants and the citizens in general debate between the fear of filing complaints and making the payments to save their lives.

[1] The Spanish word olla means a stew or stewpot, but in this context it means a very small drug dealing location.

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