Tuluá, the Colombian city where you can have someone murdered for $100

La Inmaculada — a criminal group that has been operating for more than a decade — has unleashed an unprecedented wave of violence in the city of Tuluá, which reached its peak over the past week. Hundreds of police officers and soldiers have been deployed to the municipality

Violencia en Tuluá
Children play and a police officer stands guard in the neighborhood of La Inmaculada.Andrés Torres Galeano
Juan Pablo Vásquez

Roberto Posada, 40, misses Marcelo — his 12-year-old Boston terrier — every day. He has barely seen his dog since he returned to Tuluá, after 15 months in exile. Upon coming back, he decided that it was best for Marcelo to continue under the care of the veterinarian who’s been taking care of the dog during his owner’s absence. Two weeks ago, Roberto visited his best friend. He’s still affected by the farewell. “He chased me to the door. He wanted to go with me. Sometimes, I think it’s better not to see him, because it hurts me a lot to say goodbye,” he sighs, looking behind his shoulder from the passenger seat.

The scenario reveals why he cannot stay with Marcelo. An armored SUV — flanked by three escorts from the National Protection Unit (UNP) — takes him to downtown Tuluá, a Colombian city of 230,000 inhabitants. Roberto is one of the most-visible victims of the wave of violence that’s taking place in the Valle del Cauca, a region in western Colombia.

On Saturday, February 10, a traffic cop was murdered. Another was injured, while six taxis were set on fire. This rash of crimes was carried out by members of La Inmaculada, a local gang that emerged about a decade ago from a neighborhood in the city of the same name. The attacks were apparently retaliation for the capture of Mauricio Marín — alias “Nacho” — one of the gang’s leaders, who was taken into custody a few days earlier.

Subsequent investigations revealed that the order to spread terror came from prison. Andrés Felipe Marín — alias “Pipe,” Nacho’s brother — sent it out. Authorities arrested four people, including two youths, ages 14 and 17. One of them said that they were promised payments of 400,000 pesos ($100) for each homicide and 140,000 pesos ($35 dollars) per burned car.

Such incidents are by no means new or isolated. A week earlier — on Saturday, February 3 — the local police deactivated a car that was loaded with explosives, in the vicinity of the mayor’s office. The explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) truck is still parked in the main square of Tuluá. Security fences have been installed on the surrounding streets, interspersed on the right and left, forcing vehicles to move slowly, in a zigzag pattern.

“They did all this to prevent a hitman from being [able to get through] and escape easily,” Robert notes. The SUV transporting him stops a few feet ahead. He gets out, enters the City Hall, goes through a metal detector and heads up to his office. A police officer in a bulletproof vest guards the entrance. Inside, a dozen officials carry out their work, refreshed by the air conditioning. None of them say it out loud, but they’re afraid to be at work. There’s a lot of fear when your boss is living under death threats. Some municipal workers’ unions have expressed this concern to Robert: he has the memos waiting for him on his desk.

A Colombian soldier guards a street in Tuluá.Andrés Torres Galeano

With characteristic frankness, Robert says that he accepted his position as secretary of institutional development precisely so that he wouldn’t be killed. He’s been receiving pamphlets, anonymous messages and funeral wreaths for more than three years now. When he was a journalist, the multiple investigations and articles that he published in different media outlets about La Inmaculada’s links with people linked to the last municipal administration — which governed from January 1, 2020, to December 31, 2023 — made him a declared enemy of the gang. In September 2021, while walking through La Esperanza, he was attacked by several men, in what he describes as an attempt at “intimidation.”

“The only journalist who mentioned that attack was Marcos Montalvo. He said that it was worrying that something like that could happen with nobody speaking out,” he recalls. A seasoned 68-year-old journalist, Marcos was his friend and — like him — was threatened for denouncing acts of corruption in the municipal transportation department, where La Inmaculada allegedly had influence.

The sound of computer keyboards clacking can be heard outside Robert’s office. He remains silent. As best he can, he stammers out a few apologies, before suddenly bursting into tears. After a few minutes, he continues speaking. Marcos was murdered five days after the attack on Robert, just two streets away. A hitman approached him while he was talking with some friends in a store: he shot him four times in the chest. No one else was hurt or robbed. The perpetrator pulled the trigger, got on a motorcycle and escaped. The message was clear. Robert, however, decided to continue publishing. It was only a matter of time before something happened to him.

Faced with imminent danger, the Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) and Reporters Without Borders helped him leave the country in July 2022. He traveled through Mexico City, Madrid and La Paz. The threats didn’t stop during his exile. “They sent me [messages] to tell me that they knew I had left Colombia and that I had left my family here; they knew their routines and where they lived.” The organizations couldn’t continue financing his stay abroad: he spent all his savings and went into debt. “Those who have the most [riding on me not being killed] are my friends. I have to pay back what they lent me,” he adds, laughing, even though he still has tears in his eyes.

Robert Posada, a former journalist and Tuluá’s current secretary of development, pictured on February 14, 2024.Andrés Torres Galeano

In October 2023, with the little money he had left, he bought a return ticket to Colombia. At the El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá, a member of the UNP was waiting for him. The official warned him that he shouldn’t return to Tuluá. He assures EL PAÍS how, in that moment, the spirituality that he didn’t develop as a young came to the surface. “I asked God to do his will,” he shrugs, showing a picture of Saint Michael the Archangel that he carries in his wallet.

At the time, Gustavo Vélez — a former mayor of Tuluá — was seeking a second term, with the endorsement of the Conservative Party. Robert attributes the offer that the politician made him to be a sign of divine intervention.

“The most-threatened mayor in Colombia”

To identify the mayor’s office, you only have to follow the trail of police officers and bodyguards. As one approaches the building, their number grows. Outside is Luz Elena Londoño, waiting for her husband. In an interview with a Cali-based newspaper, she said that her husband is “the most-threatened mayor in Colombia.”

Suddenly, an official approaches her to say goodbye. He informs her that “the school route is about to start.” When EL PAÍS asks her about this strange phrase, she laughs and explains: “They call it that because [my husband] leaves with police, escorted to his home, as if it were the route that a school bus takes. [The officers] have to take turns, because there aren’t enough vans to take them all in one trip.”

Mayor Gustavo Vélez, 54, opens a wooden door and appears, smiling. He wears jeans and a light blue shirt. It’s lunchtime. In the underground parking lot of the mayor’s office, a caravan of motorcycles and armored vehicles is waiting to take him to eat sancocho, a traditional soup from the region. He’s accompanied by his wife and Robert, whom he has hosted since he returned to Tuluá. “As soon as I arrived, they canceled my reservation at the hotel, because I supposedly posed a danger to the staff. The mayor then told me to stay at his house and advise him on his campaign communications. He won and appointed me secretary to protect me from any attack,” Robert comments gratefully.

Mayor Vélez’s current residence is actually his country home. He had no alternative to moving there after receiving dozens of threats when he was a candidate. Even though 25 men are in charge of his security, the mayor jokes about the situation. “Why am I going to feel sorry for myself? I’m blessed. I’ve been with my wife for 39 years and she still puts up with me after so long,” he laughs. However, despite his good humor, his life has been significantly affected.

A young man is inspected by a member of the Colombian Armed Forces.Andrés Torres Galeano

Upon arriving at the farm, one of the mayor’s grandsons comes running for a hug. The couple’s other three grandchildren — as well as their four children — moved to other municipalities for fear of being the target of attacks. In the months before the vote — which was held in October — their first-born son’s office was shot at and the mayor’s parents’ house was struck by a grenade. Fortunately, in both cases, only material damage was reported. Those responsible, Vélez points out, belong to La Inmaculada, which distributed pamphlets ordering journalists in the area to refrain from covering his political campaign, “if they didn’t want to become a target.”

Óscar — the son who’s visiting — is convinced that the reason for the criminal group’s animosity towards his father dates back to his first term as mayor, between 2016 and 2019, when Vélez fought them. La Inmaculada was already established as the main criminal group in Tuluá. It had taken its first steps — like almost all similar organizations — by dominating the drug-trafficking market, before beginning to extort merchants. “[The gangsters] charge them to let them sell products. They’ve even killed food distributors for not having permission from them,” Óscar sighs. The Attorney General’s Office has indications that, in past municipal administrations, the gang had control over the hiring of some mayor’s secretaries, who oversee various departments.

Seeing how several of his campaign posters were removed and burned, Vélez chose to reach voters in a different way. He turned his efforts to social media and hired former military man and paraglider Jorge González to fly over the municipality with a banner advertising his candidacy.

The outcome was bittersweet. He swept the polls with 41,340 votes — well above the 22,082 obtained by Ever Villegas, his rival — but it cost the life of González, who was murdered in October, after making an emergency landing in a sector controlled by La Inmaculada. “He managed to call us, he told us where he was, but when we went to pick him up, they had already shot him,” Luz Elena Londoño laments.

Gustavo Vélez
The mayor of Tuluá, Gustavo Vélez, is one of the mayors who has received the most death threats in Colombia. Andrés Torres Galeano

He wasn’t the only casualty of the municipal campaign. On December 31 — one day before Vélez’s inauguration — hitmen attacked Eliecid Ávila, the only Conservative councilor who had been elected in the regional elections. He died in hospital two days later. “I’m not going to lie to you: it’s been hard. We were also aware about what it was going to be like. And we’re just getting started, they’re not going to break us. Right, Robert?” Vélez nods to his friend, secretary and guest, who raises his head from his sancocho in acknowledgement.

The fear

On Wednesday, February 14, at around midnight, more than 30 police officers enter the neighborhood of La Inmaculada. The trucks and vans that transport them only reach the main roads. At a certain point, the uniformed men hop down, carrying flashlights and rifles. Wearing helmets, they explore the narrow, unpaved alleys on foot. Some blocks remain desolate, while in others, there are minors hanging out in a park, or neighbors chatting around a table, playing chess. The movements of the different units — including officers who specialize in anti-narcotics and anti-terrorism operations — were previously laid out via images taken by drones. In command of the operation is 40-year-old Colonel Nicolás Suárez, the top person in charge of security in Tuluá since October 2023.

Under his command, he has nearly 500 men and women from different specialties. They were the ones who managed to capture those responsible for the torching of taxis on Saturday, February 10. “We set up checkpoints at the entrances and exits of the municipality. That’s where we got them,” he says. In his opinion — in addition to the arrests — it’s key to undermine the economic support that the criminal gang relies on. “We have to hit their finances, identify who’s willing to launder their money,” he adds. Suárez — like many of his subordinates — has received messages from his relatives expressing concern that something will happen to him.

Members of Colombia’s special forces guard the city after the events of February 10, 2024.Andrés Torres Galeano

In the streets, people prefer to remain silent. A street vendor located at the exit of the San Bartolomé parish complains about the sales, which are unusually bad for an Ash Wednesday. He blames “the bandits and the mayor, for how [dangerous] they made the town.” Minutes later, he refuses to continue speaking. He says two men warned him “not to be [a big mouth] with journalists.” The scene is repeated with another group of elderly men who are feeding the pigeons. “Whoever owes nothing, fears nothing,” one man says. “I won’t comment further, because, you know, this is a delicate situation.”

The violence in Tuluá — a city more populated than medium-sized regional capitals in Colombia, such as Riohacha or Tunja — has gained relevance on the national agenda. Minister of Defense Iván Velásquez visited the town this past Friday. He announced that the government will support the mayor in his fight against crime. Mayor Vélez — among other things — wants his children to be able to return and for his parents to live without fear. “No one wants to sit with my mother when she goes to mass. The other ladies change pews, due to the anxiety of being seen with her… something could happen to them. She complains to me,” he concludes, with a voice full of hurt.

Police patrol the streets of Tuluá.Andrés Torres Galeano

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