More Oficina de Envigado News

Weekly InSight: Widow, Son Keep Pablo Escobar’s Criminal Legacy Alive

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In our June 7 Facebook Live session, Investigator Sergio Saffon and Managing Editor Josefina Salomón analyzed the criminal legacy of Pablo Escobar and the significance of the recent cases against some of his most intimate allies. Saffon described the history behind the May 25 arrest in Medellín, Colombia, of Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, alias “Popeye,” who claims to have been a prolific hitman for Escobar. Popeye was apprehended on charges of extortion and criminal conspiracy. According to information obtained by InSight Crime from a source associated with Oficina de Envigado — a network of criminal organizations in Medellín that controls most of the city’s underworld — Popeye extorted money from the late Escobar’s frontmen, who had continued to maintain assets linked to the illicit activities of the Medellín cartel. This was confirmed by authorities in Popeye’s trial following his detention.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

Saffon and Salomón also discussed the implications of another case linked to Escobar’s inner circle. This week, a federal judge in Argentina opened a case against Escobar’s widow, María Isabel Santos Caballero, and his son, Sebastián Marroquín, who have been living in the country since the mid-1990s. Both are accused of “providing essential support” to an operation that laundered millions of dollars from the illicit earnings of José Piedrahita Ceballos, a suspected Colombian drug lord currently in custody in Colombia awaiting extradition to the United States.

SEE ALSO: Argentina News and Profile

Saffon explained how the figure of Piedrahita exemplifies the new generation of drug trafficking bosses who conduct their illegal activities far from the public eye, contrary to Escobar’s more brazen style. The InSight Crime expert, part of a team that investigated the phenomenon, gave details on how these “invisible” bosses operate and explained some of the reasons why Argentina has been favored as a good country for money laundering. Saffon and Salomón also analyzed how the new arrests and criminal cases could motivate drug trafficking leaders to once again review and update their operational strategies. Watch the complete Facebook Live discussion in Spanish below:

US Helps Colombia Arrest Longtime Medellín Underworld Figure ‘Popeye’

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Authorities in Colombia working with US counterparts have arrested a self-proclaimed former hitman for Pablo Escobar, underscoring how the Andean nation continues to take down key figures in Medellín’s criminal world with help from the United States. Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, alias “Popeye,” was arrested in Medellín on May 25 on charges of extortion and criminal conspiracy. Mayor Federico Gutiérrez confirmed the arrest in a tweet. According to local media outlets, Popeye was arrested after appearing with his lawyer at the organized crime prosecutors’ office in Medellín, seeking to find out if he was being investigated.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

In an interview last year, a source within the Oficina de Envigado — the collection of Medellín crime groups that controls most of the city’s underworld — told InSight Crime that Popeye was blackmailing frontmen for the late Escobar who had held on to assets linked to the Medellín Cartel’s illicit activities. Sources close to the case who spoke to Colombian news media appeared to confirm this account. “He was trying to recover property [and] money that he left years ago in the hands of narcos, and that very likely was inherited or received by their relatives, who are the ones who have been pressing and are the ones who denounced him,” a source told El Tiempo. The same source told El Tiempo that the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency participated in the investigation. Popeye has claimed to have been the head of Pablo Escobar’s network of hitmen within the Medellín Cartel. He was sentenced to 52 years in prison in 1992 and confessed to participating in around 300 murders and ordering some 3,000 others. After he was released early from prison in 2016, Popeye became a type of internet sensation and narco culture star, particularly in right-wing Colombian political circles.

InSight Crime Analysis

The arrest of Popeye provides further evidence that US authorities have helped their Colombian counterparts secure a series of high-profile arrests of key figures in Medellín’s underworld, which has created a cycle of these individuals turning on one another. Indeed, authorities in Colombia arrested top Oficina figure Juan Carlos Mesa Vallejo, also known as “Tom” or “Carlos Chata,” with help from US authorities in December 2017. And information obtained from InSight Crime’s source in the Oficina suggests this may have contributed to the takedown of Popeye.

SEE ALSO: Oficina de Envigado News and Profile

The source said that Popeye was protected by Tom, and that the two were cooperating to extort old Medellín Cartel figures who had held on to Escobar’s assets after his 1993 death. After Tom was arrested and threatened with extradition to the United States, it’s possible that he helped authorities build the case against Popeye. With help from the United States, authorities in Colombia have brought down other central figures in Medellín’s criminal landscape, like Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” and Erick Vargas Cardenas, alias “Sebastian.” But these high-profile arrests have opened up space for the “Invisibles,” an emerging generation of Colombian drug traffickers who have adopted a more clandestine profile than their predecessors.

The ‘Invisibles’: Colombia’s New Generation of Drug Traffickers

Drug trafficking has long embedded itself in Colombia’s civil conflict, hiding among, and subverting, the warring factions. Now as the civil conflict draws down, with just the ELN still in the field, drug trafficking is mutating once again. This time Colombia’s drug lords realize that their best protection is not a private army, but anonymity. That is why we are calling the fourth generation of drug traffickers in Colombia the “Invisibles.” In 2013 many heralded a turning point in the war on drugs in Colombia as plummeting cocaine production was coupled with dismantling of the great drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). The United States and Colombia celebrated the success of “Plan Colombia.” The accepted wisdom was that the Mexicans now ran the shrinking wholesale cocaine trade and that their day was coming. This “success” was a mirage. Today the cocaine trade in Colombia is more buoyant than ever before, with production at record levels and new international markets being exploited. Colombian drug traffickers have learned that violence is bad for business. The new generation of traffickers have learned that anonymity is the ultimate protection, that “plata” (“silver”) is infinitely more effective than “plomo” (“lead,” as in bullets). The Colombians have ceded the world’s biggest market, the United States, to the Mexicans. This is not a sign of weakness but rather a savvy business move.

This article is part of an investigation carried out for the Colombian Organized Crime Observatory, which is coordinated by the InSight Crime Foundation and Universidad del Rosario’s Faculty of Political Science, Government and International Relations (FCPGRI). The information was collected by a multidisciplinary team of 12 researchers in visits to more than 146 municipalities.

Drug trafficking to the US market is not good business. The risks of interdiction, extradition and seizure of assets are high, while wholesale prices are between $20,000 and $25,000 a kilogram. The Colombians prefer to look to Europe where a kilogram of cocaine is worth over $35,000, or China ($50,000) or Australia ($100,000). The risks are lower and the profits higher. It is simply good business.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

Today’s Colombian drug trafficker is more likely to be clad in Arturo Calle than Armani, wear classic European shoes rather than alligator boots, drive a Toyota rather than a Ferrari, live in an upper middle class apartment rather than a mansion with gold taps. He will have the face of a respectable businessman. Forty years after Pablo Escobar industrialized the drug trade, we now see a new generation of traffickers who learned from their fathers and even grandfathers. They are plying their multimillion-dollar business off the radar, without attracting any attention. Nowadays it is almost impossible to separate the dirty money from the clean after 50 years of increasingly sophisticated money laundering with investment in every facet of Colombia’s economy. Today’s drug lord will never touch a kilogram of cocaine, much less wield a gold-plated 9 mm pistol. His weapon is an encrypted cellphone, a diverse portfolio of legally established businesses, an intimate knowledge of world finance. He is an Invisible and he forms the heart of the fourth generation of drug trafficking in Colombia.

What has prompted the latest evolution of Colombia’s drug trade?

  1. Departure of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) from the criminal stage.
  2. Weakening of the last nationwide criminal network of the Urabeños (also known as the Clan del Golfo or the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia).
  3. The battering of the visible structure of the Oficina de Envigado.
  4. The Pax Mafiosa in Colombia ensuring that violence falls even as cocaine production, and other illegal economies, strengthen.
  5. Weak implementation of the peace agreement, driving FARC rebels back into the illegal economies and undermining the peace process with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).
  6. Record levels of cocaine production.
  7. The emergence of a new criminal network, the ex-FARC mafia, made up of dissidents, FARCRIM and the “hidden FARC.”
  8. The increased efficiency of Colombian intelligence and their ability to effectively target identified drug traffickers.
  9. A division between the pure blood (“pura sangre”) narcos and the military apparatus of drug trafficking.
The drug trade is the most agile business on the planet. Managing billions of dollars and able to defy national and international law enforcement, it adapts to changing conditions far more quickly than governments and security forces. It learns from its mistakes in what is the world’s most unforgiving and brutal markets. And the conditions today and until 2019 are in their favor thanks to a variety of national and international factors:
  1. The election year in Colombia. No serious policy or strategic decisions are going to made now until the new president has made himself at home in the Casa de Nariño in early 2019.
  2. The collapse of Venezuela and the criminalization of the Chavista regime under President Nicolás Maduro, which has huge implications for criminal dynamics in Colombia.
  3. Neighbors, Panama, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru have all been hit by high level corruption charges undermining legitimacy of government and distracting governments from the fight against transnational organized crime (TOC).
  4. A lack of direction from Washington, combined with friction sown by President Trump with key anti-narcotics allies like Mexico and Colombia (the public threat of decertification).
  5. Total lack of unity among Latin nations on how to tackle the cocaine trade.
  6. The spreading of the cancer of corruption across Latin America and the Caribbean, creating yet more opportunities for TOC and the cocaine trade.

What does the future of the cocaine trade in Colombia look like?

  1. The development of a new criminal network made up of former members of the FARC, which may come to dominate the production of cocaine in Colombia.
  2. The increasing infiltration of drug trafficking into the ELN, further weakening command and control, discipline and ideology. This threatens the prospects for peace.
  3. Top drug traffickers becoming more and more clandestine.
  4. An increasing sophistication of Colombian TOC, learning the lessons of 40 years evading national and international law enforcement.
This article is part of an investigation carried out for the Colombian Organized Crime Observatory, which is coordinated by the InSight Crime Foundation and Universidad del Rosario’s Faculty of Political Science, Government and International Relations (FCPGRI). The information was collected by a multidisciplinary team of 12 researchers in visits to more than 146 municipalities.

The Colombian Mafia

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The mafia in Colombia today is comprised of a maelstrom of localized groups, shadowy power brokers and sub-contracted labor that combine to bring order to the underworld chaos and make billions from trafficking everything from cocaine to influence. The mafia, a label that covers all of Colombia’s underworld actors except the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the ex-FARC mafia, is organized in multi-tiered networks. The upper echelons of organized crime still contain a handful of actors that resemble the infamous crime lords of Colombia’s past: commanders of armed groups and powerful drug traffickers whose violent histories are well-known to the security forces and the media. However, these figures are a dying breed. The operational life-cycle of prominent mafia leaders is growing ever shorter, and many of those that remain already live on the run. Instead, most of today’s criminal elites are not those that control extensive armed structures, but those who can move money and power, and wield influence in both the legal and criminal worlds. Today’s criminal elites are best epitomized by the international traffickers that keep the drugs flowing: the “Invisibles.” These are the hidden dealmakers of the cocaine trade, organizing multiple-ton drug shipments while living ostensibly respectable lives among Colombia’s social and economic elites. Many started out as money launderers or frontmen for the cartels of Medellín and Cali, or their successors in the Norte del Valle Cartel and the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). They have survived and thrived for decades by distancing themselves from the dirty work and living behind carefully constructed legal facades. While the criminal elites are nodes in fluid networks of money and power, the underworld still requires structures that can hold territory, directly manage criminal activities and violently enforce rules and relations. In today’s increasingly fragmented criminal landscape, this role is fulfilled by an array of criminal actors. Some of today’s mafia groups are directly descended from paramilitaries and guerrillas and have retained some of the characteristics and modalities of armed groups; most notably the Urabeños and the Puntilleros, which formed from remnants of the AUC, and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) respectively. The other groups that populate today’s underworld are a product of the fracturing and recycling of previous underworld actors such the grand cartels of Medellín and Cali, the AUC, and the private armies of drug traffickers and other criminal elites. They have become hybrid organizations that combine the characteristics and personnel of armed groups, drug traffickers and common criminals. The breakup of the last criminal groups with nationwide reach means they are now primarily localized, with limited territorial control. Among the most prominent of these organizations are the “oficinas de cobro,” or debt collection offices, of Medellín and Cali, the Constru, the Cordillera, the Empresa and local cells of the once national criminal armed group the Rastrojos. Most of the different criminal groups in today’s underworld are principally dedicated to providing services to drug traffickers and other criminal elites. However, they have also diversified from the drug trade and maintain broad criminal portfolios that include activities such as extortion, microtrafficking and illegal mining.

Colombia ‘Narco Junior’ Lived Double Life as Jet-Setter and Medellín Crime Boss: Authorities

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Authorities in Colombia arrested the son of a late Medellín Cartel trafficker on charges that he held a leadership role within the crime group that succeeded Pablo Escobar’s infamous organization — at the same time as he was maintaining relationships with some of Colombia’s most fashionable and famous elites. On February 9, the criminal investigations branch of Colombia’s National Police announced that an operation targeting the Oficina de Envigado crime group had resulted in the arrest of several top suspects in the Caribbean port city of Cartagena as well as in the Oficina’s home city, Medellín. Among those arrested was Sebastián Murillo Echeverry, alias “Lindolfo.” According to local media reports, Murillo is the son of Rodrigo Murillo, an associate of Pablo Escobar whom the Medellín Cartel founder ordered killed in the 1980s. Authorities accused the younger Murillo of playing a leading role within the Caicedo criminal group, one of the Oficina de Envigado’s most powerful substructures.

SEE ALSO: Oficina de Envigado News and Profile

Although Murillo has been dubbed a “narco junior” — a Colombian term used to describe sons of late or former criminals who follow in their father’s steps — his marriage to famed television presenter Vaneza Peláez helped introduce him to other members of Colombia’s jet set. Peláez — who was divorced from Murillo in 2015, but was present at his arrest — reportedly helped the alleged crime boss start business ventures in the modeling sector that were used to launder criminal proceeds and provide cover for his role as a top figure in the Oficina de Envigado. Murillo’s arrest prompted a number of prominent associates to try to distance themselves from the couple. A wave of entertainment figures attempted to delete all pictures of them with Murillo from social media platforms. And Daniela Ospina, the ex-wife of famous Colombian soccer player James Rodríguez, tried to minimize her past business dealings with Peláez in comments to the press. According to one media account, Murillo’s concern for his image seemed to outweigh his concern for his arrest when police arrived to detain him. In a scene that seemed reminiscent of a narco soap opera, Murillo reportedly asked the officers if he could clean up a bit before being taken away. “Can I ask you a favor? Could we reshoot the moment when you guys come in to arrest me? I mean, look at me. I can’t be seen like this,” he reportedly said. Despite his reputation as a businessman and socialite, authorities say Murillo managed a violent wing of the Oficina de Envigado dedicated to loan sharking, drug trafficking and targeted killings. Authorities also believe the 32-year-old replaced Fredy Alonzo Mira Pérez, alias “Fredy Colas,” as the Oficina’s top leg-breaker after Fredy Colas’ 2015 surrender to the United States. In addition, Murillo’s modeling businesses reportedly allowed him to set up prostitution services for the underworld. Phone intercepts accessed by El Colombiano illustrate the gap between Murillo’s image as a socialite and his alleged criminal activities, which reportedly included violently collecting debts in excess of half a million dollars and organizing a weapons shipment to the Caribbean coast with the aim of using force to help the Oficina expand its drug trade activities. As a matter of fact, the same operation that led to Murillo’s arrest also brought down his alleged associate known by the alias “Martín” in Cartagena. Martín, a former Caicedo leader, was allegedly in charge of expanding the Oficina’s drug trafficking operations on the Caribbean Coast and strengthening its ties with the Urabeños drug trafficking group.

InSight Crime Analysis

Murillo’s story is illustrative of a series of narco juniors in Colombia who have followed in the path of their fathers. Previous examples include the inheritors of the Norte Del Valle Cartel, who launched a vendetta against their fathers’ enemies, the Rastrojos, as well as William Rodriguez Abadia, the son of a founding member of the Cali Cartel, who pleaded guilty in a US court in 2006 to effectively taking over the cartel’s leadership. Murillo’s relative fame and jet-set lifestyle, however, make him something of an exception among high-ranking Colombian criminals who have been arrested recently. While many seem to strive for social acceptance, most also appear to have learned from their predecessors’ mistakes, favoring a lower profile than Murillo assumed.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profile

Murillo’s arrest also points to the turbulent times that the Oficina de Envigado is currently undergoing. In December 2017, authorities captured Juan Carlos Mesa Vallejo, alias “Tom,” the Oficina’s most powerful ranking figure and the Urabeños’ prime associate in the strategic Valle de Aburrá drug corridor where Medellín is located. Tom’s arrest spurred uncertainty as to the future of the Oficina’s leadership as well as localized violence where Tom’s faction of the Oficina, Los Chatas, held the most sway. The dismantling of the Caicedo leadership — one of the Oficina’s most important factions — is likely to spur further tremors within Medellín’s underworld, and could have implications for a years-long truce that has helped bring criminal violence to record lows in Colombia’s second-largest city.

Colombia Arrests Top Figure in Medellín Underworld, but Impact Likely Limited

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The recent arrest of one of the top criminal figures in Medellín, Colombia, is unlikely to have a major impact on the city’s underworld, but it could incentivize other suspects to adopt a low profile. Juan Carlos Mesa Vallejo, also known as “Tom” or “Carlos Chata,” was arrested on December 9 while celebrating his 50th birthday. He was charged with aggravated criminal association, illegally carrying military-grade weapons and use of false documents. Tom, a career criminal from Bello, a town just north of Medellín, is thought to have taken a leading role within the powerful Oficina de Envigado criminal group earlier this decade. He is being held in isolation after having been transferred to a Bogotá prison. According to El Colombiano, he will likely be extradited to the United States. Another famous criminal was also present at the birthday party where Tom was arrested: Jhon Jairo Velásquez, alias “Popeye,” a self-confessed hitman for Pablo Escobar who spent more than 23 years in prison before turning himself into a political activist and internet sensation. His presence at a drug capo’s birthday celebration along with other top figures of the Medellín underworld appears to contradict the terms of his parole, meaning the attention-seeking former assassin could once again find himself behind bars.

A Criminal Heavyweight

Tom’s criminal career began with the “Chatas” gang, which he helped create in the 1990s and which he would later lead. Under the rule of Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” the successor to Pablo Escobar’s empire, the Chatas would come under the banner of the Oficina and develop into a more powerful criminal structure. After Don Berna was extradited to the United States in 2008, various factions of the Oficina fought each other for dominance. Later, the 2012 capture of Oficina leader Erickson Vargas Cardenas, alias “Sebastian,” allowed Tom to step into a more prominent role in the organization. “Tom was Sebastián’s military chief … As one of his most trusted men, he gained contacts. It was a succession,” Nelson Matta Colorado, an investigative journalist for El Colombiano, told InSight Crime.

SEE ALSO: Oficina de Envigado News and Profile

In 2013, the warring factions of the Oficina cemented a truce and formed an alliance with their former rivals, the Urabeños, now the most powerful criminal organization in Colombia. According to the Colombian National Police, Tom was responsible for the trafficking cocaine through Medellín, while the Urabeños took care of shipping the drugs beyond Colombia’s borders. Matta told InSight Crime that this partnership with the Urabeños offered Tom an additional source of power, in comparison to other Oficina leaders. “When Tom arrived at the board of criminal directors [of the Oficina], he realized the little power he had over the others,” Matta explained. “So he struck a deal with the Urabeños to gain more influence and criminal backup.” Soon after the Oficina truce came into force, the United States began targeting Tom and his criminal associates. In 2014, the US Treasury Department put Tom on its “Kingpin List.” And in 2015, the agency blacklisted the Chatas for “narcotics trafficking and violence in support of the Oficina de Envigado.” By 2016, the United States was offering a $2 million reward for information that could lead to Tom’s arrest.

Limited Impact?

The internal dynamics of the Oficina de Envigado have often helped shape Medellín’s security landscape. But despite Tom’s prominence in Medellín’s underworld, his arrest is unlikely to disrupt the Oficina’s criminal activities. Previous arrests of Oficina members of a similar rank as Tom were trumpeted by authorities but ultimately proved to have little impact. Matta said this is due to the Oficina’s structure, which does not depend on a single figure for leadership. “Today’s criminal organizations such as the Oficina do not possess a pyramidal structure, but function rather with a board comprised of various directors. So the capture of one of them as just occurred doesn’t impact the whole structure as it used to,” he said. “The organization hasn’t suffered significant blows to its finances, so when there are arrests, they simply replace one piece with another,” Matta added. “The structure will be maintained, and so will its way of operating, because it’s been a successful criminal model so far.” While Tom’s arrest won’t lead to the demise of the Oficina, it will likely spur some shifts in the group’s operations. The Urabeños, which are under pressure following a series of arrests of top leaders, will likely be looking for a new local partner in the cocaine trade among the Oficina’s ranks. Another likely effect of Tom’s arrest is that it will encourage criminals to maintain a low profile to avoid being caught. This is a strategy that other criminal actors in Latin America have adopted with success. As one commenter said in response to the press release announcing Tom’s arrest, “a living dog is better than a dead lion.”

Blurring the Line: The Security Secretary and the Medellín Mafia

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The arrest of Medellín’s security secretary in north Colombia has rocked the city establishment and challenged the political elite’s prevailing narrative it has spent years promoting. But was he mediating with criminals for the sake of peace and security or working at the service of the mafia?

At a July 5 indictment hearing, Medellín prosecutors laid out their evidence that the now ex-Security Secretary Gustavo Villegas struck a series of “sinister agreements” with the Medellín mafia known as the Oficina de Envigado for personal and political gain.

Utilizing testimonies from Oficina bosses supported by wiretaps and covertly filmed videos, the prosecutor’s case focused on the relationship Villegas developed with Julio Perdomo, the alleged leader of a powerful criminal network and the man considered by the police to be the Oficina’s “new political spokesperson.” Villegas cultivated the relationship with Perdomo to try and broker deals with Oficina leaders for them to surrender and cooperate with the authorities.

As security secretary, Villegas oversaw the surrender of several mid-level gang bosses over the last year. Investigators believe these were coordinated with high-ranking Oficina chiefs who were prepared to sacrifice their underlings in return for a lower police presence in their territories, allowing them to maintain their criminal activities, reported El Tiempo.

Prosecutors also presented evidence of coordination with top level imprisoned Oficina members such as Edison Rodolfo Rojas, alias “Pichi,” Julián Andrey Gómez, alias “Barney,” and Leonardo Muñoz, alias “Douglas,” who were already collaborating with the authorities in return for judicial benefits, although they later ended cooperation after personnel changes in the Attorney General’s Office.

However, according to prosecutors, Villegas’ cooperation with the Oficina went beyond judicial negotiations, and he allegedly became what prosecutors labelled an “advisor and strategist” for the mafia, according to El Tiempo.

Villegas allegedly passed information on police operations targeting Oficina leaders, including Perdomo, who was himself arrested in March, and offered mafia bosses advice on avoiding the attention of the authorities. Police sources told El Tiempo that his efforts included interfering with police organizational charts detailing the Oficina hierarchy to make it seem like mid-level members were principal leaders.

SEE ALSO: Colombia Elites and Organized Crime

At the hearing, the prosecutor argued Villegas’ interest went beyond these negotiations. They also accused him of using his connections to Oficina chiefs for his political and personal gain.

The prosecutor described that when a video of three youths holding up a car in the north went viral as a symbol of insecurity in the city, Villegas used his contacts to force the youths to turn themselves in, which was then presented as a triumph of Villegas’ boss, Mayor Federico Gutiérrez. 

Villegas was not only working for the benefit of that administration, investigators believe, but also with an eye on his own run for office in the next elections. In one meeting to encourage Perdomo to continue with the negotiations he allegedly promised the mafia leader “things would get better,” if he became mayor of Medellín.

Aside from the political points scored, Villegas also allegedly obtained benefits for his personal businesses. Prosecutors claim he contacted Perdomo to secure the return of a company vehicle that a criminal gang had retained and demanded payment for, and also secured a guarantee that his business would receive a free pass from extortions.

Allegations of shady contacts and criminal behavior have hung over Villegas throughout his long political career.

Between 2004 and 2007, Villegas headed the Medellín government agency overseeing the demobilization of the Bloque Cacique Nutibarra, the first such process in the nationwide peace process with the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). The demobilization of the BCN has been widely discredited as a little more than a sham designed to wipe clean the records of the Medellín mafia and cement the control over the city of BCN commander and head of the Oficina de Envigado, Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna.”

As part of this process, Villegas worked closely with the Corporación Democracia, a non-governmental organization set up by the demobilizing paramilitaries. The organization has also been dismissed as a political façade for the continuing illegal activities of the Oficina.

Villegas represents a city elite prepared to sell out its poorest residents in return for a positive international image.

In 2008, Villegas was forced to resign his new post overseeing the staging of the South American Games in Medellín due to his connections to Felipe Sierra, a businessman convicted of colluding with paramilitary leaders, drug traffickers and corrupt officials.

The most damning, although currently unsubstantiated, allegations against Villegas came in 2011, when former paramilitary and drug trafficker Juan Carlos Sierra, alias “El Tuso, ” alleged Villegas worked “like brothers” with Oficina chief Daniel Mejía Ángel, alias “Danielito,” even taking payments in return for freeing up casino licenses.

InSight Crime Analysis

Contact and mediation between authorities and organized crime, while always problematic, is not intrinsically bad, and there can be times when the need to lower violence is more urgent than the wider aim of breaking the mafia or gang stranglehold over a territory. In such cases, the line between mediation and collusion will always be blurred as any such contact necessarily involves an element of quid pro quo; no mafia boss is going to cooperate unless the boss can see how he or she personally benefits.

However, the Villegas case threatens to expose a truth that observers of Colombia’s second city have long suspected: in Medellín, the line is not blurred; the line has retreated into the distance. Whatever his intentions — and even if, as the evidence suggests, his personal profit was incidental and relatively minor — Villegas represents a city elite prepared to sell out its poorest residents in return for a positive international image and a lucrative business environment for everyone from entrepreneurs to international cocaine traffickers.

Villegas’ plan of negotiating with organized crime has its own logic and such negotiations can undoubtedly yield benefits. There are few who would sneer at the drop in murder rates Medellín has witnessed in recent years, no matter what the reasons behind them.

However, Medellín has played this game before, with Don Berna. The results were a phenomenon known in Medellín as “Don Bernabilidad,” a pun derived from “gobernabilidad,” or governability. Following the demobilization of Don Berna and the BCN, Medellín experienced a dramatic drop in violence, which became the foundation of the transformation that has won Medellín international praise for its renaissance. But the price was Don Berna’s control of the city. It was peace at the point of a gun.

SEE ALSO: Oficina de Envigado Profile

Nearly 15 years on from the BCB demobilization, and with outside events long having overtaken the reign of Don Berna, violence in Medellín is historically low, but once again it is criminal pacts rather than security policy that is the main cause. 

In Medellín, low violence has not been used as a base to break the stranglehold of organized crime, but instead has become an end in itself. The price remains the same. And while Medellín’s elites bask in the international praise, the city is still an epicenter of drug trafficking and money laundering with thriving internal criminal economies. In large swathes of the city, residents still live under criminal rule, in constant fear and with little recourse to justice.

Villegas, as a central participant in the era of Don Bernabilidad, surely understands the Faustian nature of this bargain better than most, a fact that casts a long shadow over his proclamations of innocence and good intentions. The evidence that he allegedly helped Oficina leaders avoid justice only reinforces the notion that he was willing to make the same deal as before: image over reality.

The story of organized crime in Medellín is a story of a three way marriage.

The surrender and cooperation of major Oficina figures would likely have had some short-term security benefits along with major political ones for Villegas and his allies. However, the current organized crime dynamic in Medellín makes clear the limitations of the strategy. 

Villegas was negotiating with powerful factions of the city’s mafia, but factions nonetheless. Any deal would almost certainly have resulted in one of two outcomes: either those negotiating would once again have used their cooperation as a façade to maintain their criminal interests, or they would have cut a deal for their personal benefit while the networks they left behind were coopted by other actors.

As InSight Crime has documented, the story of organized crime in Medellín is a story of a three way marriage. On one side stand the mafias, who lower or raise violence according to their own interests and conflicts by jerking the strings of the street gangs that control the city neighborhoods. At another stands the city’s corrupt social and economic elites that maintain a foot in both the underworld and the legal world, and whose primary interest is a good business environment for anything that makes them money, legal or illegal. And at the third stand the corrupt bureaucratic elites, i.e., the security forces, as well as judicial and political officials that facilitate and protect criminal activities for their own personal or political gain.

Even if we are to take Villegas at his word over his pure intentions, his plan would have done little to undermine this structure, to which he firmly belongs. The status quo would almost certainly have remained intact. And, after 15 years of these sort of clandestine dealings, the status quo is that Medellín remains a mafia city.

Medellín, Colombia Security Minister’s Arrest Shows Crime-Politics Link

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The security secretary of Medellín, Colombia was arrested recently for allegedly colluding with what was long the city’s most powerful crime syndicate, in an incident that underscores how organized crime retains significant political influence in the city despite a drastic reduction in violence over the past two decades.

Medellín Security Secretary Gustavo Villegas Restrepo surrendered himself to authorities on July 4 after learning that police had attempted to detain him at his office while he was away, according to a press release from the mayor’s office.

Villegas, who was charged with aggravated criminal association, is accused of colluding with the Oficina de Envigado criminal group to help some of its members negotiate with judiciary authorities, reported El Colombiano.

Authorities say Villegas delivered privileged information to two incarcerated ranking figures of the criminal organization: Julio Perdomo, alias “El Viejo,” and Edinson Rodolfo Rojas, alias “Pichi Gordo.” Authorities say they have proof that the two incarcerated criminals helped Villegas obtain the arrest of an Oficina member on at least one occasion, reported El Tiempo.

In addition, while Villegas did not receive money, his food distribution company was reportedly spared from extortion as compensation for helping the group enter in negotiations with authorities over their desire to obtain the status of “peace advocate” under a July 2016 presidential decree that provides temporary legal protection for individuals cooperating with authorities to construct peace.

The measure was meant for fighters of Colombia’s main guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), both of which have engaged in peace negotiations with the government. But certain members of Medellín’s underworld surrendered last year hoping to obtain this status. And earlier in March 2016, reports had surfaced concerning Oficina de Envigado members seeking to be granted the privileges attached to being a peace advocate, which includes the suspension of detention and arrest warrants.

Villegas has faced allegations in the past of ties with Colombia’s demobilized paramilitary groups but was never convicted. He has formally denied the latest charges in court, and told El Colombiano he was confident with his actions that led to the surrender of six members of the Terraza, a powerful faction of the Oficina de Envigado famed for hired killings.

InSight Crime Analysis

Medellín has been widely and often praised for its success in drastically reducing crime since the 1990s, when it was infamous around the world as the violent epicenter of the global cocaine trade. But Villegas’ arrest is a reminder that Medellín has not completely eradicated organized crime’s influence on the city’s governance.

If the charges against Villegas are to be believed, they do not appear to suggest a standard case of greed-driven corruption; indeed, no money was allegedly exchanged. However, they do show how negotiations — both in the political realm as well as in the underworld — have contributed to a reduction in violence in Medellín.

SEE ALSO: Oficina de Envigado News and Profile

In 2013, for instance, the city’s white-collar mafia realized that their criminal profits were being driven down by the violence of criminal power struggles. As InSight Crime chronicled at the time, this group of city elites deeply enmeshed in the underworld brokered a truce between rival factions of the Oficina as well the Urabeños criminal group. Peace was restored, homicides dropped, and business went back to usual.

Former Pablo Escobar Associate Killed in Medellín, Colombia

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A former associate of Pablo Escobar was killed in Colombia’s second-largest city, leading to speculation that he continued to traffic drugs long after the fall of the Medellín Cartel.

José Antonio Ocampo, alias “Pelusa,” was murdered in Medellín on April 22, reported Semana. Pelusa had allegedly served as a key associate of Pablo Escobar’s now-defunct Medellín Cartel.

Pelusa had been captured by Colombian authorities at an estate in Necoclí, in the department of Antioquia, in December 1989. At the time, the police described him as one of the most important figures in the Medellín cartel, the New York Times reported.

In June 1992, however, Pelusa reportedly survived an attempt on his life by Escobar, and eventually joined the infamous “Doce del Patíbulo,” a group of drug traffickers who fought the Medellín Cartel’s leader until his death in December 1993, according to Ruta Noticias.   

After the cartel’s fall, Pelusa’s presence in Antioquia, particularly in the Urabá region, was reportedly linked with right-wing paramilitary groups, and eventually the Urabeños, now Colombia’s most powerful drug trafficking organization.

Pelusa was reportedly shot by unidentified men at a gas station along the Via de Las Palmas, in Medellín. The city’s security secretary, Gustavo Villegas, said there were no outstanding charges against him, reported Noticias Caracol.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Medellín Cartel was significantly weakened following Escobar’s death in 1993, but many associates of the legendary drug lord continued to successfully operate undetected in subsequent years. Pelusa appears to have been one of them.

However, Pelusa was not a high-profile figure like Escobar. Rather, it is more likely that he was an “invisible” — a term used to describe long-time drug traffickers who survived the fall of the Colombian cartels and continued working with various organized crime groups in the country.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

Other Colombian traffickers have followed the same strategy. For example, Juan Carlos Mesa Vallejo, alias “Tom,” rose from being a mid-level gangster in a criminal organization known as Los Chatas to one of the leaders of the Oficina de Envigado, which is considered a successor to the Medellín Cartel. The US Treasury Department believes Tom now works as the main link between the Oficina and the Urabeños, and is responsible for managing the relationships between the two groups.