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Columbian gangs kill to "cleanse' cities

Fredy guesses he has killed about 100 people. "I'm more or less the one who does the cracking around here," he says, using a slang term for murder.

He doesn't consider it murder. Fredy, 21, belongs to a "popular militia" _ Colombia's latest answer to its endemic violence, but also its newest form of violence.

The militias have assigned themselves the task of ridding Colombia's inner cities of criminals, a process they refer to as "social cleansing." Most militias give drug dealers, gang members and rapists a chance to reform. If that doesn't work, the offenders are killed. Fredy said he kills four or five people in a "good" week.

The militias, run by middle-aged leftists and former guerrillas, are staffed by youths as young as 15. According to estimates by Colombian police and figures from a militia commander, the militias have collected 4,000 to 5,000 members since they began three years ago. More recruits are flocking to join, and the groups are spreading from Medellin to Colombia's other large cities.

"If it was hip five years ago to be a sicario (teenage assassin), to wear a certain jacket and certain tennis shoes . . . now it's hip to be in a militia," said a leader of the Revolutionary Militia Commandos. Using an alias like other militia members interviewed, he called himself Peter.

Many militia members join, like teenage gang members and guerrilla fighters in many countries, because they want revenge.

Fredy described the murder of his brother, John Byron, with outrage. At a dance six years ago, a young man named Beto asked a girl to dance. She turned him down and danced with John Byron, a good-looking 22-year-old, instead. Beto killed John Byron. Then Fredy killed Beto.

A 23-year-old militia recruit named Jose said he wanted to join "because of things that happened to my family _ without desire to do any harm to anyone."

Then he described how an aunt was killed for refusing to cooperate with a gang that wanted her to be an informant. Two men walked into her house. "One of them took her baby out of her arms, and the other shot her," Jose said.

For the innumerable youths who cannot see any other solution, the militias' method is appealing even if they make the paradoxical claim, like Jose, that they don't want to harm anyone.

As the cocaine-trafficking Medellin Cartel grew here during the 1980s, it trained thousands of young men as hired killers. The city's murder rate soared to about nine per day in a population of 2-million people.

When the cartel went into decline, many young thugs were left unemployed. Instead of killing for hire, they formed gangs and preyed on their own neighborhoods.

Last year 7,081 people were killed in Medellin, according to the city's Criminal Investigation Department. The vast majority were murdered. By comparison, 182 people were murdered in 1991 in the Tampa Bay area, which has about the same population as Medellin.

Many parts of Medellin became so violent that police gave up on them or agreed to leave them alone in exchange for payoffs. The Colombian court system was so overwhelmed that it was no threat to the gangs.

"The reality is that the state was not in power," said Lucho, a militia commander. "The power was the gangs."

In one Medellin neighborhood called El Bosque, four gangs took root: the Gang of Big-Headed Omar, the Gang of the Hoarse One (which specialized in stealing taxis), the Exit Gang (run by Jimmy and Humberto the Monkey), and the Gang of El Bosque.

Now Lucho's group, called the Militia of the Valley of Aburra (the valley around Medellin), has taken over, and the neighborhood is much quieter.

"We are already pretty clean around here," said Isabel, a 71-year-old resident wearing a pair of crooked white-rimmed glasses. "They aren't stealing. They're killing, but they're cleaning up." She smiled.

At least five different militias rule various poor neighborhoods in Medellin: the Bolivarian Militias, the Militia of the People and for the People, the Militia, the Militia of Popular Resistance, the Militia of the Aburra Valley, and the Militia of the 6th and 7th of November.

Some have ties to Colombia's leftist guerrilla groups.

Militia members say that they are not just new gangs. They see themselves as heavily armed Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, and they describe their "work" with appropriate earnestness.

"They teach us why we're doing what we do," said Francine, a 15-year-old recruit with long brown hair and big eyes. "We are trying to do good for the community. Trying to create new individuals and a new people."

Lucho claimed that what he calls "military activity" takes up only about 15 percent of his time. His militia holds Sunday barbecues in the communities it controls and organizes sports teams for children. He also collects money from local merchants to fund the militia and listens to the pleas of mothers whose children have been sentenced to death.

One woman pushed her way past other people as he walked down a street. "I am the mother of the one they're going to give it to," she said desperately. "Please no!" The militia had already shot her other son. He was bad, she said, but not John Jairo, the other. Lucho reluctantly agreed to investigate.

He insisted that his favorite pastime is playing with children and animals. He is particularly fond of his pet rabbit.

As dusk fell at a recent Sunday barbecue, after a soccer game had ended, couples began to dance on the small main street of El Bosque. At the same time, Fredy and another young man called Mocho put a submachine gun in an old canvas bag and left the party to go kill someone. Their target was a gang member named Cagaleto who was accused of holding up milk truck drivers.

One of Cagaleto's neighbors had sent word that it would be a good time to kill him, but there was some confusion and it turned out Cagaleto was not home.

Fredy returned disappointed.

He was a gang member himself, he said. "I wasn't one of those who holds up milk trucks or beer trucks," he boasted. "I held up banks and jewelry stores." He thought that was more acceptable because banks and jewelers can spare the money.

"What hurts the (members of the) militia," he said, "is when someone steals from the people."

The militia "got hold of me and explained some things about life to me," Fredy said. Now he is one of its leaders.

"My talent is this," he said. "When I crack someone, if I start thinking about his mama it doesn't work. . . . I forget about it and I don't even remember his name. I forget them."