Rodrigo Tovar Pupo never imagined it would come to this: dressed in an orange jumpsuit in a Washington DC courtroom and standing in front of a United States federal judge, the grandson of a wealthy Colombian cattle rancher and nephew to a governor was facing a possible 30-year jail sentence for drug trafficking. In his own mind, Tovar was a hero, not a drug trafficker — a warrior, not a criminal.

“I stand before you as a political prisoner and an innocent man,” he told Judge Reggie Walton in 2015.

Tovar had grown up in the center of the northeastern Colombian city of Valledupar, in the state of Cesar, where he and his neighbors had carried the most recognizable names in the region. They were, quite simply, the power brokers of the region, groomed to run the government and businesses that dominated much of the northeastern corner of Colombia. Tovar’s friends, for instance, included members of the Araújo family, which controlled much of the political posts, from town halls to governorships to senate seats. His uncle and guardian had been governor of the state, and his grandfather was an important cattle rancher.

This is one part of a multipart series concerning elites and organized crime in Colombia. Read the full report (PDF). See other parts of the series here.

However, as Tovar and his elite friends came of age and prepared to take the reins of what their parents left them, the region entered a period of turmoil. Leftist rebels had grown increasingly bold and demanding. And after Tovar, his family and numerous friends and acquaintances were extorted and some of them kidnapped by the guerrillas, he had joined a nascent paramilitary organization, the United Self-defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colomiba – AUC).

The AUC was the government’s proxy in its war against the insurgents. It was also the elites’ way of protecting what they believed was rightfully theirs and preserving the status quo. Some of these elites, like Tovar, became AUC commanders, while poor peasant farmers became its soldiers. Other elites were active and tacit supporters of the AUC, and participated in its efforts to take political and government posts.

Tovar took on the nom de guerre “Jorge 40,” and eventually commanded the AUC’s forces in the northeast. The war was dirty, and Jorge 40 was not above the fray. Over the course of a ten-year period between 1996 and 2006, he was responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths and forced displacements. To date, Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office has chronicled his participation in 20,855 paramilitary-related crimes; he has admitted to less than 100 of these crimes.1

The war was also lucrative. Drug trafficking was part of the paramilitary financing strategy. Tovar claims that he simply taxed the criminal groups who operated in his area of influence. But US prosecutors say he took part in the drug trafficking enterprise, profiting directly from the trade.

His fellow AUC commanders faced similar charges. And collectively, the AUC had created not just the largest illegal counterinsurgency force in the hemisphere but also the region’s most powerful drug cartel. After the AUC brokered a peace deal with the government and demobilized, these drug trafficking allegations haunted its commanders. In 2008, 14 of them, among them Tovar, were extradited to the US to face these charges.

This is what had landed Tovar in the orange jumpsuit in front of Judge Reggie Walton on November 6, 2015. But while other AUC commanders had admitted to their transgressions and had sought to lower their sentences by cooperating with US law enforcement, Tovar remained defiant, as was evident in the courtroom that November day.

“If I had wanted to be a drug trafficker, I would not have taken up weapons to fight for freedom,” he told the judge, referring to his time as an AUC commander. “What I know of the [drug traffickers’] mentality is that they have no other interest than that of money. They, they do not have a homeland, they do not have a love for their country. They do not care if the democratic system of the Colombian people fails. The only thing that matters to them, your Honor, is that with more chaos and anarchy, the bigger the party.”

It was vintage Tovar. Since 2006, when he had handed in his weapons and was taken into custody in Colombia, he had played the role of martyr. He might have killed and displaced people, and perhaps even had a role in transporting illegal drugs, but as he saw it, he did so to save his country from the leftist guerrillas who were overrunning his hometown. He had stood up to evil, not succumbed to it.

“They are accusing me of participating in a conspiracy that did not exist,” he told the courtroom.

Over the course of three hours, Tovar continued his rant about the Colombian government, the leftist rebels and his drug trafficking-paramilitary cohorts. He only vaguely referenced “errors” the AUC made in Colombia, where Tovar is still facing charges for murder, kidnapping for ransom, forced displacement and many more crimes.

“My war was one of ideas not one of interests. My struggle, my war was for a region and for a country which were in the superior interest of my country both large and small,” he insisted.

Tovar referenced Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, Hobbes and Voltaire. He cited the Bill of Rights and the State Department’s own words about Colombia’s “failed state.” And he spouted political platitudes and noble goals about national reconciliation.

“I wish that one day I would be able to recover my freedom and be assured your Honor it is not to turn into a drug trafficker,” Tovar concluded. “Your Honor, I want to recover freedom to continue the struggle in my country in a country where there should be space for all of us but which should also work in benefit of all.”

It was not something Judge Walton usually heard in his courtroom, and while he might have normally respected the prosecutors’ request to give Tovar 30 years in jail, this time he took pity on the accused.

“I don’t doubt based upon what Mr. Pupo said that he felt that he was engaged in a better good by engaging in the conduct that he engaged in. And I don’t doubt that there were laudable objectives,” the judge said.

The judge sentenced Tovar to 16 years, but he gave him credit for his over 9 years in jail, and with good behavior, Tovar will be released in less than 5 years. The judge also imposed the minimum fine of $25,000.

Tovar did not seem surprised. He sat stoically while Walton read his sentence. It was only natural: he believes he is innocent.

Tovar is not alone in his belief that he has been caught on the wrong side of history. There are many who see him as a savior and a martyr for his cause. They believe that he represented them, first on the battlefield and then in the courtroom of public opinion as their paramilitary solution to the insurgents was challenged by lawmakers, human rights defenders, prosecutors and judges throughout the hemisphere.

These views still hold sway in Colombia and elsewhere, as is evident in Walton’s decision to go light on Tovar. They hew closely to the regional elite’s belief that some areas were abandoned by the central government, left to fend for themselves against a predatory enemy that sought to take what was theirs. Tovar and his AUC cohorts were their army, and this is their story as much as his.

Grand Magdalena Elites

The area of study for this case study involves three states, or departments, as they are known in Colombia: Guajira, Cesar and Magdalena. They form what some of the older locals refer to as “Magdalena Grande,” meaning Great or Grand Magdalena. This is a reference to the former official name for the region, which, in the early days of the newly independent country, encompassed all three states. The three remain intimately linked today. Their economic, political and social ties stretch across their borders, along the coast and into neighboring Venezuela. These historic connections create a kind of mythic bond between the states, which, as we shall see, some of the areas’ elites have sought to reestablish using their economic might, their political connections, their illicit businesses, and more than a bit of brute force.

Since its formation, Grand Magdalena’s economy has revolved around numerous legal and illegal commodities, many of them produced for export. Cotton and cattle ranching have traditionally dominated the agricultural industry in Cesar and Magdalena, although numerous African palm plantations have emerged in the last two decades. Banana plantations have played an important role in Magdalena’s history and economic development. The state was the scene of a 1928 massacre of hundreds of banana laborers, immortalized by Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. One of the country’s traditional arteries, the Magdalena River, runs alongside the state and spills into the Caribbean near an important port.

The region is rich in natural resources. Guajira has long produced and exported salt and minerals, particularly coal, have become a staple of the economies of both Cesar and Guajira in recent years. The growth of mining in the region drew international and national economic actors, especially as Colombia’s reliance on coal exports grew, and the government scrambled to shore up its oil reserves. The increasing importance of coal coincided with the time period in which most of the events of this case study took place. Along with these large, industrial-sized mining ventures came private security forces, and later illegal paramilitary groups, which would be used to protect these vital economic interests and maintain the region’s status quo.

All of these industries require vast extensions of land, and have been at the heart of the economic interests of the region’s elite from the beginning. These elites have dominated the politics of the region as well. Traditional names of these elites are well known in the Grand Magdalena: Baute, López, Araújo, Noguera, and Pupo; and in more recent years, Cote and Gnecco. Many of these families relied on the illicit economies to help them boost their standing, particularly contraband gasoline from neighboring Venezuela, but also fertilizers, farm equipment, auto-parts and vehicles, which, like gasoline, were often stolen from, or bought at discounted prices in neighboring Venezuela, and brought back to Colombia.

The importance of the region’s economy has helped its elites project themselves on a national level. In 1934, Alfonso López Pumarejo, whose mother was a native of Valledupar became Colombia’s president. A member of the Liberal Party, one of Colombia’s two dominant parties, López Pumarejo became known for his attempts to institute sweeping agrarian reform. These efforts set the stage for the growth of small farming syndicates who challenged the traditional elites’ powerbase and emerging export model of economic growth. The result was a clash that culminated in the assassination of Liberal Party presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in Bogotá in 1948. The murder would spark nearly 20 years of sectarian feuds in different parts of the country. The period became known simply as “La Violencia,” or The Violence, and provides the backdrop to the half-century of conflict that has followed.

SEE ALSO: Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

In 1974, López Pumarejo’s son, Alfonso López Michelsen, won the presidency. Like his father, López Michelsen was known as a reformist. In the 1960s, he led the Liberal Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Liberal – MRL), a more progressive wing of the Liberal Party. Although he did not grow up in Cesar, he became its first governor in 1967, after the central government split the Grand Magdalena into the three modern states: Cesar, Magdalena and Guajira. Soon after, he integrated his radical Liberal wing back into the Liberal party fold. While in Cesar, he helped establish a music festival celebrating the local sound, known as vallenato, with the help of a journalist by the name of Consuelo Araújo Noguera. Members of Cesar’s elite served in the governor’s cabinet, such as Álvaro Pupo Pupo and Álvaro Araújo Noguera, Consuelo’s brother. Araújo Noguera later served President López Michelsen as his minister of Agriculture.

By the time he took office as president, López Michelsen seemed well versed in the Grand Magdalena tradition of combining the licit with the illicit. Colombia was just beginning its surge as a cocaine producer and exporter, and dollars were flowing into the country at historic rates. Using the so-called “ventanilla siniestra,” or “sinister window,” the National Bank purchased dollars without asking about their origin.2 Years later, long after his presidency, López Michelsen met with drug traffickers in Panama, in an effort to help Colombia’s elites broker a deal to lower the violence that had surged around the question of extradition.

The Valledupar natives, or “vallenatos” — Pupo and the two Araújos — would use their connection to López Michelsen and their family backgrounds as a launching pad for their own careers. Pupo later became a key part of the country’s most powerful economic conglomerate, the Santo Domingo group, where he ran the Águila beer company and served on its board of directors for nearly three decades.3 His brother, Edgardo, became governor of Cesar. Edgardo’s son, Ciro, later became mayor of Valledupar. Edgardo also became the guardian of his sister’s son, another up-and-coming Valledupar native named Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, who would take his own, more bellicose path after working with the mayor’s office in Valledupar.

For their part, the Araújo family would become the powerbrokers in Cesar for decades to come. Santander Araújo, the father of Consuelo and Álvaro, was a four-time mayor of Valledupar. After serving under López Michelsen, Álvaro Araújo Noguera became a congressman and senator. While López Michelsen remained the political godfather of the area, Araújo Noguera was his consigliore, anointing political candidates and arranging political posts around his various Liberal Party incarnations. His son, Álvaro Araújo Castro, would become a congressman and senator. His daughter, María Consuelo, would become minister of foreign relations and entertain a run for president. Álvaro’s nephew would become the community relations manager and later the general manager for the most important foreign company in the region, Drummond, an Alabama-based coal operation that began operations in Cesar in the early 1990s.

His sister, Consuelo, was a power in her own right. For years, she held near-dictatorial control over what became known as the Legendary Vallenato Festival, the region’s most important music and cultural event. Consuelo would later become the minister of Culture, while her son from her first marriage would become the governor of Cesar. Her second marriage was to Edgardo Maya, who became the country’s inspector general. But her earlier bid to become governor failed when it faced a formidable obstacle that would change the way the Araújo family played politics. That obstacle was the Gnecco family. The feud would eventually draw in some of the most violent criminal actors in the country.

Contraband, War and the Rise of the Gnecco Family

The close relationship between political power and illegal activities in recent Colombian history is well illustrated by the story of the Gnecco family. The family began its rise to power by selling contraband gasoline. Venezuela’s subsidized gasoline market has made the business a perennial favorite of underworld figures up and down the border. Local bureaucrats, security forces, and economic and political elites have all benefitted from the trade, and have little incentive to stop it.

The Gnecco family also stole cars in Venezuela and resold them in Colombia. In an unpublished autobiography, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo described the way in which this business had been integrated into the local economy after he obtained a truck from the Gnecco “dealership” for some colleagues.

“I got the car from the black market” he wrote. “This was one of the illicit activities that in those days was normal in Valledupar. From the time that family came from Guajira, that business became normal in the region. They did it in the light of day, and everyone knew about it. The [black] market for auto parts and illegal cars was normal in Valledupar.”4

The Gnecco family eventually began moving illegal drugs.5 With its spectacular and formidable mountain range, and direct access to one of the country’s important seaports, Magdalena state has one of the most propitious environments for developing the illegal drug business. In the 1960s and 1970s that drug was marijuana.6 In the 1980s, it became cocaine. In both instances, the Gnecco family took full advantage of the business opportunity, and over time became one of the most powerful and influential families in the Grand Magdalena.

At the helm of this operation was Jorge Gnecco, an astute, Machiavellian character with a sharp understanding of power. Amidst turmoil, he was the type to smell opportunity. On the Caribbean coast that opportunity came with the swelling of Colombia’s insurgent groups. Bolstered by increased kidnappings for ransom and revenue from imposing “taxes” on drug traffickers, businesses and large agricultural interests, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) were growing rapidly by the early 1990s.

The response of the state to this surge was faint, uneven, and in many cases non-existent. The government was both weak and preoccupied with other matters, namely that of battling drug traffickers who had declared war on the security forces and the elites over the question of extradition. The vulnerability of state forces was laid bare during that battle. Hundreds of police and dozens of judges were killed during the traffickers’ campaign against extradition. Drug traffickers targeted elites by kidnapping them and their children. They planted bombs that left government buildings, newspaper offices and malls in ruins and shook the nation.

The void left the elites in the countryside exposed to other threats such as the guerrillas, who took full advantage. Extortion and kidnapping rose, and the revenue begot more guerrillas and urban militias. Elites in places like the Grand Magdalena responded by supporting the creation of paramilitary groups.

(See Introduction)

By all indications, Jorge Gnecco was in contact with some of the first paramilitary organizations along the northern coast. This included the most powerful emerging group, the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Urabá and Córdoba (Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá – ACCU). Headed by the famed Castaño brothers — or the “House of Castaño,” as it was popularly known — the ACCU established the first professional, exportable paramilitary model in Colombia. It’s not clear when Gnecco came in contact with the ACCU, but it almost certainly involved Hernán Giraldo, a drug trafficker based in the Magdalena with whom Gnecco had done business. Giraldo created his own paramilitary group known as the Frente de Resistencia Tayrona that he would later slot under the Castaño group’s national umbrella organization, which became known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC).

By the mid-1990s, Gnecco was raising money and proselytizing for the AUC in the Grand Magdalena. In Cesar, it was well known that he was a paramilitary boss, and he made little effort to hide it. Indeed, he used it to position his family on a more solid political and economic footing, even while he maintained control over his underworld activities. His longtime transport company expanded and would eventually hold some of the region’s most important contracts, like that of transporting Drummond’s coal from its mines in Cesar to port for export. He also began placing his relatives and friends in positions of power. Some of them took important bureaucratic and judicial positions. Others dreamed of higher office.

To advance that plan, the Gnecco family at first allied with the Araújo family. The two clans had a lot in common. They were both Grand Magdalena locals with strong economic, social and political standing. They both had regional standing, which gave them national power. Still, there were important differences between them. The Araújo family considered themselves the rightful political power in the state. For the Araújo family, the Gnecco family were upstarts, nouveau riche who had taken the illicit route to wealth and social standing. For the Gnecco family, on the other hand, the Araújos were what Colombians call “dolphins,” whose inheritance, not hard work, put them in power. At first, the two families looked past this issue. In 1992, Jorge Gnecco’s brother Lucas, with the backing of Álvaro Araújo Noguera, became Cesar’s first elected state governor. But by 1994, the families had begun competing openly. In 1995, the Araújo’s candidate, Mauricio Pimiento, won the governor’s post, over Jorge’s other brother, Pepe Gnecco.

In 1997, the two battled again, this time when Consuelo Araújo Noguera ran for governor against Lucas Gnecco, who was vying for a second term. The campaign played out like class war. At one point, Consuelo called Lucas a “donkey,” and accused him of electoral fraud and lying to the public.7 Each side also seemed to use its political muscle in underhanded ways to try to oust the other. Days before the election, the country’s ombudsman declared Lucas “inhabilitated,” or “unfit for office,” for two years due to irregularities during his first term as governor.8 Gnecco supporters cried foul, and eventually the decision was overturned. Meanwhile, 50,000 new voters appeared on the rolls in Valledupar.9 The sudden surge in voters gave rise to claims of corruption when Lucas defeated Consuelo by just over 12,000 votes.10

The result stunned the Araújo family. While they retained power in some circles, it was clear that the Gnecco family, in particular Jorge Gnecco, was the new power broker in the area. The Araújo family suddenly faced a dilemma that had no easy answer: submit to the new status quo of paramilitary-criminal politics, or join it and employ it to your own ends. They would choose to stake their claim in the new order, with the help of one of their former neighbors and one of the most important elite-organized crime figures in recent Colombian history: Rodrigo Tovar Pupo. This choice would upend politics in the northeast for the next decade.

The Education of Rodrigo Tovar Pupo

In many ways, Tovar’s upbringing was the perfect preparation for a future paramilitary commander. He is the son of an army captain, and was raised in part by his uncle, Edgardo Pupo, an astute politician who served as governor of Cesar. This duality is a useful way to understand the person he became. One side of Tovar is a political animal. He has a keen sense of the importance of creating powerful networks and developing a solid political base from which he can operate. Then there is the war-like side of Tovar: he is a bully, determined to get what he wants at virtually any cost. Both the political and warrior sides of him are evident in his life story, and in his development of a vast criminal and political empire. But it was the military side of his personality that was stronger, leading to the death of hundreds, if not thousands of people in the process of building that empire.

“My biggest war was with myself,” he would say later. “I still ask God to get rid of the hate that is in my heart.”11

Tovar grew up in the center of Valledupar, where his neighbors, known popularly as “la gente de la plaza,” had the most recognizable names in the region: the Araújos, the Castros, the Nogueras, and the Bautes, to name a few. His grandfather, Oscar Pupo, was a prominent cattle rancher. Tovar described himself as “upper middle class,” but he blended in without difficulty.12 With the other elites, he played softball, went swimming and drank whiskey at the local country club.

Some of these elites, like Tovar, went to Bogotá for part of their education. Almost all of them, Tovar included, returned to Valledupar to live and work, “bored” with the “cachacos” or “rollos,” as they called the people from Bogotá. They were close, and gatherings around the holidays and the Legendary Vallenato Festival took on an air of familiarity that comes with not having to explain one’s origins, customs and idiosyncrasies. Tovar would describe this sense of closeness to his native land in a courtroom later:

My childhood was like so many other childhoods in Valledupar in that we all played together. At that time, there was no light in Valledupar; its streets were dusty, but that didn’t make us feel any less proud of what we considered ours…We knew about hard work. Hard work was our way of living. We saw work as an opportunity and a way to advance. That was how it was in that place where everybody knew everybody.13

Tovar became an officer in the army but said he had to drop out when he sustained an injury.14 He then studied agronomy and business administration, and tended to the Pupo family’s cattle ranches on the outskirts of the city.15 One source said the Pupos had as much as 10,000 hectares of land in the region,16 although this claim could not be verified, and Tovar himself would later say that the only land in his name had been given to his wife and children.17 Like most in the region, his work brought him to Venezuela, where he sold cattle and other goods. While known as a party-lover in his youth, he got married relatively young, had three children and settled into life in Cesar.

Tovar’s children cavorted in the same crowds that he once did. According to an acquaintance, one of his daughters, for instance, dated the son of Alfredo Araújo Castro, the nephew of López Michelsen-cabinet member and regional power broker, Álvaro Araújo Noguera. Alfredo Araújo Castro would later become an important official of Drummond and, according to a former Drummond contractor and numerous witnesses from the company, a key go-between for Tovar in his dealings with the company once he joined the paramilitaries.

Still, from early on, Tovar was known as a leader in his own right and a potential politician who could follow in the footsteps of his uncle, former governor Edgardo Pupo. One acquaintance described him as “el más patrón,” or “the man,” and very “political.”18 As a youth, he helped with his uncle’s campaigns and at one time even volunteered with López Michelsen’s radical Liberal Party wing, the MRL.19 As an adult, he became part of the rice-growers federation and the dairy cooperative. On one occasion, he and others formed a small rice cooperative, which he says was crushed by the national rice federation during a meeting he attended in Bogotá.20

In the late 1980s, Valledupar Mayor Rodolfo Campo Soto hired Tovar as the head of the Control and Price Office. His job was to inspect the quality of dairy and agricultural products, among others, sold in the city. He only lasted a few months before moving to another, less public post in accounting, which lasted through the beginning of the next administration.

City hall would serve Tovar later in many respects.21 To begin with, it offered him the opportunity to meet more people, and extend his network. “I was friends with all the businesses, all the businessmen, all the younger generations,” he would explain later. “I was friends with military officers. I was friends with politicians. I was friends with the whole world at that time. Let me repeat: everyone was friends with everyone at that time.”22

City hall also gave him a first-hand look at the way in which power worked. Tovar said he refused the mayor’s offer to work at city hall multiple times before accepting the challenge to see “if he was corruptible.”23 In his testimony to Colombian authorities later, Tovar said he got his opportunity quickly when a “businessman” offered him money to stop doing his job — checking the prices — when it came to the businessman’s products; Tovar refused, he said, but he began to wonder what he would do if his own political cadres had asked the same of him.24

Finally, city hall gave him a good understanding of how power was distributed in the country’s recently adjusted political system. Just a few years earlier, Colombia had decentralized the government in historic fashion. Beginning in 1988, mayors were elected by popular vote and were given much more control over their budgets. In many ways, it was a step towards greater democracy, and Tovar got a firsthand look at the size and scope of these new budgets, especially when he moved to the accounting office.25 However, the political shifts may have also been premature. The local governments were not accustomed to managing this money. Corruption ran wild. The central government, weak and largely absent in many areas, was also not in a position to protect politicians from the illegal actors operating in places like the Grand Magdalena.

In the case of Cesar, this lack of protection became particularly clear in the early 1990s as Colombia’s two main insurgent groups, the ELN and the FARC, began to exert control over citizens and politicians alike. In one area near his home, Tovar said the guerrillas stole land, siphoned from local government budgets, and designated their own candidates for office.26 Tovar would later call it a “parallel” state.27 The reach of the FARC, in particular, was very personal for Valledupar. Ricardo Palmera, a member of the “la gente de la plaza,” joined the guerrillas in the late 1980s. He dubbed himself “Simón Trinidad,” a play on the name of 19th century independence leader Simón Bolívar. Palmera’s intimate knowledge of the region’s elites — in particular their habits and their earnings — made them easy targets for extortion and kidnappings.

Tovar’s family was no exception. The guerrillas kidnapped his cousin for ransom and very nearly kidnapped his father.28 The rebels also regularly extorted the family. Insurgent emissaries would come to his family’s cattle ranches demanding food and alcohol, in addition to their monthly quota.29 Tovar said he would give them a case of Old Parr Whiskey, and they would drink bottles of the local hooch, aguardiente, during their extortion rounds. On a few occasions, the rebels brought neighbors who owed them money to the meeting place and interrogated Tovar about how much money the person had in order to help them determine the person’s monthly quota.

“They said I was an oligarch,” he remembered.30

Tovar said 80 percent of residents paid these quotas. There was, he said, a “new state” in formation: one under the thumb of the guerrillas.31 

“If anything sent me to war, it was fear,” he later said in an interview.32

The Birth of a Paramilitary

In 1995, Tovar, tired of being victimized by the rebels, decided to help an incipient organization that called itself the “self-defense” groups. Accompanied by a man he identified as “Luis,” he began running errands. At the beginning, he considered himself more of a connector and a mouthpiece than a leader or even an active member. For the “self-defense” groups, having this type of interlocutor made their entry into the area far easier. Tovar introduced them to potential funders and political operators, many of whom were part of his elite circle. When locals would ask, Tovar would tell them about the group, broadcasting its message of liberation. And when suspected guerrillas were assassinated, Tovar would proudly publicize the group’s actions:

I was a great guide in the area because, among other things, I knew the place very well because I bought and sold cattle, which gave me a very good lay of the land with regards to cattle producers and where the guerrillas were forming their states. What’s more, I was starting to spread the word, which increased as the self-defense groups became more active than in years past. As soon as the people heard about the military operations of the self-defense groups, in many areas they started to be more open to them and hopeful. So my role just got bigger and bigger because the people were more and more open to this idea. And I was delighted to tell them about it…Eventually the people looked for me, and started asking me how to get in touch with them, to see if they could go to their areas.33

Over time, Tovar met the leadership of the organization. This included Salvatore Mancuso. Mancuso was the son of Italian immigrants who had become large landowners and cattle ranchers along the northwestern Caribbean coast. With Tovar, Mancuso bragged about his own elite connections, which had helped him and the “self-defense” groups’ commander, Carlos Castaño, of the House of Castaño, set up the aforementioned ACCU, and later the AUC.34

In the beginning, the AUC’s principal interlocutor in the Grand Magdalena was Jorge Gnecco. He was, according to Tovar, the key fundraiser and, for a while, one of his direct bosses.35 At the time, Gnecco’s star was on the rise. In addition to his connection to the AUC, he was building a political machine. In 1992, his brother Lucas became governor of Cesar. In 1997, running for a second time, he beat Consuelo Araújo Noguera and became the first Cesar governor not beholden to the Araújo family in years. At the same time, Jorge Gnecco’s other brother Pepe became a senator. In a few years, his nephew, Hugo Gnecco, would be mayor of Santa Marta, the capital of Magdalena state. And his cousin, Juan Francisco “Kiko” Gómez, became mayor of Barrancas in Guajira.

But while Gnecco was his boss, it was Castaño who was Tovar’s ideological teacher and Mancuso his paramilitary godfather. In an interview, Tovar called Castaño his “Bolívar,” in reference to Simón Bolívar, the figure who led the push for independence from Spain in a vast stretch of the Andes in the 19th century.36 Castaño’s speeches about the failure of the “political class” and the state resonated with Tovar. The ire against this “political class” was as much regional as it was national:

This point caught my attention because it was the common denominator. Those of us who were there were very bothered by the political class who came from the capital of the country. That class had been incapable of establishing a state presence, of defending us, which was what was at the heart of our pain. At that time, the only leadership was corrupt, which it shared with those parallel states the guerrillas were creating. All of us in a collective voice shouted an SOS for our people. All of us acted in the interests of the people of our region, and for those who would come to the defense of those who had been abandoned by the rule of law. We all started feeling the need for freedom and our unwillingness to accept different political models from the ones we were accustomed. In this way, we started sharing [our frustrations] and [our desire] that now was the time for structural changes in the political model.37

For Tovar, and many other paramilitaries and non-paramilitaries alike, this sensation that the central government had abandoned them to the guerrillas was a touchstone. More than the idea that the government was incapable of protecting them, they believed the government did not care. It was the beginning of a nationwide upheaval that would culminate several years later with the election of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, himself a victim of rebel violence and staunch critic of the central government. As Tovar himself would say later: “The social contract was broken.”38

While Castaño trained Tovar’s mind, Mancuso honed his military skills. Tovar says he first went to battle as an AUC member with Mancuso, helping to rescue some people who had been kidnapped by the ELN rebels in neighboring Magdalena. The two were later captured together in Guajira, after their group had assassinated two peasant farmers who had invaded a large landowner’s property.39 The local prosecutor, however, only inquired about a grenade they were carrying and subsequently let them go.40 When the local ombudsman complained, he was disappeared on Tovar’s orders.41

A few months later, Tovar was captured again for trafficking weapons, this time without Mancuso. On this occasion, Mancuso and Castaño had no leverage, so they sent someone to spring Tovar from jail in Valledupar. Castaño and Mancuso insisted he escape, but in the manuscript he wrote later, Tovar said he believed that he was not doing anything wrong and had faith he would be rewarded for that behavior. “I hadn’t violated any laws, and everything was in order,” he would write.42

It was a telling moment, one that would typify Tovar’s approach to criminality: Tovar would never think of himself as an outlaw, even when he was committing some of his most heinous crimes. In this case, his faith would be rewarded, and he was released. When he called Mancuso and Castaño to give them the news, they were incredulous. “You must have someone who is higher up than us in Bogotá,” they told him.

Tovar laughed and told them that “truth and staying within the law” was what freed him. The two commanders on the other end of the phone asked if he was being facetious, to which Tovar responded: “It’s reality.”43

The reality, of course, was much more complex. In this case, it was that Tovar had used his own network in the army and the judicial system to gain freedom: after the local battalion falsely said Tovar had “permission” to move the weapons, the local prosecutor dropped the charges; that same prosecutor later worked for Tovar.44

Tovar does not mention this detail in his writings. For some, it is part of his disturbing pathology, his denial. For others, it is calculating. In either case, his narrative remains spotless: he is the victim who is acting on behalf of other victims. It is a story he maintains to this day.

The Rise of ‘Jorge 40’

Soon after being released from jail for a second time, Tovar took on the nom de guerre “Jorge 40.” (Like the military, the AUC assigned numbers to their commanders as a means of camouflaging communications.) Under the tutelage of Mancuso and Castaño, Jorge 40 became commander of the “Bloque Norte,” or Northern Bloc, of the AUC. Mancuso was his military boss, Jorge Gnecco his political boss, and Castaño his ideological boss.

Their plan was the same in every place they targeted: “clean” the area of guerrilla influence with military action; consolidate these areas through elections and control of the political parties. With Jorge 40’s connections and determination, the AUC set its sights on conquering the Grand Magdalena region. However, it would not be easy. While it was nominally a single movement, the AUC was split into numerous competing military and political factions. These factions were unified in their military strategy of fighting the rebels, but the spoils of these conquests were never easy to divvy up between the victors. What’s more, each faction’s local connections and interests made creating a unified strategy along the northern coast impossible.

Gnecco’s powerbase, for instance, stretched the length of the Grand Magdalena. In addition to his contacts in Magdalena’s underworld, many of the contraband families in Guajira were relatives or close associates. Among them was Juan Francisco “Kiko” Gómez, Jorge’s cousin and a former mayor of Barrancas, an important hub for contraband coming from Venezuela. Gómez worked with Samuel Santander Lopesierra, alias “el Hombre Marlboro,” a former senator who had connections at the highest levels of government and the contraband trade, as his nickname made evident.45 These families had their own political and economic interests, and regardless of the payoff of ridding themselves of the guerrillas, they were not willing to hand these interests to the AUC. What’s more, they had their own armed groups, which did not operate under the purview of the AUC.

These tensions would lead to bloodshed. It’s not clear what sparked the feud, but problems between the paramilitary groups became particularly tense when Hernán Giraldo got into a dispute with the Rojas family, an ally of the House of Castaño that moved illegal drugs and other illicit products along the coast.46 Over time, the rift grew and drew in Jorge Gnecco. Gnecco’s power was at its apex throughout the region, and he took sides with Giraldo. It was a pivotal moment in the battle for the Grand Magdalena. At stake was more than just the illicit trafficking routes that motored the paramilitary war against the guerrillas and its expansion. Political power in the northeastern corner of Colombia, and possibly that of the entire country, was now in play.

The turning point came in August 2001, when Jorge 40, at the behest of his AUC bosses, invited Jorge Gnecco to meet with him. Gnecco, the powerful patriarch of the most ruthless criminal family in the northeast, was confident this was a friendly business meeting and allegedly brought liquor and food with him. Upon arrival, however, Gnecco was taken captive, tortured and killed. His body was later found in an unmarked grave alongside those of his bodyguards.47 Jorge 40 would later target other members of the Gnecco family. The Gnecco’s reign was over, at least temporarily.

The fight then shifted to the Magdalena, where in December 2001, the AUC began distributing pamphlets warning of its arrival and the futility of resistance. From the coastal city of Santa Marta to the adjacent mountain range, Northern Bloc foot soldiers, militias and informants — often with military assistance — started hunting and killing Giraldo’s men.48 In February 2002, Jorge 40 surrounded what was left of the Giraldo’s paramilitary army, forcing Giraldo to surrender and renegotiate with the House of Castaño. In May 2002, the two groups signed a ceasefire, then re-baptized the new paramilitary group in the area.49 From then on, they would be under the command of the Northern Bloc.

Jorge 40 flexed his muscles in Guajira as well. After the Northern Bloc’s initial incursions opened up some space in the southern part of the state, he started working directly with the main contraband families in the area. At least four of the contraband patriarchs were not cooperative, so Jorge 40 had them killed; when he could not get at the head of the family, he had their relatives murdered.50

Jorge 40’s Political Machine

His military strategy in motion, Jorge 40 turned to politics. As the Supreme Court later said, the Northern Bloc was an, “organization that not only persecuted the guerrillas, but was intent on political control of its areas of operation.”51

The Northern Bloc started this process by illegally obtaining census data for the three states. One witness, for example, said they paid $2,000 for information on Magdalena.52 They then rallied their troops who rallied the candidates and their political operatives. In September 2000, the paramilitary organization held one of its first, private conventions in the Magdalena municipality of Chivolo (also written Chibolo), where they called for a “province united for the option of a better life.” In the end, they united behind a candidate for governor and 13 candidates for mayors of different municipalities. Another 395 people who could influence elections for municipal councils and the state assembly were also in attendance.53

The Northern Bloc’s candidates for governor and various municipal positions won their elections that year, giving the bloc a template to follow. In November 2001, the Northern Bloc called a meeting in Pivijay, another municipality in Magdalena, where they formalized an agreement with the local politicians who would be their candidates for the Senate, lower house of Congress and mayoral races that would follow.54 The so-called “Pacto de Pivijay” (“Pivijay Pact”) committed political leaders to supplying “votes” for four pre-selected candidates in the upcoming congressional elections. The congressmen and senators would return the favor by helping the mayoral campaigns of those candidates. In effect, the AUC’s gains in the national and the local elections mutually reinforced one another.

The strategy was nationwide. As Mancuso later told a court, the AUC sought to become the “de facto state” in their areas of influence:

Connecting ourselves to politics was Commander Carlos Castaño’s strategy…He gave instructions to his commanders, and I gave them to my lieutenants. We are talking about ’99, during which we plan to penetrate all the political processes of the mayors, the city councils, the state deputies, the governors, and the congressmen of the areas that we managed. …At the end of the day, this guarantees the self-defense groups national power… Really since the ’97 elections we had started to get involved in the regional elections, as well at the municipal and state levels…To get a better understanding of this issue, think about regions under the influence of the ACCU, and specifically the Northern Bloc. As I said before, all the politicians of that area looked for us so that we would work with them in their political careers. Especially following what happened with the Pastrana administration’s decision to seek peace with the guerrillas, we made the decision to interact with the politicians, coming to some small agreements with some communities to try and search for solutions as it related to our political vision, with the understanding that we were implementing a parallel state.55

The AUC called similar meetings with politicians in various parts of the country and pushed votes in the northwest — where the most famous of “pacts” was signed56 — the Eastern Plains, the coffee region, and the Middle Magdalena Valley.57 As the Supreme Court said:

At that time, the illegally armed organization developed a political project that had as its goal to position its members at all levels of the administration, including via popular elections, with the aim of expanding its area of influence and of having representatives in high positions of power at the national level.58

In Cesar, Jorge 40 also turned to his friends and neighbors from the state’s elite to help him. One pillar of his plan was Mauricio Pimiento Barrera, a career politician and diplomat who grew up in the “plaza” of Valledupar. The two were close friends, and as Jorge 40 developed his strategy, he knew he would need a close ally in Cesar, someone like Pimiento with political heft. Pimiento had international, national and local pull. He had been the Araújo candidate for governor of Cesar in 1995. He had also worked with the economic development and agricultural ministries. Prior to running for Senate, he worked with the Organization of American States (OAS) and had done a stint at the United States Agency for International Development contracting company Chemonics.

The other pillar was Álvaro Araújo Castro, the son of the political patriarch, Álvaro Araújo Noguera. Araújo Castro had become a congressman, but he remained more of a wildcard, one that would be fundamental if Jorge 40 wanted the traditional political class behind him. That is because, despite their political setbacks with regards to the Gnecco family, the Araújos were still important political patrons in Valledupar. Araújo Noguera held sway in the political blocs that candidates needed in order to get elected. Araújo Castro’s aunt, Consuelo, lost the race for governor in 1997, but she had become the minister of culture for President Andres Pastrana, and was married to Colombian Inspector General Edgardo Maya. Araújo Castro’s uncle, Jaime Araújo, was a magistrate on Colombia’s Constitutional Court. Araújo Castro’s sister, María Consuelo, was forging her own path, mostly along the lines of her aunt, Consuelo, in the cultural and social worlds.

The Araújos were not necessarily predisposed to the extra-judicial solutions the paramilitaries presented in the region, and it was an alliance that did not come naturally, numerous people from the region told InSight Crime. Jorge 40 saw the Araújos as part of the traditional political class that had betrayed the region and left it to the guerrillas. For his part, Álvaro Araújo Castro had his own political base, which had already elected him to congress in 1994 and 1998, and he was eyeing a spot in the Senate on his own terms.

Even with the arrival of the paramilitaries, Araújo Castro was keeping his options open and distancing himself publicly from the violence around him. When President Álvaro Uribe traveled to Valledupar in the year 2002, for example, Araújo Castro denounced the paramilitaries before the president and his Security Council, and demanded action against them. As Araújo Castro later described, “I said that the paramilitaries were interfering with the state and municipal governments.”59

Less than a month later, the security forces launched an operation in the area that killed several paramilitaries.

This public criticism reportedly infuriated Jorge 40, who, by some accounts,60 organized a hit squad to target the young congressman. It was at this stage that Araújo Castro’s more diplomatic brother, Sergio, reportedly interceded. A businessman, Sergio was charming, charismatic and a leader in his own right. He also knew Tovar very well, before he became Jorge 40. Thereafter, he had maintained contact with Tovar61 and, according to those who were close to both Araújo Castro and Tovar, offered to mediate the growing tension between his brother and the new paramilitary commander.

The lukewarm nature of the Araújo – Jorge 40 alliance was evident in the fact that there were no formal “pacts” in Cesar. The arrangements were unspoken, and the rules were not always as clear as they were in Magdalena. But when the rules were broken, there were consequences. At least nine current or former politicians and aspiring candidates were kidnapped or killed in Cesar from 2001 to early 2002,62 allegedly for not supporting the AUC’s designated candidates or refusing to drop out of the race themselves. One of them, Victor Ochoa Daza, was kidnapped after he refused to become Araújo Castro’s “suplente,” or his alternate on the Senate list. Following his abduction, Ochoa Daza’s running mate dropped out of the congressional race and became Araújo Castro’s “suplente.”63

In essence, as the Supreme Court later wrote about the case, Jorge 40 was implementing a single strategy throughout the region. The court noted that Jorge 40 had written in pencil on the Pacto de Pivijay document some notes concerning Mauricio Pimiento.64 It said that, similar to his strategy in the Magdalena, he had divided the region into three parts: one in the northern municipalities reserved for Pimiento; another in the south reserved for Araújo Castro; and a third with what they described as “cielos abiertos” (no ceilings), or open for competition, which was principally in and around Valledupar.65

The results of the 2002 congressional elections showed such anomalies in comparison to previous voting patterns that — despite the absence of physical proof or even a witness that placed Araújo Castro in a meeting with Jorge 40 to determine these electoral zones — the Supreme Court would later declare him guilty of “suppressing the vote” and assisting in the “formation of illegally armed groups.”66 The court would sentence Araújo Castro to nine years in prison.

These anomalies are worth noting. The first anomaly is between the votes cast in different areas of the state. The municipalities in the “Pimiento zone” clearly favor him as Senate candidate; those in the “Araújo zone” favor Araújo. (See Tables 1 and 2, below) The anomaly becomes even more stark if you compare it — as then investigator and now Senator Claudia López did when she revealed these anomalies in a series of analyses published in Semana magazine in 2005 — to previous results.67 In the areas the Northern Bloc designated for Araújo Castro, he increased his votes by over 400 percent from his 1998 congressional campaign.68 To be sure, more people traditionally vote in Senate elections than Chamber of Representatives elections, but this anomaly proved impossible for Araújo Castro and his legal team to explain.

As the Supreme Court later wrote when it sentenced Araújo Castro:

The results of the 2002 congressional elections — which under normal democratic conditions could be explained with what the accused has put forward — analyzed in the context in which they happened and in which the armed group led by ‘Jorge 40’ played a role, shows that there was an alliance between the AUC and the political class to divide the vote between those who were vying for Senate and those who were vying for congress, with the goal of obtaining those spots.69

Similar patterns emerged from Senate and congressional elections in Magdalena and Guajira. Although other government entities sometimes disagreed with respect to the level of participation of some of the politicians,70 the voting patterns were too obvious to ignore that the paramilitaries had played a key role in the elections. The paramilitaries also influenced local elections in favor of the Araújo family and other political elite families in the region. In 2003, for example, Hernando Molina Araújo, Araújo Castro’s cousin and the son of Consuelo Araújo, ran for governor unopposed after the two rival candidates dropped from the race due to threats from Jorge 40.71

The Jorge 40 Network: Reaping the Benefits

Jorge 40’s political strategy helped him and the AUC on many levels. On a local level, political power gave Jorge 40 and the AUC access to new revenue streams. The benefits paramilitaries could reap from these contacts varied but Jorge 40’s intimate knowledge of municipal budgets permitted him to target the most lucrative opportunities. Once his candidates took office, for instance, they were expected to award public contracts to firms he controlled, either directly or indirectly, or simply give the Northern Bloc a cut of the budget.

Examples abound. To cite a prominent one, in return for backing the 2002 Senate campaign of Dieb Maloof, organized via the Pivijay Pact, Jorge 40 was rewarded with valuable contracts from public health provider ESE José Prudencio Padilla. The public health service, which covered seven states in northern Colombia, had to be shut down in 2006 due to the massive diversion of its resources to the AUC.72

Jorge 40 engineered similar schemes in Cesar, which often also benefitted his allies, the Araújos. After Hernando Molina Araújo became governor, for instance, Molina Araújo inserted Angel Maya Daza, the half-brother of his step-father, Edgardo Maya, as the head of the biggest hospital in Valledupar. The previous manager was forced out by paramilitaries, according to testimony.73 Government investigators later found that the paramilitaries had received almost monthly payments from 2003 to 2008 via contracts awarded from the hospital budget to front companies, and used ambulances to transport men and weapons.74

Jorge 40 also used the Araújo family’s close connection to the region’s most lucrative business, coal mining, and its principal purveyor, Drummond, for his own ends.75 Alfredo Araújo Castro, the nephew of Álvaro Araújo Noguera, was the manager of community relations for Drummond in its Valledupar office, the company’s main office in the region, and later its general manager. Jaime Blanco Maya, half-brother to Inspector General Edgardo Maya, was contracted by Drummond to manage its food services. In an interview with InSight Crime, Jaime Blanco Maya said the company arranged to overpay on its contract to him.76 The excess, he said, was used to pay Jorge 40’s paramilitaries for “protection services.”77

Blanco Maya added that when his food services contract ended, Alfredo Araújo Castro became the go-between for Drummond’s payments to Jorge 40 and the paramilitaries for “protection” against the guerrillas.78 Several ex-paramilitaries and former Drummond contractors have also described Araújo Castro’s contact with the AUC, which they said dated as far back as 1999. According to the testimony, Araújo Castro repeatedly met with Northern Bloc commanders to negotiate expanding the local paramilitary front with Drummond money, to discuss military strategy, and give instructions to attack Drummond trade unionists.79 Alfredo Araújo Castro denies these accusations and, although he was picked up and questioned by authorities for the 2001 murder of two union leaders that worked for Drummond, he has not been prosecuted for any criminal wrongdoing. For his part, Jaime Blanco Maya was convicted in 2013, for his participation in the murder of the two union leaders and sentenced to over 37 years in prison.

Jorge 40’s own relatives also reportedly assisted him in his war against suspected members of the guerrillas. In perhaps the most notable case, his cousin, Álvaro Pupo, the nephew of his guardian Edgardo Pupo and the brother of Valledupar Mayor Ciro Pupo, allegedly became an important liaison with the president’s intelligence branch, the now defunct Administrative Security Department (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad – DAS). One former DAS official said Pupo visited DAS at least nine times, and that the intelligence agency supplied Pupo with lists of suspected rebel collaborators, who the AUC’s Northern Bloc later assassinated.80

However, the relationships between Jorge 40 and his elite allies, especially the Araújo clan, were complex. Álvaro Araújo Castro was elected to the Senate, but there was tension between him and Jorge 40 that continued long after the elections. In 2004, the two met at a birthday party for Congresswoman Eleonora Pineda, reportedly so they could clear the air.81 Blood was boiling and tempers flared, according to one person who attended the party, but the two agreed to a civil, if uneasy truce, and neither has ever publicly implicated the other of criminal acts.82

That truce was reportedly managed by Álvaro’s brother, Sergio Araújo Castro, who, according to one paramilitary associate, became the Northern Bloc’s unofficial spokesperson, one of its key advisors and an important interlocutor with the national government. (The same source said Sergio helped write speeches that Jorge 40 and Mancuso gave when the AUC began negotiating with the government.) To be sure, Jorge 40 was one of the last to lay down his weapons in 2006, after Sergio interceded at the government’s behest.83

And, for a while at least, the connections between the Araújo clan and the Northern Bloc helped re-establish the family’s status as the political patriarchs of the region, displacing their Gnecco rivals. Sergio’s access to Jorge 40 gave him a say in the selection of political candidates region-wide. The family’s power also surged on a national level. María Consuelo Araújo Castro became the minister of culture and later the minister of foreign relations. Edgardo Maya, Hernando Molina Araújo’s step-father, continued as inspector general.

Having allies in high government posts was indispensable for the paramilitaries. AUC emissaries helped them lobby for, draft, and later pass a controversial law that allowed them to withdraw from the conflict and demobilize their troops with minimal penalties. Under the 2004 law, for example, their jail sentences were limited to nine years as long as they participated in the government’s peace and reconciliation process, which included admitting to their criminal acts.

The paramilitary commanders took advantage, demobilizing with thousands of their troops between 2004 and 2006, the years following their political surge. For a while, the political strategy also reduced the paramilitary commanders’ chances of being extradited to the United States to face drug trafficking charges. From their posts, their political emissaries and high level bureaucrats could lobby the executive branch to keep the paramilitary commanders in Colombia.

With their fortunes rising, the Araújo family began to think about following a path that then President Álvaro Uribe had recently forged and that López Michelsen had virtually pioneered — using a regional power base to make a bid for the country’s highest office. The possibilities at the time were threefold: Álvaro Araújo Castro, María Consuelo Araújo Castro and Edgardo Maya. And for a brief moment, it appeared that Uribe himself might be favoring María Consuelo as a possible candidate to succeed him. This support quickly dissipated, however, as the accusations against her brother for his participation in Jorge 40’s political strategy took center stage.

Indeed, the perceived connections with the AUC eventually burned the political capital of the Araújos who were vilified and pursued by the law. In addition to Álvaro Araújo Castro’s nine-year prison sentence for suppressing the vote and assisting in the creation of illegally armed groups, his father, Álvaro Araújo Noguera, the one-time patriarch of the region, was also jailed for kidnapping. María Consuelo was nudged from the chancellor’s post in February 2007, just six months after she took control of the foreign ministry. Hernando Molina Araújo was tried and convicted for forming paramilitary groups and sentenced to seven years in jail. Even Jorge 40, the once all-powerful commander, who surrendered to the Colombian authorities in 2006, was extradited to the United States in 2008, where he was tried for drug trafficking and sentenced to 16 years in prison by Judge Reggie Walton.

Conclusion – Victims or Victimizers?

This case study is an example of what happens when a weak central state leaves powerful regional elites to deal with political and social upheaval. These regional elites believe they suffer because the central government has not dedicated sufficient resources to security, which is partly true. This facilitates the rise of illegal actors who serve as the elites’ ad-hoc army, their protection services. That army, however, has its own dynamic, which can swallow the elites in its path.

The elites do their part in creating the circumstances in which illegal actors emerge and take advantage of this void. They want the state to protect them, but they do not want to adhere to the rule of law when it inhibits their business of managing the region for their own ends. Picking and choosing when and how the state should function works for the elites whilst illegal actors are small, relatively bit players. But when these illegal actors rise to compete for power with these same elites, then drastic measures become normal recourse and tragic consequences often follow.

In the case of the Grand Magdalena, the origins of the elite’s connections with organized crime are threefold. First, it is clear that the elites had long worked in or with the underworld. This does not mean they were underworld figures themselves. Most were not. However, they did benefit from the underworld, specifically the movement of contraband across the Venezuelan border. Subsidized gasoline, fertilizers, farm machinery, autoparts and other products illegally trafficked from Venezuela into Colombia were all part of the accepted way of doing business. In this way, a weak state, in particular a border guard service that took bribes to turn a blind eye to contraband, and a police and a judiciary that did not investigate the origins of these products, was beneficial for them.

The rise in guerrilla activity changed the equation in the Grand Magdalena and is the second reason why elites and organized crime mixed. The weak state model no longer served the elites, but the central government was not willing or able to commit the resources necessary to fight the rebels. The predatory nature of the guerrilla groups accelerated a process whereby the elites felt the need to build their own parallel protection network.

This war led to the rise of figures such as Jorge Gnecco. In other circumstances, Gnecco would not have found so much room to operate, to expand his legitimate businesses so rapidly, and position his relatives so swiftly in political posts around the region. In other words, it appears to be far easier for illicit actors to gain legitimacy and power during times of war or great social upheaval. Certainly Gnecco found it to be so, and during 1990s his family’s political and economic fortunes rose quickly.

The rapid emergence of the Gnecco family changed the power dynamics between elites in the region. The Araújos — the traditional political power brokers — suddenly faced an upstart that threatened to end their stranglehold on political power. In other circumstances, the family might have confronted this challenge by simply throwing more money behind their candidates and promising political favors. However, the rules had changed. The Gnecco clan had equal or greater resources. They had an ability to promise political handouts of their own and could offer something the Araújos could not: protection from a rising guerrilla threat. Lucas Gnecco’s stunning victory over Consuelo Araújo should be seen in this context.

The decision by at least part of the Araújo clan to align with organized crime also needs to be viewed within this context. The Araújos did not start with the strategy of binding themselves to the fortunes of the paramilitaries. In fact, Álvaro Araújo Castro sought to publicly distance himself from that ascendant force. However, the more pragmatic of the family, Sergio, seemed to understand that in the long term, this was the only winning strategy. His close connection to Rodrigo Tovar Pupo facilitated this link but was not determinant in creating it. Put simply, without paramilitary support, the Araújos would not have regained their stature or displaced the Gnecco family.

War also accelerated Tovar’s connection to organized crime. His vulnerability was laid bare by the quotas guerrillas extracted from him at gunpoint and the kidnapping of his cousin. For him, and many others, the rebels had created their own “parallel” state. More importantly, they threatened to upend the status quo, and the privileges that he and his elite friends from the “plaza” considered their birthright. But Tovar’s frustration extended beyond the rebels. Tovar was angry at his elite counterparts for dissecting the state, parceling out pieces to serve their own needs, and thereby opening up avenues for corruption and this rebel “state.” The irony, of course, is that once he had the power, Tovar did much the same as those he vilified.

Third, the response of at least parts of the state, which ignored, facilitated or directly assisted the extra-judicial solution to the guerrilla problem, accelerated the process whereby elites and organized crime merged in northeast Colombia. The government — from the national to the local level — was at best inadequate and at worst complicit in the activities of these illegal actors.

What is clear from Tovar’s story is that he had to work with multiple parts of the government in order to achieve his goals. At the national level, he knew and worked with members of the military to get weapons, obtain some sort of cover for his operations and coordinate military actions against rebels. He needed the national police to turn a blind eye, give intelligence and get him released from custody on at least two occasions. He needed the Attorney General’s Office to skirt or bury investigations, and obfuscate evidence of paramilitary massacres. He needed the DAS to provide him with intelligence to murder suspected guerrillas.

Jorge 40On the local level, he needed officials to channel him resources, and registries to ignore voter fraud and manipulation. He needed local police to ignore his transgressions, which, in addition to murder and massacres, included extortion of large industry and kidnapping. His local networks also provided him with political backing at key stages, and hosted more than one political event in support of his chosen candidates.

To be sure, Tovar reached an entirely different level with his political strategy. While it is not clear whether he thought of the Araújos as key allies, it is clear he saw them at least as part of his vast political team. Whether the Araújos thought of themselves that way is still a subject for debate. They were, and remain, an independent, strong political force, and their political powers pre-dated the rise of Jorge 40. Nonetheless, what emerged was a mutually beneficial relationship.

These were the same elites who had coalesced behind Álvaro Uribe Vélez during his winning bid for the presidency in 2002. The Uribe model offered a path to the presidency for the ambitious Araújo family. However, the relationship with Jorge 40, whether it was made by design or forced on them, undid their march to the presidential palace. While it may have serviced their needs for a time — and was perhaps necessary to keep the guerrillas at bay, harness votes and corral political and social capital — in the end, it exposed the family and destroyed their chances of further national power.

In the end, the relationship between the Araújos and the paramilitaries offers a cautionary tale. Like many other families in the region who were besieged by war, the Araújos chose to align with the paramilitaries. It is too easy to vilify those who made this choice. The cost-benefit analysis for the elites in the Grand Magdalena would have been relatively simple at first. The guerrillas had clearly identified themselves as the enemies of the landed gentry and the political patrons of the area, i.e., the families from the “plaza.” The national government did not have the resources or the wherewithal to combat the guerrillas, and the paramilitaries offered the chance of getting rid of the most immediate problem — attacks by the rebels. In those circumstances, the urgent need for security outweighed the thought of the good of the country, the development of the state, due process of law or democratic values.

The idea of protection carries immense political and social weight. Both the paramilitaries and the elites realized this, although perhaps not at the same time. Political families such as the Araújos were pragmatic enough to understand from the beginning that connecting themselves to the AUC, and more specifically their former neighbor, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, was the surest way to survive not just the guerrillas but the paramilitaries themselves. This became painfully clear by 2001, the year Jorge 40 killed Jorge Gnecco. By then, it was Jorge 40, not the Araújos, who was driving the political machine forward, and hitching themselves to his wagon would have seemed the only viable strategy.

It was perhaps at this stage that the cost-benefit analysis began to shift. The new landlords, the paramilitaries, had shown their cards: they were not content to be the guardians; they wanted power for themselves. Political candidates were hand-picked. Elections were rigged. Public resources were siphoned from municipal budgets. It was they who had now created the “parallel state” that Tovar so hated when it was in the hands of the guerrillas.

As the issue became national, things got even more complicated. There is little doubt the AUC hoped their political discourse was a get-out-of-jail-free card. But as the guerrilla threat ebbed, due in part to an increasingly functional state, their political cache dropped. And as their brutal methods came to light, the costs of the alliance between politicians and paramilitaries became even higher. The “protector” quickly became a “human rights violator.”

Tovar lived this process. He called it a betrayal, and to this day steadfastly believes that he was wronged by his former allies and by other elites who used him and his paramilitary colleagues. It is also clear from speaking to him that he thinks he should have been in politics. He says he was pulled into a war that he did not want, into a life that he did not choose. He cites his sacrifices: leaving his family, losing his land, being incarcerated in a foreign country. He does not talk about his transgressions: massacres, mass displacement, trade in contraband, drug trafficking, and other crimes. In his narrative, he is the victim. As he sees it, he is not a criminal, he is a hero.


With Jorge 40 in jail in the United States and the Araújos on the run, the Gnecco family and their allies recouped their economic and political power in the Grand Magdalena. After Jorge 40 was extradited, Jorge Gnecco’s cousin Juan Francisco “Kiko” Gómez became governor of Guajira. To help finance his campaign, Gómez relied on criminal boss Marcos Figueroa, alias “Marquitos.”

Marquitos had returned to the Guajira following Jorge 40’s extradition and killed Tovar’s brother and some of his business partners. Marquitos had then set about gaining funding for Gómez’s campaign for governor, making deals with local politicians, including the mayor of Barrancas, to charge a percentage from companies that won public contracts.84

In 2011, the same year Gómez won Guajira’s governorship, Luis Alberto Monsalvo Gnecco — the son of Jorge Gnecco’s sister Cielo — won the governorship of Cesar, marking the return of the Gnecco family to high office in that state. Jorge Gnecco’s old dream of a family-led political alliance across Grand Magdalena seemed once more within reach, as one news outlet observed.85

Gómez was a political ally of Governor Monsalvo, and successfully lobbied for him to head the national governors’ organization.86 The close ties between the two branches of the family were demonstrated by Gómez’s presence as guest of honor at a lavish birthday party thrown for Cielo in August 2013. A photo from the event, published by the Colombian media, shows the cousins embracing and smiling broadly.

Guajira Governor Gómez was arrested in October 2013, under investigation for several murders, ties to the paramilitaries, and irregularities in public works contracts, among other crimes.

Meanwhile, the Gnecco family continues to accrue still more power in Cesar. Cielo is considered to be the true power behind the governor, and serves as the state’s first lady for her unmarried son. Rafael Bolaños Guerrero, an ex-governor of Cesar and brother-in-law to Cielo and Jorge Gnecco, is still in the family fold, and served as health secretary to his nephew, Governor Monsalvo. The family gained still more influence in the 2014 elections, when Cielo’s nephew Jose Alfredo Gnecco, son of former governor Lucas Gnecco, won a Senate seat, and three candidates backed by Cielo were voted to Congress.87

The Gnecco’s wealth and power helped deliver this electoral success. The vast majority of donations to Jose Alfredo’s Senate campaign came from members of the Gnecco family, including the governor’s father Luis Alberto Monsalvo Ramirez.88 Meanwhile, a rival candidate publicly accused the governor’s office of pressuring officials to back Jose Alfredo.89

However, the fight between the Gnecco and Araújo families may not be over yet. Gómez’s resignation as governor in February 2014 represented a clear setback to the prospect of a Gnecco-dominated Grand Magdalena. And in 2015, Sergio Araújo Castro ran for mayor of Valledupar. Although he lost, his sister, María Consuelo, was named to the cabinet of the newly elected mayor of Bogotá.

*Map by Jorge Mejía Galindo. Graphics by Andrew J Higgens.


[1] Semana, “‘Jorge 40’ puede quedar libre en 5 años,” 6 November 2015. Available at:

[2] Fabio Castillo, Los jinetes de la cocaína (Bogotá, 1987).

[3] Vanguardia Liberal, “Sepultado en Barranquilla Álvaro Pupo Pupo,” 20 October 2009.

[4] Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, “Mi vida como autodefensa y mi participacion como miembro del BN y del BNA,” unpublished portion of manuscript, obtained and published by Verdad Abierta 6 April 2010, pp. 10-11.

[5] Fabio Castillo, Los jinetes de la cocaína (Bogotá, 1987).

[6] See, among others: Francisco Thoumi, Economía política y narcotráfico (Bogotá, 1996).

[7] El Tiempo, “Intentan fraude con cédulas clones,” 8 September 1997. Available at: See also El Tiempo, “Hay preocupación en el Cesar,” 25 October 1997. Available at:

[8] El Tiempo, “Lucas Gnecco: dos años de inhabilidad,” 22 October 1997. Available at:

[9] El Tiempo, “Hay preocupación en el Cesar,” 25 October 1997. Available at:

[10] El Tiempo, “Resultados de las elecciones en el Cesar,” 7 November 1997. Available at:

[11] Interview, Rodrigo Tovar, Washington DC Corrections Facility, 3 June 2009.

[12] Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, Versión Libre, 3 July 2007.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] InSight Crime interview with Valledupar native and acquaintance of Tovar who requested anonymity, 12 December 2013.

[17] Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, Versión Libre, 3 July 2007.

[18] InSight Crime interview with Valledupar native and acquaintance of Tovar who requested anonymity, 12 December 2013.

[19] Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, Versión Libre, 4 July 2007.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, Versión Libre, 3 July 2007.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, Versión Libre, 4 July 2007.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, “Mi vida como autodefensa y mi participacion como miembro del BN y del BNA,” unpublished portion of manuscript, obtained and published by Verdad Abierta 6 April 2010, p. 54.

[27] Ibid., p. 38.

[28] Interview, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, Washington DC Corrections Facility, 3 June 2009.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Interview, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, Washington DC Corrections Facility, 3 June 2009.

[31] Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, “Mi vida como autodefensa y mi participacion como miembro del BN y del BNA,” unpublished portion of manuscript, obtained and published by Verdad Abierta 6 April 2010, p. 54.

[32] Interview, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, Washington DC Corrections Facility, 3 June 2009.

[33] Ibid., p. 36.

[34] Ibid., p. 27.

[35] Ibid., p. 28.

[36] Interview, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, Washington DC Corrections Facility, 3 June 2009.

[37] Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, “Mi vida como autodefensa y mi participacion como miembro del BN y del BNA,” unpublished portion of manuscript, obtained and published by Verdad Abierta 6 April 2010, p. 47.

[38] Interview, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, Washington DC Corrections Facility, 3 June 2009.

[39] Verdad Abierta, “El Personero que quiso poner tras las rejas a Mancuso y ‘Jorge 40’ y murió en el intent,” 2 July 2014.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, “Mi vida como autodefensa y mi participacion como miembro del BN y del BNA,” unpublished portion of manuscript, obtained and published by Verdad Abierta 6 April 2010, p. 146.

[43] Ibid., p. 148.

[44] Semana, “Un genio de mal,” 25 November 2006. Available at:

[45] Lopesierra, nicknamed “El Hombre Marlboro,” because of his control of the contraband cigarette trade, had famously contributed to Ernesto Samper’s presidential campaign, as revealed by the investigation into that campaign. Semana, “El laberinto del coronel,” 5 August 1996. Available at:

See also The Associated Press, “Illegal campaign donations,” 8 September 2003. Available at:

[46] Verdad Abierta, “Las batallas de Hernan Giraldo, y como termino sometido a ‘Jorge 40,” 2 November 2010.

[47] Supreme Court, Sentencing of Álvaro Araújo Castro, 18 March 2010, p. 92.

[48] Verdad Abierta, “Las batallas de Hernan Giraldo, y como termino sometido a ‘Jorge 40,” 2 November 2010.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Semana, “El ‘dossier’ delictivo de Kiko Gómez,” 19 October 2003. Available at:ómez-detencion-paramilitarismo/361740-3

[51] Supreme Court, Sentencing of Álvaro Araújo Castro, 18 March 2010, p. 7.

[52] Ibid., p. 110.

[53] El Espectador, “Chivolo y Pivijay, los otros pactos,” 15 July 2008. Available at:

[54] The document, a copy of which was obtained by InSight Crime, is called, “Convenio politíco para el debate electoral de el día 10 de marzo del año 2002, en la elección de Camera de Representantes y Senado de la Republica.” It is signed by 14 politicians.

[55] Supreme Court, Sentencing of Álvaro Araújo Castro, 18 March 2010, p. 108.

[56] The “Pacto de Ralito,” or Ralito Pact, was the most prominent of political agreements between paramilitary leaders and politicians. Signed in 2001, in Ralito, Córdoba, the pact included two governors, for senators, eight congressmen, four mayors and one ex-mayor, and four of the top paramilitary leaders in the country, including Tovar. Aside from formalizing the relationships between these politicians and paramilitary commanders, the signatories committed to: “Defender la independencia nacional, mantener la integridad territorial y asegurar la convivencia pacífica y la vigencia de un orden justo.” See: Semana, “Texto del ‘acuerdo de Ralito,'” 19 January 2007. Available at:

[57] Claudia López and Oscar Sevillano, “Balance politica de la parapolitica,” Corporación Nuevo Arcoiris, 15 December 2009. Available at:

[58] Supreme Court, Sentencing of Álvaro Araújo Castro, 18 March 2010, pp. 1-2.

[59] W Radio, “Desmovilizacion de alias ‘Jorge 40’ es inminente: senador Araújo,” 25 July 2005. Available at:újo/20050725/nota/189509.aspx

[60] This claim is hotly contested. Those who defend Araújo Castro say it shows he was never in Jorge 40’s corner. Those who criticize Araújo Castro say that the incident was a sham.

[61] When journalists sought to speak to Jorge 40, they would call Sergio Araújo Castro.

[62] Observatorio del Programa Presidencial de Derechos Humanos y DIH, “Proceso electoral,” 2002.

[63] Supreme Court, Sentencing of Álvaro Araújo Castro, 18 March 2010, pp. 12-14.

[64] Ibid., p. 118.

[65] Ibid., p. 8.

[66] Ibid., pp. 157-158. See also: Claudia López, “Mapas electorales presidenciales y congreso del 2002 en zonas con influencia paramilitar I, II, II,” 11 Septiembre 2005.

[67] Semana, “Votaciones atipicas en las elecciones de congreso del 2002,” 11 September 2005. Available at:

[68] Supreme Court, Sentencing of Álvaro Araújo Castro, 18 March 2010, pp. 120-121.

[69] Ibid., p. 10.

[70] See: Verdad Abierta, “Procuraduría absuelve a Araújo y contradice a la corte suprema,” 3 August 2010.

[71] El Tiempo, “Peso de las AUC en la Costa comenzó a sentirse con mayor fuerza en las pasadas elecciones regionals,” 16 November 2006. Available at:

[72] Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, “Parapolitica, aun en la escena judicial,” 10 September 2012. Available at:

[73] El Nuevo Herald, “Gerente puso a la orden de los paras un hospital publico,” 2 February 2008.

[74] El Heraldo, “El Angel caido de la salud en Valledupar,” 20 May 2012. Available at:

[75] It’s hard to underestimate the economic importance of coal to Cesar. Between 1995 and 2007, Drummond paid some $540 million in royalties to the state. As of 2012, it had created over 9,000 jobs in Cesar directly, and another 30,000 indirectly. See Revista Drummond, December 2013. Available at:

[76] InSight Crime interview with Jaime Blanco Maya via Skype, 27 June 2013.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid.

[79] PAX, “The Dark Side of Coal,” June 2014.

[80] El Tiempo, “Nueve reuniones de Jorge Noguera con delegado de los paramilitares lo tienen en la cárcel,” 22 February 2010. Available at:

[81] InSight Crime spoke to one of the people who was at the meeting, which the source called “a party.” Araújo Castro later admitted he had attended Pineda’s party, in order to speak to Jorge 40 about “threats to his life.” See Caracol, “Senador Araújo reconoce que se reunió con ‘Jorge 40’ en cumpleaños de ex representante Pineda,” 17 November 2006.

[82] Ibid.

[83] La Silla Vacía, “El fantasma ‘para’ que persigue a Sergio Araújo,” 16 July 2015. Available at:újo-50839

[84] Ariel Fernando Avila (ed), La frontera caliente entre Colombia y Venezuela (Bogotá, 2012).

[85] La Silla Vacía, “El fantasma de un sueño mafioso acosa al Cesar,” 31 August 2013. Available at:

[86] La Silla Vacía, “¿El raton cuidando el queso? Aliado de Kiko Gómez, a cargo de la campaña anticontrabando,” 23 May 2013. Available at:

[87] El Heraldo, “La Ley del ‘Montes’: Cesar, La primera Dama mueve sus fichas,” 9 February 2014. Available at:

[88] El Informador, “Jose Alfredo Gnecco, poder electoral en el otrora Magdalena Grande,” 11 April 2014. Available at:

[89] El Pilón, “Denuncian presiones en gobernacion del Cesar para votar por Jose Alfredo Gnecco,” 9 January 2014. Available at:

The research presented in this investigation is the result of a project funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...