The Pachenca, also known as the Conquering Self-Defense Forces of the Sierra (Autodefensas Conquistadores de la Sierra), emerged following the demobilization of paramilitary blocs along Colombia’s Caribbean Coast.
Led by Hernán Giraldo, a former paramilitary commander in the region, the Pachenca have managed to consolidate their power in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, as well as other parts of Colombia, where they have a range of criminal economies.
Los Pachenca emerged from the Tayrona Resistance Bloc (Bloque Resistencia Tayrona - BRT) of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC), commanded by Hernán Giraldo Serna, alias “El Patrón.”
In 2004, Giraldo Serna decided to create the Caribbean Office, a criminal structure with a model similar to that of the Oficina de Envigado, dedicated to regulating drug trafficking operations.
The BRT demobilized in February 2006, and in 2008, Giraldo was extradited to the United States. However, he left behind an extensive network of sons, brothers and nephews to run the Caribbean Office’s criminal emporium.
However, in 2012, skirmishes broke out between the Urabeños and the heirs of the Giraldo Clan, leading to more than 150 deaths in just a few months.
In 2013, Jesús María Aguirre Gallego, alias “Chucho Mercancía” or “Chucho Pachenca,” one of the former lieutenants of the Urabeños in Magdalena, assumed leadership of the Giraldo Clan. It was at that point that the group assumed the name: the Pachenca.
Under “Chucho Mercancía,” the Urabeños and the Pachenca became allies, working together to move drugs from the northern part of the country.
Despite a calm that lasted for several years, differences began to emerge within the Pachenca, which, in addition to blows by public security forces, hit the group hard. The first was the May 2019 arrest of alias “Flash,” the second in command. In June of that year, the group’s leader, Chucho Mercancía, was killed by public security forces in the vicinity of the Sierra Nevada, apparently betrayed by someone within his inner circle.
Then Deimer Patiño Giraldo, alias “80,” Hernán Giraldo’s nephew, assumed leadership of the group. New leadership led to a new name: the Conquering Self Defense Forces of the Sierra, and distance from the Urabeños, who started to dispute key drug trafficking areas in the Caribbean, such as the port of Santa Marta.
Patiño Giraldo was killed in June 2020 during a police operation that left the group without clear leadership.
In January 2021, Hernán Giraldo Serna, the former leader of the Pachenca, returned to Colombia after having served a 12-year prison sentence on drug trafficking charges in the United States.
With its top leader back in the country, the group seems to have regained some strength. However, the group continues to be the subject of repeated operations by both the Colombian government and the Urabeños.
The Pachenca participate in various criminal economies, some of which were inherited from the Tayrona Resistance Bloc.
They participate in the collection, transport and shipment of drugs through Caribbean ports, for which they use smaller local networks. Extortion is another of its main sources of income, which has increased as tourism has boomed along the beaches surrounding the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The Pachenca collect regular payments from merchants and residents in these areas, where tourism generates permanent income for sector workers.
Land sales have also proven to be a source of income. The group has pressured landowners in the region to sell their properties and thus obtain a percentage of the sale. Should a land owner refuse, the group dispossesses the property, forcibly displacing the owner, and then directly sells the parcel of land.
The group has also been linked to the murder of social and community leaders in the Sierra Nevada. One of the most well-known cases is that of the homicide of the environmental leader Alejandro Llinás, who, in the days before his death in 2020, denounced some illegal tolls that the Pachenca set up to regulate tourists' access to areas surrounding the Tayrona National Park.
Hernán Giraldo and his extensive family network have led the Pachenca since the group began. On the operational level, known leaders have included“Chucho Mercancía,” alias “Flash” and alias “80.”
It is known that internal differences within the group have made it difficult to consolidate strong leadership, although there are some names that the authorities have considered as new leaders.
The Pachenca have continued on the path set by alias "80," looking to be identified more as a political actor than as a criminal actor, therefore they deny any direct link to illegal economies.
In October 2020, the group published a video in which it presented its military structure, made up by the Renacer Guajira, Cóndor de la Sierra, Bananeros, Urbano Cacique and Metro Barranquilla fronts. It is believed that the group could have between 150 and 200 armed men.
Allies and Enemies
The Urabeños have been both one of the Pachenca’s main allies and bitterest enemies at different times. While they clashed in the beginning, the Pachenca later served as one of the Urabeños’ main operators for several years - handling drugs shipments in northern Colombia.
In 2021 and 2022, the two groups were fighting a brutal war for control of drug trafficking in the northern departments of Magdalena and Cesar.
In Magdalena, fights were reported in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range for control of the town of Ciénaga, which sits on a strategic corridor for drug trafficking to Colombia's Caribbean ports. The violence has displaced over 1,000 people.
The Pachenca have also formed alliances with smaller, but key, drug trafficking networks. Among these, was the network led by Elkin Javier López, alias “La Silla.” Through this alliance, the Pachenca came to have an impact on the drug trafficking landscape at the port of Santa Marta. After “La Silla” started to collaborate with the Urabeños, the Pachenca had to look for another ally in the region.
Likewise, the Pachenca have formed ties with small gangs of hitmen, particularly in the urban areas where they have a presence.
Los Pachenca have a presence in different municipalities in Cesar, Guajira and Magdalena, however, their main enclave is in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta. This is a strategic territory as it connects drug-producing enclaves, like Catatumbo, in the Norte de Santander department, to sea routes via different rivers and natural ports in the territory.
Although different groups have sought to banish the Pachenca from the area, their control in the Sierra is associated with the figure of Hernán Giraldo, who continues to exercise significant symbolic power in these territories.
Despite blows to the Pachenca in recent years, after the dispute with the Urabeños and operations by public security forces, the group is not yet in its final days.
While the group has lost key territories under its control, such as the city of Santa Marta and its port, it continues to dominate the Sierra Nevada, a key territory for any group that wants to consolidate criminal economies in the Caribbean.
The Pachenca’s secret lies in its historical presence in the Sierra Nevada and the influence that Hernán Giraldo has in these territories. After more than three decades of uninterrupted influence by Giraldo and his men in these territories, social, family and community networks make it nearly impossible for other groups to overtake their presence in the region.