The Paisas first emerged as a rural militia that grew out of the demobilized AUC paramilitary army, with links to the Oficina de Envigado, but later became an independent drug trafficking organization. The group has lost power and relevance due to infighting within its ranks, as well as a brutal feud with competitor groups over access to smuggling routes to Colombia’s coasts. Many key members have defected to the rival Urabeños, and it is arguable whether the Paisas still exist as a significant force.
Like many of its counterparts, the Paisas’ core was made up of remnants of the paramilitary groups that demobilized during a peace process with the government between 2004 and 2006. “Paisa” is the nickname typically used for locals from Antioquia, and the group’s stronghold was concentrated in that province. One-time kingpin of the Medellin underworld Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” used to maintain groups of urban thugs and ex-paramilitaries in the countryside to battle guerrilla forces, control drug trafficking routes and occasionally jostle with rival paramilitary leaders like Daniel Rendon, alias “Don Mario.”
Don Berna’s network was called the Oficina de Envigado. Following Don Berna’s extradition in 2008, the rural militia broke away from the Oficina and began launching increasingly furious offensives against Don Mario’s forces, who were later dubbed the Urabeños, after their heartland in the region of Urabá. The Paisas and the Urabeños continue to clash even after Don Mario’s arrest in 2008.
The Paisas recruited mostly from paramilitary soldiers that demobilized between 2004-2006, and their modus operandi was similar to that of a paramilitary group. Working in mostly small villages and towns, they try and control the flow of drugs to the coast, where they sell them on to organizations that have larger infrastructures and can move drugs internationally. Authorities believe this includes Mexican criminal syndicate the Zetas. They also control “micro-trafficking” in areas under their command, as well as extorting local businesses and farms.
The Paisas were known for being ruthless, eliminating their enemies and, at times, families of their enemies in an attempt to instill fear. The group relied on many young hitmen who cut their teeth in the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). Within this context, the Paisas set their sights on destroying the Urabeños at all costs and had reached agreements with other drug trafficking groups, among them fronts of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
The Paisas leadership originally consisted of former mid-level commanders of the AUC paramilitary network. However, many of the group’s top leaders were killed or captured.
The group has also been hit by a wave of defections. Commander Angel de Jesus Pacheco Chanci, alias “Sebastian,” left to join the Rastrojos in 2009, before being murdered by his own bodyguards in July 2011. His faction of the Paisas, working alongside the Rastrojos, was believed to supply drugs to the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas.
The death of another Paisas commander, Cesar Augusto Torres Lujan, alias “Mono Vides,” in October provoked more desertions. His allies Rafael Alvarez Piñeda, alias “Chepe,” and German Bustos Alarcon, alias “El Puma,” (captured in September 2011) left to join the Urabeños. They were recruited by a former colleague from the AUC’s Mineros Bloc, Roberto Vargas Gutierrez, alias “Gavilan.” There is currently no visible leadership other than local leaders in regions where the Paisas have operations.
At the height of its power, the group operated in seven departments, concentrated in Colombia’s rural northwest. In 2009, homicide rates skyrocketed in the northern half of Antioquia due to clashes between the Paisas and rival gangs like the Rastrojos, the Urabeños and the Aguilas Negras. This hotly contested region is a key corridor for cocaine traffickers and coca growers, as it connects to both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.
Since 2018, the Ombudsman’s Office has warned about the presence of Los Paises in Bogota and Soacha, where the group has concentrated its activities primarily on drug distribution and the recruitment of minors to strengthen its structure. The departments of Huila and Tolima have also seen a growth in criminal activities related to the organization.
Allies and Enemies
The Paisas are enemies with the Urabeños, and fight the group for control and influence over drug trafficking and other criminal activities in the Medellin area.
The Paisas have been weakened by desertions and the arrests of its leaders. Additionally, the group has experienced setbacks in confronting the rivals group, the Urabeños, which have proved to be a much stronger organization. The group’s decline has led to activities focused on controlling microtrafficking, especially in urban and municipal environments, with few opportunities for growth.