By Alfredo Molano Jimeno, CAMBIOColombia, April 30, 2023

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Alfredo Molano attended a meeting of the 12 criminal organizations that operated in Medellín and Valle de Aburrá with the peace delegates from the Petro administration. This is the chronicle of the face-to-face meeting with 20 of the most terrifying gangsters in Colombia.

This is the second time I have entered the prison in Itagüí. The first time was almost 10 years ago. I attended a meeting between the paramilitary bosses—the ones that Álvaro Uribe hadn’t extradited—and a group of human rights defenders, among whom were Piedad Córdoba and Danilo Rueda. The purpose was to see how the paras could provide some truth for the victims. We sat around a rectangular table and after several hours of dialog, Fredy Rendón Herrera, better known as “El Alemán”, who had kidnapped Piedad years before, asked her for forgiveness. It was an emotional meeting; there were tears and there were hugs. At the end, it reached me. Ernesto Baéz came up to me and gave me a book he had written, and he asked my forgiveness for the long years of exile my father had suffered, and how he had been the object of persecution by the paramilitaries. “Killing Alfredo Molano was an obsession of Carlos Castaño,” Baéz, who died three long years ago, told me.

I went back two days ago to accompany a meeting between government delegates, headed by Danilo Rueda, the High Commissioner for Peace, and the bosses of the different combos into which the much-feared Office in Envigado had fragmented. In the auditorium of the maximum security prison, there were 20 bosses of the organizations, four attorneys who served as facilitators, and four delegates from the international community. The meeting was to verify the agreed-upon gestures of confidence and to determine the date on which the dialog space would be set up, and also the simple act of getting together the irreconcilable enemies who had poured lead in the streets in an act of reconciliation that might avoid many deaths.

The last time they had met had been in 2005 when their principal boss, Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, alias “Don Berna”, called them together to notify them that they would be taking part in the AUC’s peace process with Álvaro Uribe. From there to here. The Office in Envigado began to come apart and it drowned in a bloody internal war for the control of the neighborhoods, the drug traffic, the hired killers, the criminal finances and the placard of what had been, in its own way, a prestigious gang. To get to Patios 1 and 2 of the La Paz prison in Itagüí, they crossed through 18 years of wrangling among themselves. Now, the men that have been at odds for years are busy trying to achieve organizational unity that would allow them to extinguish their differences and enter as a unit into a dialog that would put an end to the violence in Medellín and Valle de Aburrá, caused in good part by themselves.

To achieve that, the administration committed itself to transferring the bosses of the 12 combos that are governing the neighborhoods in Medellín from different prisons, in exchange for the armed organizations’ decrees of a cessation of hostilities and signing onto the commitment to curb the sale of fentanyl and heroin. The first step was taken on Friday, although the Office in Envigado lacked three members who still have not been brought to Itagüí, but they will be transported this week so that the formal phase of the dialogs can begin.

The meeting began at 1 p.m. The bosses of the combos stated for the record that three of them were still missing, and that the positions of “don Berna”, Sebastián, and Valenciano—all extradited to the United States—were symbolically unoccupied.  They also asked to begin the phase of making the prison regulations more flexible, such as allowing meetings, establishing contact with the bosses operating in the neighborhoods, and receiving work tools like computers and communication equipment, in order to gain information.

The representatives of the government made notes of that, and explained that they were already trying to establish conditions that would be overseen by guaranteeing organizations and countries. “We are, almost all of us, people who have been at war for more than 30 years. We are getting old now, and we don’t want our children and grandchildren to inherit our way of life automatically. We didn’t come for a party or for a stroll. We are here to work to put an end to the violence in the city where we grew up,” said one of the bosses of the “pesebreros” (“feeding troughs”), a gang that operates in neighborhoods like San Javier, Robledo, and San Cristóbal, one that has such a sharp internal conflict that, last December 28, 2022, eight people were killed in one night. This conflict is suspended, in the deep freeze because of the dialog scenario that offers “total peace”.

And it’s that the current violence in the metropolitan area comes by way of the Medellín cartel which got started at the end of the ‘70’s, of the war between the mafias in the ‘80’s, of the narco-terrorism of the ‘90’s, of the paramilitarism of the AUC, and finally with the abortive demobilization of the Office in Envigado. An organization that was born with Pablo Escobar and then helped kill him, that carried out the murder of Jaime Garzón, and Operation Orión in the 13th Ward, whose disappeared now total more than 500 people. “Don Berna” escaped being murdered by Escobar, which did happen to his bosses: the Moncada and the Galeano brothers. That’s how Murillo Bejarano ended up with the “Payment Office”, set off a war against his partner the sports manager Gustavo Upegui, murdered in 2006, and was a key part in the expansion of the AUC, with whom he finally demobilized in 2007.

Born out of that maelstrom of violence are the 20 bosses of the combos that are now meeting together in Itagüí. There are 12 structures; the best known are called “the Office”, “the Chatas”, “the Terrace”, “the Pesebreros”, “Pachelly”, or “the Table”. The main bosses are all inmates now, but in the neighborhoods they continue to be the heirs of that cartel, enjoying their income. “The contacts started coming before the Presidential election, because of the proposal for “total peace” made by candidate Petro, but at that time there were a lot of contacts and that scared us. We didn’t see a clear contact, in spite of the fact that at first, the President’s brother was taking part,” detailed one of the facilitators, who in reality are the artisans of the exploratory phase. There were lawyers and mediators who have worked with the capos for decades.

At the meeting a lot of the members of the Office came dressed in white, brand name clothes, luxury watches and gold chains, but also each one with his pencil and notebook. They settled into the first two rows. The delegates from the government and the bosses of the combos were separated by a round table, so small that it didn’t have room for all to sit around the table. The head of the prison opened the session and offered a prayer for peace. Next came introduction of the High Commissioner for Peace and a few words by Senator Isabel Cristina Zuleta of the Historic Pact Party. But the tension was there because of the selection of the spokesmen, the ten alternates, and the facilitators acting for the organizations.

The government asked for names and credentials, the bosses of the organizations asked for a few days to discuss that, as they had barely begun their internal discussions, and they still didn’t have representatives for at least three organizations. The “boys”, as they identified themselves, refused to decide that in this meeting and asked that the names of those were promoting the process be confidential until the coming week. They explained to me that they were afraid of the consequences of appearing in public. For example, being identified as being active within the organization might affect their criminal cases and worsen their legal situation, and that their comrades still in operation would feel betrayed and take revenge against them or their families, that the government would double-cross them. In the end, it was a meeting of fearful men that put an automatic end to the meeting with the government’s representatives.

The dialog between the parties was over; the government’s representatives departed, and I was left alone to talk with the bosses of the gangs. I wanted to understand their expectations and doubts in the process better, and they were also uncomfortable with my presence at the meeting. They didn’t understand what I was doing in this confidential space, and they were afraid that this chronicle would harm them. I didn’t understand either when it was that the meeting had ended with only 20 seasoned gang bosses. At first they asked me not to reveal their identities; they explained the fear they felt with journalists, and they made it clear to me that they didn’t trust my calling, they thought they had been misrepresented, demonized, and that they had not had an opportunity to tell their stories which, according to their version, didn’t just include illegal businesses and violence, but also order and security in the wards, employment for many people, and public works for the neighborhoods.

“We also have our version of this war, we have information to contribute for the victims and the justice system, but we need legal and physical guarantees. We know that the path to peace is more dangerous than the path to war, we have walked down that road,” said one of the bosses of the Terrace, a combo that comes out of “Los Pepes” (hunted by Pablo Escobar), an alliance between the authorities and the gangsters to finish off the one who had been the undisputed king of the criminal empire. 

I was talking with them for nearly two hours, without witnesses or intermediaries. Their uncertainty about what was coming was obvious, but they are aware that taking the path of the mafias has cost them and their families dearly. They wear evident combat injuries, they have the toughness of people who have lived with death, sometimes of their ally, and sometimes of their enemy. They are conscious of the challenges that lie before them on the road to dialog, but they have already tried the other road.

They are the sons of the Medellín cartel, a subculture that crosses through Valle de Aburrá and that leaves thousands of dead every year. “In the reporting you’re doing, make it clear that we are no long active in that organization, that we have lost our liberty, and that we want to be the bridge to the ones that are running the station in the neighborhoods now, because it’s clear to us that there could be a space for dialog here, but the peace has to be with the children and the young people that are now carrying pistols and killing and dying,” concluded the most veteran of the bosses of the Office in Envigado.

I came out of the prison as it was starting to get dark, with an idea turning over and over in my head, and it’s that in Colombia we haven’t given a dimension to urban violence. The violence of the gangs, combos, bands, and cartels that are devouring the lives of hundreds of young people in the marginal neighborhoods. The lives of people that grow up in a normalized violence and with killing for hire as an alternative for subsistence. A violence fermented in the shadow of the war on drugs.

In Colombia we have dedicated ourselves to exploring for paths to peace with organizations that only fit into the prism of the cold war, the war of guerrillas and paramilitaries, excluding, systematically, the gangs in the popular neighborhoods, as if that violence can only be extinguished by the iron fist of the government. Out of the failed process of demobilizing the Office in Envigado, has surged the reality of today: more than 2,500 dead in the bowels of the fighting by the combos, and more that 15,000 children and young people that are now part of these armed organizations.  Dramatic reality that the administration is trying to change, and that next Friday May 5 has an appointment with its past and its future.

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