The Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), emerged from the ashes of Colombia’s paramilitary movement to become the dominant criminal force in Colombia, with a reach that spread across the country. However, under pressure from authorities, the hold that leadership has over local cells that form this national network is getting weaker, and the group stands on the precipice of splintering into independent factions.
This process may only be further accelerated by the capture in October 2021 of the group’s leader, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” by security forces in northern Colombia. While his control had been slipping for a few years under the pressure of a sustained manhunt, he remained an identifiable leader for the group, and his removal may trigger further fragmentation.
The Urabeños take their name from Urabá, a northwestern region of Colombia near the Panamanian border highly prized by drug traffickers as it offers access to the Caribbean and Pacific coasts from the departments of Antioquia and Chocó. The group also refers to itself as the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC) and are called the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) by the Colombian government.
The AGC’s origins can be traced to notorious paramilitary warlord Vicente Castaño, who in 2006 broke away from the demobilization process of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), and rearmed a paramilitary unit with two of his lieutenants: the former commander of the AUC’s Calima Bloc, Ever Veloza Garcia, alias “HH,” and Daniel Rendón Herrera, alias “Don Mario,” the former finance chief of one of the wealthiest paramilitary factions, the Centauros Bloc.
When Castaño was killed in March 2007, most likely after having been betrayed by HH, Don Mario inherited the network, and set to work recruiting former paramilitary fighters in Urabá, where his brother, Fredy, alias “El Aleman,” had commanded the AUC’s 2,000-strong Elmer Cardenas Bloc.
Don Mario quickly assembled a fighting force of around 80 men and then monopolized this important drug route, taxing traffickers for every kilogram of cocaine that passed through his territory. By 2008, Don Mario was one of the richest and most-wanted traffickers in Colombia. He began to expand his empire, moving into southern Córdoba province, the Bajo Cauca region in northern Antioquia, and into Medellín, and the AGC soon clashed with rivals such as the Paisas, the Rastrojos and the Oficina de Envigado. Police blamed Don Mario’s organization for at least 3,000 homicides between 2007 and 2009.
Don Mario was captured on a farm in rural Urabá in April 2009 by a team of 200 police commandos. Following his capture, the AGC fell under the control of Juan de Dios Úsuga, alias “Giovanni,” and Dario Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” two brothers who had begun their underworld careers with the now demobilized guerrillas of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) before passing into the ranks of the AUC.
The Úsuga brothers gathered other former EPL guerrillas turned paramilitaries, who formed the disciplined and capable military core of the AGC, the “Estado Mayor,” or board of directors. They launched a new expansion plan by sending trusted lieutenants from Urabá to take control of strategic drug trafficking real estate, preferably through alliances and agreements, but otherwise through violence.
In January 2012, Giovanni, the mastermind of the AGC strategy, was killed during a police raid on a ranch in the department of Chocó, leaving Otoniel as the maximum leader. Despite this setback, the AGC expansion continued, and when the leader of their principal rivals, the Rastrojos, surrounded to the authorities in mid-2012, the path was clear for the group to become Colombia’s dominant criminal organization.
The AGC’s influence spread across the country, and soon the group controlled drug production zones, trafficking corridors and international dispatch points throughout north Colombia, along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and along the land border with Venezuela.
To facilitate this expansion, the Urabeños also developed a new model of organized crime. While some of its cells were directly controlled, in other cases the group absorbed local criminal organizations into its network, which operated as semi-autonomous members of the AGC “franchise.”
In 2015, the government launched a major offensive against the AGC known as “Operation Agamemnon.” While the initial phase of the operation saw seizures of multi-ton shipments of cocaine and millions of dollars in assets, and the arrests of hundreds of AGC members — its principal targets — the AGC leadership, remained elusive.
However, this began to change in phase two of Agamemnon, and in 2017 the AGC command nodes began to fall. In May, security forces captured Eduardo Ortiz Tuberquia, alias “El Indio.” In August, they killed Otoniel’s second-in-command, Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez, alias “Gavilán,” and then in November, they killed military boss Luis Orlando Padierma, alias “Inglaterra.” That same year, Colombian police stated that Agamemnon had dismantled “half” of the AGC, although that number is hard to quantify.
With the pressure mounting, and following two years of tentative approaches, in September 2017, Otoniel offered to turn himself in and demobilize the AGC, even appearing in a public video appealing to the Colombian government.
That offer was refused and Agememnon was expanded to a taskforce of 3,000 men in 2018. This maintained pressure certainly weakened Otoniel’s control, who saw his closest advisors captured and killed, and his family targeted.
After years of being on the run, Otoniel was captured in October 2021, in an operation in which involved more than 100 police officers and 500 soldiers. In May 2022, he was extradited to the United States and charged in New York for conspiring to manufacture cocaine and distribute it to the US. He pled not guilty.
A day after he was extradited, the AGC carried out a show of strength across Colombia across 11 Colombian departments and 180 municipalities throughout the country. This display of force saw curfews imposed on villages, blockades across major highways, and left 24 civilians dead.
In late 2022, the AGC indicated their willingness to participate in the Total Peace (Paz Total) plan put forward by Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro, although it is uncertain if all of its disparate groups and factions would do so.
The AGC are primarily dedicated to transnational drug trafficking. Members of the leadership group are themselves international traffickers that manage their own routes. However, the network as a whole is less a drug cartel and more a service provider to independent drug traffickers. The group controls territories and regulates or runs the coca base market, escorting shipments along international trafficking corridors, ensuring access to or protection for processing laboratories, and providing storage and dispatch services in coastal and border regions.
The AGC network model requires local cells to be financially self-sufficient. As a result, these groups have expanded into illegal mining, extortion and microtrafficking, and they run or take a cut of other criminal activities that take place in their territories.
Amid underworld shake-ups in the wake of the demobilization of the FARC, Otoniel’s AGC have become embroiled in bitter turf wars with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrilla and ex-FARC Mafia groups.
In 2020 and 2021, the group also became involved, albeit in a limited manner, in the ongoing scramble for cross-border criminal economies between Colombia and Venezuela, reportedly reaching some sort of alliance with their old enemies, the Rastrojos, to fight the ELN there. Their impact inside Venezuela, compared to the ELN or ex-FARC Mafia, has remained somewhat limited, however. Since this evolution happened in the final months of Otoniel’s freedom, it is uncertain how much sway he had on this development.
They also maintain a longstanding relationship with Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia, created in the AUC days, which regularly moves large shipments of cocaine across the Atlantic.
Leadership and Structure
The AGC established a mixed network model, in which approximately one-third of local cells were directly commanded by the leadership in Urabá, while the others were local criminal organizations that used the AGC name and were expected to provide services or follow strategic orders when called upon. The network is coordinated by a national command node based in their stronghold of Urabá, consisting of former EPL guerrillas-turned-paramilitaries that is led by Otoniel. However, this command node has been devastated by recent security forces operations, leaving Otoniel an increasingly isolated figure largely concentrated on his own survival.
Otoniel was captured in northern Colombia in October 2021 and subsequently extradited to the United States.
Following his extradition, the leadership of the AGC passed to Jovanis de Jesús Ávila Villadiego, alias “Chiquito Malo.”
Born in the AGC’s heartland of Urabá, Chiquito Malo is a safe pair of hands after the blow that was Otoniel’s capture. A former paramilitary member of the AUC until their demobilization in 2004, he was commander of the Urabá Central Structure, by which time he controlled the AGC’s drug trafficking activities in the Gulf of Urabá, a key territory for shipping drugs to Central America and the United States.
By 2015, he was considered to be one of the group’s top leaders. In June of that year, the United States government issued a formal accusation, identifying him as one of the main leaders of the drug trafficking structure.
When he ascended to the top position in 2021, there were doubts as to whether he could keep the AGC united. But so far, the group appears more resistant to fragmentation than previously thought.
The AGC franchise has a presence in at least 17 of Colombia’s departments, as well as internationally. The group’s base and territorial stronghold is centered around the Gulf of Urabá in the departments of Antioquia and Chocó, and stretching into Córdoba. They have an extensive presence throughout the rest of these departments, as well as along the Caribbean coast, in the city of Medellín and in departments such as La Guajira, Santander, Valle del Cauca and Norte de Santander.
The group also has a small presence in an around Cúcuta along the Venezuelan border.
Allies and Enemies
The competition for territory sparked by the demobilization of the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) has pitted the AGC against the smaller guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). In the department of Chocó in particular, the rivals are involved in a bitter and bloody turf war.
The new mafia forming from FARC remnants, meanwhile, has the potential to create both new allies and enemies, depending on whether the two sides perceive it to be in their interests to cooperate or compete for the territory left behind by the guerrillas. In some areas, notably Córdoba in the north, the AGC are reportedly working with ex-FARC mafia, while in others, such as parts of Antioquia they are violently clashing with them.
Furthermore, in early 2018, there were signs of local criminal groups previously part of the AGC violently rebelling against the central command, raising the possibility of new enemies emerging from within the network. This may be linked to rumors that the AGC high command has been unable to pay some of its members due to security force operations and cash flow problems.
In 2020 and 2021, it was reported that the group had made an alliance with its old enemies, the Rastrojos, to fight back against both the ELN and the ex-FARC Mafia at the Colombia-Venezuela border.
The AGC’s drug trafficking operations has also seen the group build alliances with independent drug traffickers within Colombia and Mexican drug trafficking groups like the Sinaloa Cartel.
In 2022, the group expressed its desire to be part of the Total Peace proposal tabled by President Gustavo Petro.
The leadership node that has coordinated the network from Urabá is almost certainly done following the arrest of Otoniel. His capture was followed by the arrests and deaths of numerous other leaders, some of which even surrendered. The breakup of the AGC model of a central leadership node coordinating dispersed factions and semi-independent local franchises now seems inevitable.
However, no matter what happens to its leadership, the AGC cells on the ground will not disappear. They will continue to control key strategic criminal territories, offering services to drug traffickers and other criminal elites, and running their own localized criminal activities. Some may operate as the private armies of the AGC drug traffickers that currently head certain fronts, whereas others may become independent networks with leaders from within the local ranks.
It remains to be seen whether the group, and how many of its franchises and sub-groups, will eventually take part in negotiations with Gustavo Petro’s government.
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