(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Self-named as “Gaitanistas” for 14 years, they were underestimated by the authorities from the beginning, but, with the passage of time, they turned unto a criminal apparatus capable of paralyzing part of the country. They learned from ex-guerrillas, ex-paramilitaries, retired members of the military and the police who were added to the illegal armed organization. Today they are generating electoral risk in at least 253 municipalities.

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

That explanation was not the least of it. According to figures from the Director of Carabineros and Rural Security at the offices of the National Police, created to advance the work of inter-agency coordination and information, whose goal it is to articulate procedures for intelligence, operations, and confrontations with these illegal organizations, for this year there are 22 armed organizations, made up of 4,000 men, in different regions of the country.

These groups aspire to take control of the territories that apparently had been abandoned by the members of the different blocs and fronts of the AUC who re-entered a legal lifestyle after laying down their arms and committing to tell the truth, provide reparations to their victims, and never repeat their violent activities.

Among those groups, described as being “very small”, one that, at the beginning, called itself “Heroes of Castaño Bloc”, began to be conspicuous. 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 longtime paramilitary with experience in managing the finances coming from the drug traffic. He had demobilized with the Centaurs Bloc in September of 2005 in a rural area of Casanare Department.

This new group was made up at first of ex-combatants from the AUC who had not entered the process for laying down of arms and re-incorporation into the legal life as agreed with the Colombian government, or else had reneged on their agreement and resumed the use of weapons. Some ex-guerrillas who had decided to change sides also joined the group, and then later some retired police and military also joined.

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

This incipient criminal organization made a qualitative vault on October 15 of 2008, just when the Defense and Democratic Security Policy pushed by the administration of then-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010) was in full effect. That day they promoted the first armed strike that we know of in several municipalities in the banana sector in the Antioquia part of Urabá. The purpose was their “presentation into society” under the name of Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia  (AGC). Later the national administration would call them “Los Urabeños” and later still the “Clan del Golfo”, so as not to stigmatize the people living in that region.

By means of a press release, they explained that the reasons for re-arming were based on “the government’s failure in the peace process that they pushed with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, and the advances made by the guerrillas in controlling areas that had been controlled by the Self-Defense Forces for many years.

Likewise, they indicated why they had adopted that name—“(. . .) we have named our movement the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, in honor of the great leader murdered for defending the most unprotected classes in this country.” And they stated their objective: “Our efforts are intended to fight against the guerrillas, the corruption, the terrorism, the kidnapping, the crimes of the State, the politicians, the violations of human rights, and for the fortification of participatory democracy. Seeking a Colombian mother country for everyone”.

That’s how they started their creation of the bloody story that progressed slowly through different regions of the country, with the goal of positioning themselves as the largest criminal organization in the country, and battling violently with anyone opposing their objectives. At the time of their announcement, and according to reports from the Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Observatory in the President’s Office, the AGC are present in 18 municipalities in four Departments: Antioquia, Córdoba, Chocó, and Atlántico.

But behind that supposedly ideological basis, they were hiding an economic objective: the control of the drug trafficking business and of other illegal activities, including mining exploitation in gold mining areas. That’s why the AGC bosses strengthened alliances with illegal armed groups, local and regional criminal gangs, like the now-defunct FARC. That allowed them to expand and grow in troops, weapons, and territorial control.

“The purpose was to dominate the entire chain of the business, without middlemen, and also serving as agents of security for other drug traffickers that were disposed to pay for it,” says a researcher from the Ideas for Peace Foundation about the “Gaitanistas”.

Thir principal boss, alias “Don Mario”, turned into an obsession for the authorities, and three intensive operations succeeded in capturing him in a rural area of the Necoclí Municipality, in the Antioquia part of Urabá. After his arrest, “Giovanni” and “Otoniel” took over as commanders of the “Gaitanistas”. Their task was to expand and consolidate the organization.

According to analysis of the Ombudsman’s Early Alert System, which contains information gathered for more than a decade, and the opinions of specialists in the armed conflict and organized crime in Colombia, this criminal organization operates in a network under at least three dynamics. They have territorial presence as an organization; they subcontract or outsource “services” with other illegal armed groups that have local or regional presence; and they work in alliance with transnational drug trafficking cartels.

Camilo González Posso, Director of the Institute for the Study of Development and Peace (Indepaz), which studies this kind of phenomenon, agrees with that characterization. “This is not a vertically structured organization, like the Army or the guerrillas. Rather, it’s a constellation of groups that are joined together by their interests, a lot of local gangs, more organized structures, and a nucleus that remains very unified around mid-level commanders. They are functioning in a lot of businesses, beyond drug trafficking; it’s a mafia-type portfolio.”

Their Strategy: Armed Stoppages

Based on these dynamics of operation, which have allowed them to thrive, expand, and consolidate, they have carried out at least five armed stoppages, including the one of last week, in their 14 years of existence as “Gaitanistas”. The first was in October of 2008, when they announced their creation.

The second one occurred at the beginning of January 2012, after “Giovanni”, one of their most representative bosses, was killed in a police action. That stoppage affected 16 municipalities in 6 departments.

After that killing, the “Gaitanistas” came under the command of “Otoniel” and another man hardened by war, Francisco José Morelo Peñate, alias “El Negro Sarley”. And then the third stoppage, which happened in April of 2013, was suffered by several towns in Urabá and Bajo Cauca, in Antioquia, after the killing of alias “El Negro Sarley” in combat with the Armed Forces in a rural part of the Municipality of San Pedro de Urabá.

The fourth armed stoppage took place in April of 2016 and the excuse was also to commemorate the killing of alias “El Negro Sarley”. In that criminal action, which affected 36 municipalities in eight departments of the country, was proof of their power and territorial presence.

It should be pointed out that three of the armed stoppages promoted by the “Gaitanistas”, just like their expansion and territorial consolidation, took place when the Integrated Security and Defense Policy for Prosperity, pushed by the government of then-President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) was in effect.

And the fifth armed stoppage occurred between Thursday and Sunday of last week, in reaction by the “Gaitanistas” to the decision by the national administration to extradite alias “Otoniel” to the United States. He had been considered by the authorities to be the maximum boss of that criminal organization and he was captured in October of 2021 in a rural area of Necoclí, in the Antioquia part of Urabá.

Social organizations and government entities agreed in stressing that, on that occasion, it affected at least 11 departments and 178 municipalities. Homicides, confinements of both urban and rural communities, burning of vehicles, stores being closed, and even cutoffs of water and gas were part of the repertoire of violence applied by the AGC.

Talking about all of these happenings, John Córdoba, who lives in the Antoquia part of Urabá, assures that “those events in the armed stoppage are nothing new, and certainly not in other regions of the country. Here, every time anyone from the Clan del Golfo gets killed or gets captured, the people here 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 of that agro-industrial region, Córdoba says the most recent action by the “Gaitanistas” didn’t generate “much anxiety because, somehow, we have learned to live with the armed conflict.”

But in other areas like Carmen de Bolívar, in Bolívar Department, the happenings are definitely being felt, and the campesino Enemesio Ramírez, who lives in the town (vereda) of Ojito Seco in that municipality and raises avocados, tells about it. When the stoppage started last Thursday, he had more than 2,000 avocados for sale, but he couldn’t leave to take them to the market because alleged members of the AGC were going around on motorcycles, and they would shoot at anybody trying to go out. “I’m giving them up for lost, and that is distressing and sad,” he lamented.

Nevertheless, these are situations that have been going on for a long time. One of the most representative cases is what happened in the metropolitan area of Cúcuta, in the Department of Norte de Santander. Wilfredo Cañizares, Director of the Progress Foundation, which studies the kind of criminals that violate human rights, says that the presence of the “Gaitanistas” surged again in December 2020.

“They have political influence, they exercise territorial control, they have social control, and they live with us in territories that are very close to our capital city (. . .) which shows that it’s a stronghold, above all in these four years of the Iván Duque administration. There can be no doubt that the paramilitary organizations are being fortified all over the country,” states Cañizares.

In fact, this human rights defender assures that the expansion plans of the “Gaitanistas” in that region of the country have not changed, in spite of the capture and extradition of alias “Otoniel”. “We have seen that they are part of a national structure and their expansion plans are continuing to be carried out, as is happening in Cúcuta. Before “Otoniel” turned himself in, they were trying to penetrate into Catatumbo and expand into the metropolitan area. They are carrying that out to the letter.”

That impression agrees with the analysis of the SAT in the Ombudsman’s Office, disclosed in its most recent report on risks to the election, dated last February 17. In that report, the agency indicates that, in spite of the captures and deaths of several of their bosses, the AGC “is working to broaden its territorial control in the areas of its historic presence (bajo Cauca, southern Córdoba, and Chocó), as well as “expanding through local alliances with other groups, or fighting them with low intensity operations.”

Because of that, Cañizares criticizes the posture of the current administration, which is to “minimize to the maximum the presence and control exercised in multiple regions of the country by the paramilitarism represented by the AGC. It’s fallacious. We are living through it here.” It’s exactly what they were saying 16 years ago.

For his part, Posso, at Indepaz,, also rejects President Duque’s statements about “the end of the Gaitanistas”, and reiterates that the last armed stoppage was “a demonstration of power. These aren’t isolated incidents, and they aren’t the final cries before their disappearance (. . .) It’s a very serious problem that 17 years after having agreed on the demobilization of the paramilitaries, their heirs have so much capacity.”

“It’s been 17 years,” he adds, “since they announced the disappearance of the paramilitaries or of narco-paramilitarism in Colombia, and it turns out that what we have, in spite of the hits taken by their highest leaders, is groups that have reproduced. The issue is much more complicated than what the administration is saying, and neither are these isolated events that are not very important. That oversimplification is more an admission of incapacity than anything else.”

Risk to the Election

In its report on the risk to the election, the SAT of the Ombudsman’s Office established that the “illegal armed groups are trying to influence the social bases and the local authorities in order to intervene in the election system. Their goal is to continue and strengthen their control of the people and the territory.”

With that perspective, the situations of risk to the election process in some parts of the country, according to the SAT, “is because of practices of traditional political organizations that are associated with illegal armed groups and that restrict or affect the free right to vote,” besides generating “threats to social leaders or candidates whose political proposals are contrary to the plans of hegemonic local authorities and their interests.”

For the Ombudsman’s office, the activation of operations by the illegal armed groups just before the elections could happen under two circumstances related to the conditions in the regions: “If an illegal armed group already relies on hegemonic control of the countryside, it could generate intimidating messages to intervene in the election or spend money to support candidates,” an aspect reflected in the departments of Antioquia and Córdoba, as well as in the region of Montes de María, among others; “but if it’s an area in dispute, there could be violence to restrict or coopt the people,” as appears to be happening in Nariño, Cauca, Arauca, and Chocó.

With respect to the “Gaitanistas”, the SAT concluded that they are the source of threats in 253 municipalities in the country, making them the illegal armed organization with the most territorial presence, followed by the dissidents of the now-defunct FARC (230 municipalities) and the ELN guerrillas (189 municipalities).

In the 253 municipalities that are at risk, the AGC is concentrated in the departments of Antioquia, Bolívar, Chocó, Cauca, Nariño, Norte de Santander, and Valle del Cauca. Of those, 32 communities are identified as at extreme risk, 111 at high risk, 75 at medium risk, and 35 at low risk.

It should be mentioned that, in spite of the SAT alert, three of those departments were affected by the armed stoppage imposed by the AGC: Antioquia, Bolívar, and Chocó, according to data from the prevention team at the Unit for Investigation and Accusation of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).

With regard to the departments in the Caribbean region, the SAT warned that the influence of the “Gaitanistas” in the election process “could depend on the degree of control that they possess in some areas in the region, on their strategies for social influence, and eventually, on alliances with local and regional powers that could impede any substantial transformation in the countryside, or put at risk the drug trafficking routes and other illegal revenues controlled by the group.”

With reference to the departments of Antioquia, Chocó, and Córdoba, where the illegal armed group is most consolidated, the Inspector General’s Office insists in its report that their operations “are directed at the conservation of the control they have obtained,” referring to “the regulation of the daily lives of the communities, their takeover of governmental functions such as dispute resolution, whether interpersonal or community, supplanting the legal systems that regulate social relations in these communities, and the development of a strategy for coopting organizational activities (. . .) which could mean risks to procedures for political participation and voting by the people.”

With respect to security and protection measures in this election season, the SAT criticized the role of the Police and the Armed Forces because they are reducing protection of the candidates and party leaders and “not from a broader perspective of guarantees of the right to participate, which includes being active in the election process.”

“The Public Policy on Elections,” reads the risk report,” is thought of as a guarantee for participation, but it has put more weight on actions by the government and its focus on the security of the candidates, without providing equal emphasis on the other 50% of the equation, which is the guarantee of participation by the voters and of the civilian population in the election setting.”

Doubts About Security

“The Armed Forces have been acting like notaries,” says Posso, of the organization Indepaz, reacting to the role being played by the government’s security agencies in controlling the armed stoppage imposed by the AGC,” The way he sees it, “they are reaping years of omissions and every kind of link of complicity.”

That complaint has been constant in those municipalities where the “Gaitanistas” exercise their control and who prevented, for four days, the urban and rural communities from moving freely and living a normal life. “That stoppage was foreseeable, and the authorities did nothing at all to contain it,” says a human rights activist from Bajo Cauca in Antioquia, one of the places most affected by the criminal actions of this illegal armed group.

For his part, Cañizares, from Cúcuta, also expressed doubts about the operating capacity of the police and military authorities against this illegal armed group in that region of the country. “We have called their attention to the attitude or their minimal will to attack the organization of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces. There is no determination or will to fight them and eradicate them. We can’t help noticing that attitude of letting them alone and permitting that organization, in our case, to advance silently in the principal urban centers of the department.

The campesino leader Arnobis Zapata, who leads social processes in the southern part of Córdoba Department, reiterates what Cañizales said. “The AGC is counting on the administration’s lack of political will to attack them. It’s paramilitarism to the max. the Armed Forces and the agencies stand aside and let them do their stoppage.”

President Iván Duque offers another perspective. From the anti-narcotics base in the Municipality of Necoclí, in the Antioquia part of Urabá, he said that he was complying with the nation’s need for security, especially against this criminal organization, and he announced measures for strengthening actions against it.

“Since the capture of Otoniel, we have undertaken the task of reinforcing what had been the military and police campaign known as Agamenón, to convert it into the military and police campaign known as Cóndor. This new campaign, that was launched at the end of last year, is what is now permitting us to be a presence in the countryside against all of those organizations,” declared Duque after the armed stoppage had ended.

In his statement to the press, he was surrounded by soldiers and police, and he announced that this campaign would be strengthened by a Search Bloc, made up of more than 1,400 troops whose objective is the capture of Jesús Ávila Villadiego, alias “Chiquito Malo” (“Bad Boy”); Wilmer Antonio Quiroz, alias “Siopas”; and José Gonzalo Sánchez, alias “Gonzalito”. The President believes that the three are “three holdouts of the ‘Clan del Golfo’ that are trying to take control of the organization.”

“Chiquito Malo”, as well as “Gonzalito” were part of paramilitary organizations associated with the AUC. The first of those demobilized with the Bananero Bloc in November of 2004, and the second with the Catatumbo Bloc in December of that year. For his part, alias “Siopas” is an ex-guerrilla who in 2008 abandoned the ranks of the now-defunct FARC operating on the Pacific coast and then joined the AGC.

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

In June 2017, the Agamenón II campaign was launched. In an analysis from the antinarcotics base in Necoclí, then-Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas claimed that, because of the military and police operation, the AGC had been reduced to a little less than 2,000 men, after the capture of 1,260 members.

“I don’t see how they can call themselves an organization that’s prosperous or expanding when they have lost more than half their members. On the contrary, they are paying for hiding places so that our Armed Forces don’t end up dismantling the organization,” emphasized Villegas at that time.

One month before the Defense Minister’s statement, 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 had now dismantled half of the “Clan del Golfo”.

Five years later, those figures confirm the report by President Duque who, in a similar triumphalist tone, claimed that, during his term, they had “struck historic blows to 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 have carried out more than 1,196 operations”.

In regard to that, researcher Eduardo Álvarez Vanegas, who has studied Colombia’s armed conflict, believes that the national government has no real measurement, currently, as to who the AGC are. He has several questions with respect to the creation of the Search Bloc. One of them is, “why is it that if this time that strategy has really been successful, what were the components that weakened the organization and resulted in its near-dismantling and near-submission?”

Álvarez Vanegas, the researcher, also wonders about the activities that are intended to seek ways to protect the communities where the “Gaitanistas” have their greatest presence, but with “less disciplined leadership, less power to control, and more violent actions against the people”. And he adds, “What effort will be made to achieve security and stabilization in areas where they have influence, to reduce the violence and transform the conditions that have allowed them to reproduce?”

In his opinion, what is revealed by the decision announced by President Duque, who only has three months remaining in his administration, “is one more evidence of the improvisation, short-term thinking, and myopia, as were the Zones of the Future,” a project that offered a complete transformation “to legality, enterprise, and equity,” in regions affected by the armed conflict, and which never amounted to more than the presentation of a few lantern slides.

According to this researcher, it’s key to understand that the AGC are not a monolithic structure, as were the now-defunct FARC guerrillas, for example. Rather they are a horizontal organization, which operates in networks, and that has the economic and military capacity to subcontract some of its activities, including hitmen, to local gangs.

Besides that, emphasizes Álvarez, the AGC collect careers and training that go back to the ‘80’s with the armies of the self-defense forces, with the addition of former guerrillas, former Colombian military and retired police, along with alliances with social, financial sectors and transnational criminal organizations.

As to the international drug trafficking cartels, he points to a risky scenario, because, given what was called “the decapitation” of the AGC bosses, and the promotion of new commanders, younger and with less experience in war and politics, such as the drug business, there could be a greater presence of foreign emissaries in the regions, which could become a factor in the violence against the communities, especially rural communities.

Because of all that, Álvarez Vanegas questions the policy of security focused only on capturing or eliminating the AGC bosses, without considering other aspects. “There could be operational successes, containing structural expansion, but their adaptation to adverse circumstances has led them to expand in networks, to outsource services, including through common criminal organizations. That’s why a bloc that searches for the bosses might result in failure.”

Regarding ways to exit this complicated situation, Álvarez Vanegas suggests that the incoming administration should sustain “a frank conversation with the National Security Council about the way to view the AGC so as to be able to overcome President Duque’s narrative about the ‘holdouts’. There has to be a judicious reading of the present and the future of this organization, and of others that have the power to destabilize the regions.”

And he adds, “We have to think about policies of dismantling and submission, not just with the AGC, but considering those organizations that are organic, functioning, occasional subcontractors, and those from different sectors of society and the government that have benefited. The policy of submission has to include a decision by the administration to try to discover, demonstrate, and dig out those who are behind these organizations.”

Finally, Álvarez Vanegas suggests that the policy of submission should offer three aspects: offering incentives to those that want to get out of criminality; furnishing guarantees of safety for those that accept the process and contribute to the legal and historical truth; and obtain the dismantling of the organization beyond just its military aspect.

The discussion about these possible exits is open, and while alternatives are being defined, it’s necessary to be on the alert to protect the election process on May 29 and, beyond that, to be attentive to what President Duque said about about the AGC and whether it has been defeated or not.

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