(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Self-proclaimed 14 years ago, they were underestimated by the authorities, but with the passage of time, they turned into a criminal machine that was capable of paralyzing part of this country. They learned from the former guerrillas and former paramilitaries, with retired military and police adding to the illegal armed organization. Now they are generating risks to the election in at least 253 municipalities.

“They aren’t self-defense forces. What we have in several areas of the country (. . .) are some emerging criminal organizations that are very small, that are managing illegal crops that were already there in the areas where the Self-Defense Forces had demobilized,” explained the then-High Commissioner for Peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, in a televised interview broadcast March 30, 2006. He was referring to the illegal armed groups that were surging to replace the demobilized United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) under the agreements signed with the Colombian government in the middle of 2003.

That clarification should not be minimized. According to statistics from the Directorate of Carabineros and Rural Security of the national Police, which was created to advance the work of inter-agency coordination and information, intended to articulate procedures for intelligence, operations, and confrontation against these illegal organizations, in that year there were 22 armed organizations in different regions of the country, made up of some four thousand men.

They were groups that wanted to take control of the territories that, apparently, the different blocs and fronts of the AUC had abandoned to go back to the legal life after they had laid down their arms and committed to tell the truth, make reparations to the victims, and not repeat their violent actions.

Among those groups, described as “very small”, one, that initially called itself the “Heroes of Castaño Bloc”, began to stand out. It was created in the middle of 2006 in northern Urabá in Antioquia by the order of Vicente Castaño, one of the founders of the AUC and the real brains behind the paramilitary expansion at the end of the ‘90’s.

Castaño delegated command responsibility to Daniel Rendón Herrera, alias “Don Mario”, a worn out former paramilitary who had experience in managing the finances that came from drug trafficking. He had demobilized with the Centaurs Bloc in September 2005 in the rural part of Casanare Department.

This new group was at first made up of former combatants from the AUC who did not go through the procedure of laying down arms and reincorporation into the legal life as offered by the Colombian government, or they repudiated the agreement and returned to fighting, just like some former guerrillas have decided to change gangs. Later on, retired soldiers and police joined the groups.

In the shadow of alias “Don Mario” were two men that had started their journey through the war two decades before in Urabá in Antioquia in the subversive ranks of the EPL: the brothers Juan de Dios and Dairo Antonio Úsuga David. Known by the aliases of “Giovanni” and “Otoniel” respectively, both brought experience in the armed struggle.

This early criminal organization made a qualitative jump on October 15, 2008, right during the Policy of Defense and Democratic Security pushed by the administration of then-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010). That day they carried out the first armed stoppage ever heard of, in several municipalities in the banana center in the Urabá part of Antioquia. The purpose was their “introduction to society” under the name of Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), although the national government would later call them “Los Urabeños” and later still, the “Clan del Golfo”, so as not to stigmatize the residents of Urabá.

By means of a communication, they explained that the reason for re-arming was “the administration’s failure to make progress on the peace process it was supposed to be advancing with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, and the progress by the guerrillas in controlling areas that the Self-Defense Forces had controlled for many years.”

At the same time, they made clear why they had adopted that name. “(. . .) we have named our movement Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, in homage to that great leader who was assassinated for defending the most unprotected classes in the country.” And they made clear their objective: “Our efforts will be aimed at fighting the guerrillas,  corruption, terrorism, kidnapping, crimes by the government, politicking, violations of human rights, and for the fortification of participatory democracy. We want a Colombia that is a mother country for everyone.”

That’s how they began to construct a bloody history that advanced very slowly toward different regions, with the hope of being positioned as the largest criminal organization in the country, and vanquishing anyone who opposed their objectives with blood and fire. At the time of the announcement, according to reports by the Human Rights Observatory and International Humanitarian Law in the President’s Office, the AGC were present in 18 municipalities in four departments: Antioquia,  Córdoba, Chocó, and Atlántico.

But behind that supposed ideological formulation was hidden an economic objective: control of the drug trafficking business and other illegal activities such as mining exploitation in gold-bearing areas. Those were the reasons that the bosses of the AGC strengthened alliances with illegal armed groups, local and regional criminal gangs, as well as with the prior FARC guerrillas, allowing them to expand and increase their ranks, weapons, and territorial control.

“The purpose was to dominate the whole chain of the business, without intermediaries, and functioning besides that, as security agents for other drug traffickers they were allied with and who were disposed to pay for it,” observed an investigation of the “Gaitanistas” by the Ideas for Peace Foundation.

Their main boss, alias “Don Mario”, became an obsession for the authorities and after intensive operations, he was captured in a rural area of the Municipality of Necoclí, in the Urabá part of Antioquia. After his arrest, “Giovanni” and “Otoniel” took over the command of the “Gaitanistas”. Their job was to expand and consolidate the organization.

According to an analysis by the Early Alert System (SAT) in the Ombudsman’s Office, based on information collected for more than a decade, and on opinions of specialists in the armed conflict and organized crime in Colombia, that criminal organization operates in a network with at least three dynamics. They have territorial presence as an organization, or they subcontract third party “services” with other illegal armed groups that are present locally or regionally; and they work in alliance with transnational drug trafficking cartels.

Camilo González Posso, Director of the Institute for the Study of Peace and Development (Indepaz) agrees with this characterization. He has followed this type of phenomenon. “This is not a vertical or highly structured organization, like the Army or the guerrillas. It’s a constellation of groups that are linked by their interests; many local gangs, organizations that are more structured, and a nucleus that remains very united through middle management. Since they are in an alliance that operates in many businesses, some going beyond drug trafficking, it’s a mafia-type portfolio.

Their strategy, armed stoppages

Based on this operating dynamic, which allows them to grow, expand, and consolidate, they have accomplished at least five armed stoppages, including the one of last week, in their 14 years of “Gaitanista” life. The first one was in October of 2008, when they announced their creation.

The second took place at the beginning of January in 2012, after the death of “Giovanni”, one of their most representative chieftains, in a Police action. It affected 16 municipalities in six departments.

After this death, the “Gaitanistas” remained under the command of “Otoniel” and of another man hardened by war, Francisco José Morelo Peñate, alias “El Negro Sarley”. And just the third strike, in April of 2013, was suffered by a number of populations in Urabá and Bajo Cauca, in Antioquia, after the death of “El Negro Sarley” in combat with the Armed Forces in the rural part of the Municipality of San Pedro de Urabá.

The fourth armed stoppage was carried out in April of 2016, and the excuse was the death of alias “El Negro Sarley”. In that criminal action, which affected 36 municipalities in eight departments of the country, they showed their power and territorial presence.

It’s worth pointing out that three of the armed stoppages promoted by the “Gaitanistas”, as well as their expansion and consolidation of territory, they accomplished while the Integrated Policy of Security and Defense of Prosperity was in effect. That had been pushed by the administration of then-President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018).

And the fifth armed stoppage occurred between the Thursday and Sunday of last week, a reaction by the “Gaitanistas” to the decision by the national administration to extradite alias “Otoniel” to the United States. The authorities considered him to be the maximum leader of the “Gaitanistas”, and he was captured in October of 2021 in a rural area of Necoclí, in the Urabá region of Antioquia.

Social organizations and government entities agree in emphasizing that, on this occasion, it affected at least 11 departments and 178 municipalities. Homicides, confinements of urban and rural communities, burning vehicles, closing of businesses and even cutting off water and gas services were part of the repertoire of violence applied by the AGC.

Looking at these effects, John Córdoba, a resident of the Urabá region of Antioquia, insists that, “these incidents of armed stoppage are not new, although they are certainly new in some other regions. Here, every time there’s a kill or a capture of some of the members of the Clan del Golfo, the citizens know that the next step is the armed stoppage, and that generally lasts three or four days.”

Speaking from one of the most important municipalities in this industrial agriculture region, that resident says the most recent action of the “Gaitanistas” didn’t generate “much anxiety because, one way or another, we have learned to live alongside the armed conflict.”

But in other areas like Carmen de Bolívar, in the Department of Bolívar, people did feel the effects, and that was described by the campesino Enemesio Ramírez, a resident of the town (vereda) of Ojito Seco in that municipality and an avocados grower. When the stoppage started on last Thursday, he had 2,000 avocados ready to sell, but he couldn’t get to the market because alleged members of the AGC were going around on motorcycles and shooting at anybody that went out. “They’re all going to be lost, and that’s both sad and infuriating,” he lamented.

Nevertheless, these are situations that come from times past. One of the most representative cases of that is what’s happening in the metropolitan area of Cúcuta in the Department of Norte de Santander. Wilifredo  Cañizares, Director of the Progress Foundation, which follows these phenomena where criminals violate human rights, says that the presence of the “Gaitanistas” dates back to December of 2020.

“They have political influence, they exercise control over the countryside, they have social control, and they live in territories that are very close to our capital city (. . .) which shows their strength, especially in these four years of the Duque administration. There’s no doubt that these paramilitary organizations have been strengthened all over the country,” Cañizares said.

In fact, this human rights defender insists that the expansion plans of the “Gaitanistas” in this region of the country have not changed, in spite of the capture and extradition of alias “Otoniel”. We have found that they are responding as a national organization, and their plans for expansion are continuing to develop, as is happening in Cúcuta. Before the surrender of “Otoniel, they were trying to get into Catatumbo and expand in the metropolitan area. They are doing this last in lock step.”

The SAT in the Ombudsman’s Office agrees with that analysis. It’s included in their most recent report of election risk, dated last February 17. In the report, this Office, which is an Inspector General’s agency, states that, in spite of the capture and killing of some of their bosses, the AGC “want to deepen their territorial control in the areas of their historic presence (Bajo Cauca, southern Córdoba, and Chocó)” along with “expanding by means of local alliances with other groups, or dealing with them with lower intensity activities.”

That’s why Cañizares criticizes the posture of the current national administration, which is to “minimize to the maximum the presence and control the government exercises in multiple regions of the country, the paramilitaries that the AGC represents; that policy is mere sophistry. We are living here.” That’s exactly what he was saying 16 years ago.

For his part, Posso, of Indepaz, also rejects President Duque’s statement about “the end of the ‘Gaitanistas’,” and reiterates that the past Armed Stoppage was “a demonstration of power; these aren’t isolated incidents or the last cries before they disappear (. . .) It’s a very serious problem, that after 17 years of arriving at demobilization agreements with the paramilitaries, these heirs of theirs have this kind of capability.”

“It’s been 17 years,” he adds, “in which they have announced the disappearance of the paramilitaries or of narcoparamilitaries in Colombia, and the result that we have, in spite of the blows against the top bosses, is that the groups are reproducing. This business is much more complicated than what the government is saying, and neither are these isolated events that aren’t very important. That simplification is an admission of impotence, more than anything.”

Election risk

In the report on election risk, the SAT in the Ombudsman’s Office has established that the “illegal armed groups are hoping to influence the social bases and the local authorities to intervene in the election process, with the goal of continuing and strengthening their control of the people and of the countryside.”

From that perspective, the situations of risk in the election scenario in some areas of the country, according to the SAT, “result from practices of traditional political manipulation associated with illegal armed groups, and they constrain or affect the free right to vote,” besides generating “threats to social leaders or candidates whose political proposals would counter their local hegemonic powers and their interests.”

For the Ombudsman’s Office, the activation of the actions of the illegal armed groups regarding the election happens under two circumstances related to the conditions in the regions. “If an illegal armed group already relies on hegemonic control of the territory, it generates intimidating messages to interfere in the election, or money to support candidates.” You see this aspect in the Departments of Antioquia and Córdoba, as well as in the region of the Montes de María, among others. “But if it’s an area that’s in dispute, there is a repertoire of violence to restrict or coopt the population,” as seems to be happening in Nariño, Cauca, Arauca, and Chocó.

Regarding the “Gaitanistas”, the SAT has determined that they are the source of threats in 253 municipalities in the country, converting them into the illegal armed organization with the greatest territorial presence, followed by the dissidents of the now-defunct FARC (230 municipalities) and the ELN guerrillas (189 municipalities).

Those 230 municipalities that are at risk from the AGC are concentrated in the departments of Antioquia, Bolívar, Chocó, Cauca, Nariño, Norte de Santander, and Valle del Cauca. Of those, 32 communities are identified as being at extreme risk, 111 at high risk, 75 at medium risk, and 35 at low risk.

It’s worth pointing out that in spite of the alert by the SAT, three of those departments have been affected by the Armed Stoppage imposed by the AGC: Antioquia, Bolívar, and Chocó, according to data furnished by the prevention team of the Unit for Investigation and Prosecution in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).

With respect to the departments in the Caribbean region, the SAT warned that the influence of the “Gaitanistas” in the election “could develop the level of control that they possess in some areas of the region, with strategies for social influence and potential alliances with local and regional powers, so as to impede any substantial transformation in the territory, and prevent risk to the drug trafficking routes and other illegal revenue controlled by the group.”

Regarding the departments of Antioquia, Chocó, and Córdoba, where the illegal armed group is the most consolidated, the Ombudsman’s Office stressed in its report that its operations “are directed at conserving the control already achieved,” resorting to “the regulation of daily life of the communities, the takeover of governmental functions in dealing with interpersonal and community conflicts, the supplanting of legal procedures that regulate social relations in these vicinities, and the development of a strategy of cooptation of the organizing processes (. . .) which could present risks to the political participation and popular election procedures.

With respect to measures for security and protection in this election period, the SAT criticized the role of the Police and the Armed Forces for the amount of protection they are reducing for candidates and party activists, and “their perspective is not the broader guarantees of the right to participation, which should actively include the voters.”

“The public policy on elections, reads the risk analysis report, is intended to guarantee participation, but it puts greater weight on actions by the government and focuses on the safety of the candidates, without giving equal emphasis to the other 50% of the equation, which is the guarantee for participation by the voters and of the civilian population during the elections.”

Doubts about security

“The Armed Forces have been acting like notaries,” says Posso, of Indepaz, in reacting to the role of the government security agencies in the control of the Armed Stoppage imposed by the AGC. In his opinion, “they are reaping the results of the years of omissions and every strand of complicity.”

That complaint was uniform in those municipalities where the “Gaitanistas” exercise control, and have prevented urban and rural communities from moving freely and living a normal life for four days. “This stoppage was foreseeable, and the authorities did nothing to restrain it,” says a human rights activist from Bajo Cauca in Antioquia, one of the areas most affected by the criminal actions of the illegal armed group.

For his part, Cañizares, from Cúcuta, also expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the Police and military authorities against the AGC in that region of the country. “We have called attention to the attitude and limited willingness to attack the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces organization. There is no expressed will to fight them and eradicate them. We have repeatedly called attention to their attitude of let them alone and letting this organization, in our case, advance silently in the principal urban centers of the department.”

The campesino leader, Arnobis Zapata, who is leading social organization in the southern part of Córdoba Department, reiterates what Cañizares said. “The AGC can count on the lack of political will of this administration to attack them. It’s paramilitarism to the max; the Armed Forces and the agencies step aside so they can have their stoppage.”

President Iván Duque offers another perspective. From the antinarcotics base in the Municipality of Necoclí in Urabá in Antioquia, he said that the country is accomplishing security for the country and, especially, against this criminal organization, and he announced steps to strengthen actions against it.

“Since the capture of Otoniel, we have undertaken an effort to reinforce what was the military and Police campaign known as Agamenón, to convert it into the military and Police campaign Condór. This new campaign, which took off at the end of last year, is now what’s going to permit us to exercise territorial presence against all of the organizations,” declared Duque one day after the Armed Stoppage ended.

In his statement to the press, encircled by Police and soldiers, he announced that that campaign will be reinforced by the Search Bloc, composed of more than 1,400 soldiers that have as their objective the capture of Jesús Ávila Villadiego, alias “Chiquito Malo” (“Bad Boy”), Wilmer Antonio Quiroz, alias “Siopas”, and José Gonzalo Sánchez, alias “Gonzalito).  He considers the three of them to be “three ‘Clan del Golfo’ holdouts that have tried to take control of the organization.”

“Chiquito Malo” as well as “Gonzalito” were part of paramilitary organizations associated with the AUC. The first demobilized with the Bananero Bloc in November of 2004, and the second with the Catatumbo Bloc in December of that same year. Alias “Siopas” is a former guerrilla who abandoned the ranks of the now-defunct FARC in 2008. They had operated on the Pacific coast and joined the AGC.

The Agamenón campaign was activated in February 2015 by order of then-President Santos and, with the agreement on his report to the Congress, it was made up of nearly 10,000 members of the Armed Forces, with objective of dismantling the “Gaitanistas”.

In June 2017, the Agamenón II campaign was launched. In an analysis carried out at the Antinarcotics base in Necoclí, the then-Minister of Defense, Luis Carlos Villegas, insisted that because of that military and Police operation, the AGC had been reduced to a little less than 2,000 men, after the capture of 1,360 members.

“I don’t see how they can call themselves an organization when they lose more than half of their members; how it expects to prosper or expand. On the contrary, what they’re doing is paying for places to hide so that our Armed Forces don’t end up dismantling the organization,” emphasized Villegas on that occasion.

One month before that declaration by the Minister of Defense, the National Police reported the capture of 1,001 members of the “Gaitanistas”, and celebrated the results of Agamenón, stating that it was “the operation that has now dismantled half the Clan del Golfo.”

Five years later, those numbers can be compared with figures stated by President Duque who, also in a triumphalist tone, assured that, during his term, “they had dealt historic blows against the Clan del Golfo. I just want to indicate that, in our administration, we have captured more than 2,800 members of the Clan del Golfo, and we have carried out more than 1,196 operations.”

But researcher Eduardo Álvarez Vanegas, who studies the Colombian armed conflict, believes that the national government does not understand the real dimension of what, at present, are the AGC. He poses a number of questions about the creation of the Search Bloc, among others, “why the strategy will really be successful this time, and what are the components that would weaken them and put them at the point of being dismantled and surrendering?”

This researcher also wonders about the activities that they will be considering for the protection of the communities where the “Gaitanistas” have the most presence, but have “less disciplined leadership, less power to control, are doing more and more violence to the people.” And he adds, “what would be the chance for security and stabilization in the area where they have influence to reduce the violence and transform the conditions that have allowed them to expand their control?”

In the opinion of Álvarez Vanegas, the decision announced by President Duque, who has only three months left in his term, reveals “one more demonstration of improvisation, short-termism, and myopia, like the Zones of the Future were,” a project that offers a complete transformation “with legality, enterprise, and equity” in regions affected by the armed conflict. It didn’t succeed in going beyond the presentation of some colored slides.

For that researcher, it’s key to understand that the AGC are not a monolithic organization, such as, for example, the now-defunct FARC guerrillas. Rather they are a horizontal organization that operates a network and has the military and economic capacity to subcontract some of its activities, including the hired killers, to local gangs.

Besides that, points out Álvarez, the AGC collect trajectories and training that they had reassembled in the ‘80’s with the armies of the Self-Defense Forces, to which they have added former guerrillas, and retired soldiers and police, plus alliances with social sectors, financers, and transnational criminal organizations.

In relation to the international drug trafficking cartels, this researcher suggests a risky scenario, because of what he calls “the decapitation of the AGC bosses and the promotion of new commanders, younger and less experienced in both war and politics, as well as in the drug business. This could bring more presence of foreign emissaries in the regions, which could turn into a factor of violence against the communities, especially rural communities.

It’s because of all of that that Álvaro Vanegas questions the security policy focused only on capturing or eliminating the AGC bosses, without considering other aspects. “They could have successful operations, contain their organic expansion, but their adaptation to adverse circumstances has enabled them to expand their network, contracting services, even with the organized common criminals. It’s because of this that a Bloc for Searching, with the existing magnitude of the phenomenon, could result in failure.”

With respect to ways of getting out of this complicated situation, Vanegas suggest that the next administration should sustain “a frank conversation with the National Security Council about how to view the AGC, to be able to overcome President Duque’s narrative about the holdouts. There has to be a sensible reading of the present and the future of that organization, and of others that have the power to destabilize the regions.

And he adds, “We have to plan for policies of dismantling and for their submission, not only with the AGC, but keeping in mind which groups are organic, functional, and also subcontractors, occasionals, and those from different sectors of society and the government that have benefited. That policy of submission must include the government’s decision to seek to discover, demonstrate, and dig deep to discover those that are behind these organizations.”

Finally, Álvarez Vanegas suggests that that policy of submission must offer three aspects: offering incentives to those that want to get out of criminality; furnish guarantees of safety for those that accept the process and tell the truth, both historical and juridical; and obtain the dismantling of the whole organization, more than just their military.

The discussion about these ways of getting out is open, and while we are defining alternatives, it’s necessary to be alert about the current election, looking to be at the polls next May 29, and more than that, to pay attention to what President Duque says about whether the AGC is defeated or not.

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