An ever increasing string of enemies meant the notorious drug lord had to radically expand his network of contract killers in Medellin and adjacent municipalities.
Out of several of loosely organized, semi-independent assassination branches, the “Oficina de Envigado,” named after the municipality south of Medellin were it was born, stood out as one of the most effective.
The mighty “Don Berna”
Berna began his clandestine career as a fighter in the left-wing EPL guerrilla movement, but joined the Medellin Cartel as one of the subordinates of the Galeano and Moncada families when the guerrillas decided to demobilize.
When Escobar assassinated Berna’s bosses while detained in his self-built prison “La Catedral,” the former guerrilla turned against the Medellin Cartel founder and joined paramilitary group “Los Pepes.”
After Escobar’s assassination in 1993, the brutal and cunning Berna emerged as the natural leader of the Oficina and the Medellin underworld. With other PEPES leaders, he became involved with the right-wing, anti-guerrilla paramilitary organization, AUC, or the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
Thus began one of the bloodiest chapters in the history of La Oficina. The crime syndicate and the AUC jointly combated left-wing FARC and ELN guerrillas over control of Medellin’s impoverished neighborhoods, often in collusion with the security forces.
Berna became the commander of the AUC’s feared Cacique Nutibara Bloc, much to the dislike of far-right paramilitaries who despised Berna’s criminal rackets and the groping influence of narcos inside the AUC.
After the left-wing guerrilla militias had been driven from Medellin in 2002, Berna surrendered to authorities but continued to exercise a prudent, but brutal control over the city’s underworld and neighborhoods while avoiding confrontations with the authorities.
The peaceful coexistence allowed the city government of then-Mayor Sergio Fajardo to carry out a number of social investment projects. The peaceful co-existence between the city’s politicians and underworld became known as “Donbernability” and led to a sharp reduction in homicide rates between 2003 and 2008.
After Don Berna’s extradition to the United States in 2008, the quiet consensus which had shaped Medellin’s underworld broke down. Homicide and displacement rates rose dramatically, and the Oficina splintered into several, rivaling factions. The two most prominent came under control of alias “Valenciano” and alias “Sebastian.”
A new business model
Having lost the income of international drug trafficking, the Oficina took to other means to finance its organization.
Extortion rackets became common practice and the individual combos that made part of the Oficina ventured into the Bajo Cauca region searching for coca, marijuana and heroin, while in the city of Medellin the combos aggressively pushed local drug consumption.
By the end of 2010, the war between Valenciano and Sebastian came to an end as the latter had assumed control of approximately 90% of the city’s territory, leaving his rival only the eastern Comuna 13 district.
Valenciano, the assassin turned commander-in-chief, was arrested in Venezuela in November 2011, while Sebastian was captured in Copacabana, just northeast of Medellin in August 2012.
Following these arrests, the crime syndicate further fractured. Reports of deadly, internal battles surfaced again on New Year’s Eve 2012, when nine suspected members of the syndicate were massacred in Envigado, in what media described as a showdown between two generations of Oficina leaders.
However, despite reports of heavy infighting, the Oficina’s “board of directors” is believed to remain in control of drug dealing and extortion in Medellin. According to US authorities, the organization has also recovered international drug trafficking routes.
The appearance of a new actor in Medellin’s metropolitan area in 2009, AUC dissident group “Los Urabeños,” who would later call themselves the “Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia” (AGC), seems to have done little to halt the Oficina’s control over the majority of the city’s drug dealers and street gangs.
While the AGC, who hail from the northwestern Uraba region, control some neighborhoods and many exit routes that lead to Colombia’s Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, the Oficina is believed to be the number one crime syndicate in Medellin and surrounding municipalities.
Without a clear leadership, the Oficina is up for stiff competition against the hierarchically-structured AGC. But with a history of infiltrating Medellin’s local state apparatus and an obvious standing in many economically vulnerable neighborhoods, the Oficina seems to have an edge over its newly-arrived enemy.
According to crime analysis website Insight Crime, the Oficina generates approximately $31.4 million a year from money laundering alone. In order to maintain its businesses on the street, the Oficina uses pistols with silencers and is believed to have a large arsenal of machine guns and explosives.
Due to its decentralized nature — the so-called board of directors is believed to have some eight members — factions of the Oficina often make temporary alliances with other criminal organizations, such as the Valle del Cauca-based drug-trafficking group “Los Rastrojos” and Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas.
These alliances would facilitate drug trafficking routes to the United States and Europe.