A dramatic, cinematic-like bid to rob a gold depot in the iconic Colombian city associated with Colombia's most violent drug cartels is just the latest sign that the city is back to its its old system of crime and no punishment.
BOGOTÁ — The footage looks like a crime series filmed on location in Medellín, yet it was anything but fiction. Earlier this month, around 30 armed and hooded criminals tried to mount an assault on a gold foundry in the Colombian city's El Poblado district. Their masks, motorbikes and dump truck were all indications of how dangerous Medellín has become — and reminiscent of how unsafe it used to be.
Bystanders were brazenly filming it all, shouting admiration or surprise. Unbothered by the background noise of gunfire, their reactions were proof of how commonplace such incidents have become. Their attitudes also showed the tendency to see a potential tragedy as a joke. Meme creators and online improvisers were quick to respond with cheeky humor and mischievous concoctions.
While the spectacle became fodder for entertainment, it was far from the city's craziest heist.
A few years back, before the pandemic, parts of Medellín were targeted by a gang consisting of two "seniors" who wore hats like old men but moved like lightning. They stole a good 120 million pesos "at the counter" of 11 establishments in robberies that barely lasted two minutes. Their criminal triumphs turned them into local legends before they were caught. To think they were in the autumn of their lives...
In the 1970s — that decade of historical events, hippies, economic parasites and free love — another gang of thieves hit the "industrial city" of Colombia, our land of flowers and pretty girls. They went by the distinguished name of La Pesada ("the weighty one") and their principle was better to rob a bank than establish one, (Perhaps this was in homage to the playwright Berthold Brecht, who reportedly said, "Robbing a bank is a crime, but not as big as starting one.")
Its members looked like handsome film stars and had a Robin Hood-like goal of sharing their gains with the city's poorer districts. They had theatrical names like Toñilas, El Pote Zapata, Pacho Troneras and El Mono Trejos, and their code of honor included not killing guards or policemen. The gang was a cast of colorful characters whose stories were worthy of the silver screen. Trejos, for example, loved both poetry and bragging that no prison could hold him and went down in history for kidnapping (and probably murdering) the magnate and philanthropist Diego Echavarría Misas.
And of course there was perhaps the most iconic drug kingpin of the 20th century, Pablo Escobar, (a favorite subject of Netflix) whose empire dominated the city until he was killed there in a shootout with Colombian police in 1993.
Meme inspired a recent hold-up in Medellín, Colombia.
cincomildepan via Instagram
Preventing crime in Medellín
Fast forward to today: State prosecutors announced the gang ended up stealing 500 million pesos ($128,000) worth of gold at the depot. The incident has caused a lot of commotion, but the important elements aren't found in online forums. The number of criminals taking part, the type of weapons they used and their ability to disguise two accomplices as traffic policemen, to deviate traffic on a busy road: This all points to the presence of a structured, criminal organization.
"Movie-like" incidents (as this kerfuffle was called) often indicate when a city is a den for criminals who control much of its territory. In many districts, as residents will tell you, "the law of the land" is very different from what is written in legal books. None of this is new in Medellín; the criminal presence here is both disturbing and endemic.
A repository of desperate lives, pollution and a seething population.
Jokes and memes aside, the authorities must adopt responsible and effective positions. The city needs more than police intervention. It needs prevention, investment in cultural and social spheres and planning that considers people and citizens, not the profit margins of construction firms.
Medellín is turning into a repository of desperate lives, pollution (and not just the environmental kind) and a seething population. Meanwhile, gangsters and criminals, who are anything but theatrical, continue ruling the roost right under the noses of bewildered locals and vapid authorities.
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