District 13 at the mercy of Medellin's gangs

Beset by daily settlings of scores between rival drug traffickers, Colombia's second city Medellin is a theatre of violence which hinders its attempt to project the image of a rehabilitated city.


Perched in the hills on the outskirts of Medellin, District 13 - where more than 100,000 residents cram into houses with corrugated-iron-roofs - is a working-class area similar to many others in Colombia. Many of its inhabitants fled here to escape the violence enveloping the Colombian countryside. But the drug traffickers that inhabit this neighbourhood have other ideas, to the point that even the daily military presence does not put a stop to their deadly trade.


Gangs of youths shout at each other from one hill to the other and gunshots can be heard, most alarmingly, this seems to have little effect on the children who play nearby in the streets. Death has become a daily spectacle. Armed gangs, who fight for control of territory, are part of the daily life for the inhabitants of District 13 who are frequently dragged into this dangerous turf war. A young man covered in blood lies in the middle of the street. Was he a member of a gang, or an innocent victim? Nobody knows or cares. Only a few children near the security perimeter installed by the police seem affected. Some of them hide their eyes or look away, but most of them seem fascinated by the violence which is eating away at this part of the city.


A merciless war


The economic and industrial capital of Colombia, Medellin’s murder rate has fallen back significantly since 2003 and it is trying to nurture an image of a rehabilitated city. Medellin wishes to attract tourists again, and wipe the slate clean and ditch the city’s murky reputation.


But the image of the famous ‘godfather’ of the 1970s, Pablo Escobar, is still in fresh in people’s minds. More worryingly, some of the younger generation are ready to take up the challenge. The stakes are high: the country still produces 700 tons of cocaine each year and the local drug trade in Medellin is said to bring in over 3 million euros per month.


Indeed, since the death of the charismatic head of the drugs cartel, the mafia has split and the new bosses - although more discreet than their idol - are no less cruel. They are ready to wage a merciless war for control of the city.


And there is no shortage of manpower. There are now over 150 gangs - which roughly translates to 4,000 men - ready to kill for a few pesos or grams of cocaine. The stakes in this battle are beyond them, but they are no fools. They know that the battle they are waging is not their own, but they deny being puppets: “You could say that they are using us […] but they do try to help.” The drug traffickers are thus using these adolescents, aged on average between 17 and 22, to do their dirty work. In exchange, they are offering them an easy life, but one which is often cut short.


Medellin sees on average seven murders a day – which is almost twice as many as in 2008. Two thirds of these needless deaths are due to gang warfare.

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