An outsider criminal group from the Caribbean coast, far more ruthless, wealthy, and disciplined than Medellin’s street gangs, is poised to take over Colombia’s second largest city. InSight Crime visits the city's new battleground: the eastern neighborhood of Comuna 8.

Like many of Medellin’s peripheral neighborhoods, Comuna 8 sees frequent gun battles between the approximately 24 street gangs, or “combos,” that control extortion and drug trafficking in the area. This helped drive the murder rate up to 92 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011, the third highest of Medellin’s 16 comunas. The neighborhood, population 135,000, has long been among Medellin’s most violent.

But during the first week of May, Comuna 8 began seeing gun battles every day, at any time. “It wasn’t a couple of pistol shots after dark anymore,” said one resident, who has lived over 20 years in the area. “I heard things I’d never heard before. Machine gun fire, grenades.”

Comuna_8_Map_1The unspoken agreement between the combos that usually limited their turf wars to evening hours had apparently ended. Street life in Comuna 8 disappeared: the food carts that usually took up space on the street corners all cleared out. The only avocado seller who remained, who one woman said she’d bought from her entire life, was hit in the gut by a stray bullet. School was canceled. Bus lines shut down. Residents who had bedrooms that faced the street moved to the back of their apartments. Others said they began sleeping under their beds, with the mattress placed against the bed frame to absorb any stray gunfire.

On June 20, the military moved in and began patrolling the streets, bringing a temporary calm to the neighborhood. But understanding why Comuna 8 saw such an acute flare up of violence, which many longtime residents said was unlike anything the embattled barrio had ever experienced, means understanding what the neighborhood represents in terms of Colombia’s larger drug war.

Enter the Urabeños

One of Colombia’s most powerful cartels, the Urabeños, whose stronghold lies along the Caribbean coast, has been trying to establish a foothold in Medellin since at least 2011. The problem is that the city has long been under control of the mafia network set up by Pablo Escobar in the 1980s, known as the Oficina de Envigado. For an outsider group like the Urabeños, wresting control from the Oficina (a cartel unloved by Medellin residents, but with the advantage of familiarity) was not going to be easy.

The Urabeños’ strategy involved launching their battle for Medellin at precisely the right time. They began deploying military cells to Medellin’s outskirts just as the Oficina de Envigado resolved a drawn-out internal war between two rival factions. One of these factions was led by Maximiliano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano,” who sold off part of his business to the Urabeños before he was arrested in Venezuela in November 2011. The victor, Erick Vargas, alias “Sebastian,” was poised to become Medellin’s undisputed crime lord, until the Urabeños entered the scene.

“The Urabeños confronted Sebastian and the Oficina when they were down. They were tired. They were battered from this other bloody war they’d just fought,” says Fernando Quijano, director of Corpades, a local NGO that tracks security issues.

The Urabeños have some key advantages over the Oficina. They have military training and superior weapons. They have a ruthless former paramilitary overseeing their Medellin campaign. Most of all, they have cash from their control of international cocaine export routes along the Caribbean coast. And while Sebastian’s Oficina de Envigado has plenty of sources of funding -- including extortion of the city’s businesses and the local drug trade -- their economic power cannot compare to that of the Urabeños. A typical foot soldier for the Oficina can expect to earn between 50,000 pesos (about $25) to 80,000 pesos (about $40) a week. The Urabeños are reportedly offering a starting rate of 400,000 pesos (about $200).

The aim of the Urabeños is to establish control over all the major exit and entry points of Medellin. This means the ability to impose a war tax on all smugglers moving guns, drugs, or other contraband in and out of the city. The Urabeños have essentially already established control in the western and southern outskirts of Medellin (although some sections of these areas remain loyal to Sebastian). What remains is the north, and the east -- Comuna 8. Controlling this neighborhood means easy access to the eastern department of Antioquia, of which Medellin is the capital, and all the drug laboratories and coca crops in this region. It also brings them one step closer to dominance over Medellin, the crown jewel of Colombia’s underworld.

The War in Comuna 8

When urban warfare broke out in Comuna 8, it was partly a reflection of the same dynamics governing criminal behavior across the region from Honduras to Mexico. Medellin is basically seeing a battle between small criminal organizations for territorial control, in which these street gangs are backed by the larger cartels who control international drug export routes. And one of the main causes of violence between these smaller groups is betrayal: the switching of alliances from one national drug cartel to another.

Comuna_8_Map_2In Comuna 8, the break reportedly happened in Villatina, one of Comuna 8’s 34 subdivisions. Last December, the Urabeños offered a large sum of money to the leader of the local gang in Villatina, alias “Gomelo,” if he submitted to their control. Gomelo spent about four months deliberating over what to do, then agreed to the offer. To seal the pact, on May 6 he killed a top confidant of Sebastian’s, alias “El Mellizo,” who was charged with collecting the Oficina’s extortion tax from Comuna 8. Police offer a different version of events, saying that Sebastian ordered Gomelo to hand over control to El Mellizo, and he refused.

The Oficina’s reaction was to mobilize the combos still loyal to Sebastian to Villatina and confront Gomelo, who appears to be in hiding, and the Urabeños. InSight Crime heard reports that there are about 300 armed members of the Urabeños in Comuna 8, although this number could include members of the combos that are allied to the drug cartel. The combos still loyal to the Oficina de Envigado have reportedly moved 250 fighters to Comuna 8.

While the gun battles do not appear to have caused many deaths -- between January and May, Comuna 8 reportedly only registered 29 homicides, a 44 percent drop from the same period last year -- resident say they were unsettled by the usage of military-grade weapons, such as M60 machine guns, and explosives, as well as the frequency of attacks. The public outcry, rather than the number of killings, may have been what prompted the mayor’s office to militarize the neighborhood.

The Urabeños had a special interest in extending their reach to Villatina. With a foothold established here, they are only 10 minutes from the center of the city. There is also a police station in the neighborhood, and co-opting the officers based here would further cement their power in eastern Medellin.

But if there is any neighborhood where Sebastian is likely to fight to the death, it is Comuna 8. The Oficina de Envigado leader grew up here. Other prominent members of the paramilitary bloc that used to dominate Medellin, the Cacique Nutibara, also have deep roots in this neighborhood. And throughout its history Medellin has rarely allowed outsider groups to cement their power in the city for long.

Both the Urabeños and the Oficina are using street gangs to fight their war for them. But it is unlikely that many of these combos are keeping the bigger picture in mind. On the ground, the war is about fighting for an extra couple of blocks, and extracting revenge on a rival street gang that killed a family member one or two generations ago.

One combo that has already accepted the Urabeños’ pay-off is based in the Comuna 8 neighborhood La Sierra, subject of an award-winning documentary. A community leader who did not want to be named told InSight Crime that if the Urabeños take Villatina, the La Sierra gang will basically control the entire side of hill at the edge of Comuna 8, from top to nearly the bottom. “Achieving that was beyond anything their fathers ever did,” the community resident said. “And now that they’re there, they’re not going to budge.”

What Comes Next

The leader of the Oficina de Envigado, Sebastian, is not thought to be in the city at the moment. For now, the Oficina’s main advantage is numbers. Despite the Urabeños’ recent advance in Comuna 8, this is still a bastion of the Oficina: at least 23 out of the 34 barrios here are still thought to be loyal to Sebastian.

But “loyalty” is a tenuous term. While the helicopters monitoring the skies and the military units currently patrolling the streets of Comuna 8 have contributed to the conflict’s quieting down, the peace is also allowing both sides to regroup and think through their next options. One possibility is that many combos will choose not to confront the Urabeños and their superior military force, but will simply wait until they are made an offer. This offer could consist of a one-time pay-off, perhaps with a pact that the combos receive weapons, training, and permission to continue running their own criminal activities in their neighborhood, so long as they hand over a percentage of their earnings to the Urabeños.

What is clear is that violence is likely to increase in Medellin, and Comuna 8 will be one of the main war fronts.