Organised crime in Colombia: The growing neo-paramilitary threat

The Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, a criminal enterprise composed of hardened paramilitary fighters and wanted war criminals, is now threatening to expand throughout Colombia, taking over the guerrilla group’s extortion, kidnapping, illegal mining, drug trafficking, and terrorist operations, and threatening personnel and firms operating in the country.

An AGC fighter in Colombia

At the end of June, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (‘Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Farc) handed over its last weapons to a team of United Nations observers, completing the disarmament phase of the peace accord signed by the Farc and the Colombian government late last year and putting an end to Latin America’s largest and longest-lasting guerrilla insurgency.

The disarmament of the Farc was a major step in improving the business climate in Colombia, where firms have long hesitated to invest due to the Farc’s insurgency and other security risks. However, the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, AGC), a criminal enterprise composed of hardened paramilitary fighters and wanted war criminals, is now threatening to expand throughout Colombia, taking over the guerrilla group’s extortion, kidnapping, illegal mining, drug trafficking, and terrorist operations, and threatening personnel and firms operating in the country.

Background

While the Farc’s peace agreement was made with the Colombian state, many of its biggest military defeats happened not at the hands of government forces, but rather the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, AUC), an ultra-right-wing paramilitary organisation that used extreme violence and intimidation to wrest territory away from the leftist guerrillas.

While the AUC cast itself as a group of peasants heroically resisting Farc terrorists, from its inception its leadership was composed mainly of large landowners who cultivated and trafficked coca, the plant that is used to produce cocaine. After its formation, the AUC quickly became designated by both the U.S. and the European Union as a terrorist organization due to its penchant for committing massacres – a report by the Colombian government found that it carried out over 1,100 massacres and murdered tens of thousands of people – as well as its targeting of foreign businesses for extortion. Despite fighting the Farc and benefiting from collusion by the Colombian state, the AUC technically existed as an illegal private military organisation, and most of its constituent units, known as bloques (blocs), demobilised in 2006 in exchange for lenient punishment for their crimes.

The rise of the neo-paramilitaries

While the AUC demobilisation brought about the end of one of Latin America’s most deadly terrorist organisations, it also immediately led to tens of thousands of poorly educated paramilitary fighters finding themselves out of work. Many of these fighters began to coalesce into so-called ‘neo-paramilitary’ groups, similar in structure to their former blocs within the AUC, but more openly dedicated to drug trafficking and less interested in promoting right-wing politics than their paramilitary predecessor organisations. This process was accelerated in 2008 when the government extradited a number of demobilised AUC commanders to the United States despite previous assurances that the commanders would face minimal prosecution in exchange for laying down their weapons. In response, much of the remaining leadership of the AUC began to re-arm and raise funds through the cocaine trade.

Clan Úsuga

After demobilization, former members of the AUC’s Bloque Élmer Cárdenas, based in the north-western Urabá area, became particularly active in the criminal underworld, forming a group led by one of their former AUC commanders, Daniel Rendón Herrera. After Rendón Herrera was arrested in 2009, the group, which, lacking a formal name, was simply called the Urabeños (‘those from Urabá’), fell under the command of Dairo Antonio Úsuga, a particularly violent war criminal who belonged to a small Maoist guerrilla group before he turned against his former comrades, joined the AUC, and personally participated in some of its most notorious crimes. Indeed, Úsuga is accused of having participated in a notorious AUC massacre in the village of Mapiripán, Meta department, in which dozens of civilians were tortured with chainsaws, hacked to death, beheaded, and thrown into a river in 1997, marking one of the most shocking atrocities in Colombia’s 53-year war.

The paramilitaries responsible for the massacre in Mapiripán used the logistical support of the army, even flying into a military base in order to stage their assault, and it was through this proven willingness to engage in extreme brutality as well as to work with corrupt security forces that Úsuga consolidated his band of neo-paramilitaries into what in 2014 became known as Clan Úsuga (‘the Úsuga Clan’), although it has since insisted that its formal name is Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC.

The AGC seizes Colombia’s ports

Colombian municipalities with an AGC presenceEven before the Farc began to hand over its weapons, Úsuga exploited the military defeats of the leftist guerrillas by inserting the AGC into areas that had been cleared of Farc fighters. In 2014, for example, U.S.-based human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the AGC had taken over areas lacking a Farc presence in Buenaventura, a city located in the Valle de Cauca department that is home to the country’s largest Pacific seaport. So powerful was the AGC in Buenaventura that HRW warned that entire neighborhoods were dominated by the group, which was able to ‘restrict residents’ movements, recruit their children, extort their businesses, and routinely engage in horrific acts of violence against anyone who defies their will’. The rights group also found that the AGC imposed strict schedules on when local residents were allowed to commute to work, prohibiting any commute to work after 0600.

With control of the city, the AGC turned to converting its port into a major drug trafficking hub, using violence to ensure that the group’s cocaine would be loaded onto ships bound for other countries in Latin America as well as the United States. The venture was successful enough to receive major attention from U.S. prosecutors, who in 2015 indicted 17 leaders of the AGC, including Úsuga, on a variety of charges including international cocaine distribution and conspiracy to commit murder. In an indication of the group’s domination of the Colombian drug trade, the U.S. quickly offered USD5 million for information leading to Úsuga’s capture, the maximum reward offered for drug traffickers.

The AGC has proven to be dissatisfied controlling only a single seaport. Aside from Buenaventura, the group has also established a significant presence in Tumaco, the other major port city on the country’s Pacific coast, as well as the Caribbean port cities of Cartagena, a tourism haven; Coveñas, the terminal of country’s most important oil pipeline; and Santa Marta, a much-visited beach city.

Criminal diversification

Having largely dominated cocaine exportation from Colombia, the world’s largest producer of the drug, the AGC has diversified its criminal activities to include human trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, and extortion. In pursuing such activities, the group sometimes blends right-wing rhetoric that befits its historical connection to ultra-conservative paramilitaries with simple criminality. For example, the AGC often murders left-leaning social and labour leaders, accusing them of being guerrilla sympathisers and communists. These killings, however, sometimes mask a criminal intent: after the group declared labour leaders employed by Canadian mining firm Gran Colombia Gold to be ‘military targets’, the company suspended operations at its mines, saying that the assassination of its employees was actually linked to a refusal by the company to deliver extortion payments to the AGC. This claim appeared to be confirmed when some workers who went on strike to protest the death of a mining leader said they had been ordered to do so by the AGC, the same group that carried out the killing in the first place.

The AGC has also opted to directly compete with gold mining companies by operating its own illegal gold mines, especially in the department of Antioquia. Illegal gold mining presents a major challenge to legitimate mining operations: a study by the Universidad Externado de Colombia found that 70 per cent of gold production in the country is mined illegally, and legitimate firms not only face unfair competition from mines that pay no taxes and have no environmental or labour standards, but they also face security risks due to the violent, mafia-like tactics in which the managers of illegal mines engage.

Forecast

With the withdrawal of the Farc from the battlefield, the AGC, which has already shown a highly expansionist tendency, will likely attempt to assume control of the Farc’s criminal networks, including those dedicated to drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping.

The AGC’s drug operations are already noticeably increasing at the country’s ports. In April 2017, police discovered more than six tonnes of cocaine in the Caribbean port city of Barranquilla. The bust followed a similar discovery of over eight tonnes of cocaine at a banana plantation in Turbo, a coastal city near the border with Panama. Both were among the largest cocaine seizures in Colombian history, and in both cases authorities said the drugs had been produced and were awaiting to be trafficked by the AGC.

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