The killing of the principal leader of Colombia’s “Los Pachenca” criminal group, as well as high-level arrests within the group, is generating doubts about the organization’s future.

Jesús María Aguirre Gallego, alias “Chucho Mercancía,” was shot and killed by Colombian forces on June 17, near Santa Marta, according to an official news release.

The United States had issued an arrest warrant for Mercancía for drug trafficking. He had also been accused of murder, extortion, and forced displacements in Santa Marta, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

During the operation against Mercancía, authorities also shot and killed Mario Giraldo, his bodyguard. Giraldo is the cousin of notorious paramilitary leader Hernán Girlado.

Mercancía’s killing was not the only blow to the group this year. On May 19, Colombian authorities captured John Rafael Salazar, alias “Flash,” the second in command within Los Pachenca.

Flash was detained in Riohacha, in the department of Guajira. He was accused of murder, drug trafficking and extortion.

SEE ALSO: Colombian News and Profiles 

For at least six years, Los Pachenca have carried out criminal activities on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, but only recently has the group come onto authorities’ radar.

The organization’s zone of influence extends across northern Colombia, to cities like Riohacha and Barranquilla, where in November of 2018 authorities seized a ton of cocaine belonging to the group. Colombia’s Ombudsman’s office issued a warning about the organization’s presence in the Atlantic and La Guajira regions.

The group’s extensive support network gives it access to extortion and microtrafficking in the region’s capitals, and keeps its leaders informed about the presence of authorities.

According to intelligence reports, Mercancía had some 150 men under his command running extortion rackets and watching over drug trafficking routs in the Sierra Nevada area.

Recent arrests by authorities have also revealed that Los Pachenca were part of a powerful criminal alliance that sought to traffic cocaine through the Caribbean. Included in those arrests was Alba Nery Rodríguez, alias “La Gaviota,” Mercancía’s girlfriend.

InSight Crime Analysis

Mercancía’s killing could be a hard blow to Los Pachenca. But the organization has weathered massive drug seizures and numerous captures in the past, thanks to its ability to renew its criminal networks.

Los Pachenca’s success stems from its ties to Colombia’s paramilitary groups, which schooled the group’s leaders who then filled the criminal vacuum when the paramilitaries demobilized.

Mercancía started in the ranks of Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias “Jorge 40,” the paramilitary chief of the Northern Block of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC).

Following the group’s demobilization, Mercancía worked with Miguel Angel Mejia Munera and his brother Victor Manuel, together known as “los mellizos,” or the twins, in a violent drug trafficking group known as “Los Nevados.”  When one of the twins died, Mercancía went on to monitor shipments for “Los Urabeños” until he was captured in 2012.

After just a few months behind bars, Mercancía quickly reactivated his criminal contacts and continued to dodge authorities, who offered a significant bounty for information on his whereabouts.

Los Pachenca’s control over cocaine routes to Central America and the Caribbean islands, as well as growing extortion rackets, has helped the group maintain its power.

SEE ALSO: Arrests Uncover Alliance Among Top Colombian Mafias

During a visit to La Guajira, InSight Crime learned how much influence Los Pachenca have in this region, a key drug transit route. Members of the group supervise the departure of boats and run microtrafficking in the urban areas.

The group is active along the coast near the towns of Dibulla and Riohacha, the final point in a drug route that starts in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Santa Marta. The route ends on the beaches of La Guajira, where speedboats depart loaded with cocaine.

After Mercancía’s death, it is uncertain who will take charge of the organization, or even whether it can weather the loss.

Not long ago, authorities identified an internal dispute within Los Pachenca. On one side was Mercancía and Deimer Patiño Giraldo, alias “80. On the opposite side was John Rafael Salazar, alias “Flash,” the group’s recently captured second-in-command. With both Mercancía and Flash out of the way, it is likely that Patiño Giraldo already has control of Flash’s structure. However, it is not clear if he is capable of leading the organization.

Another scenario is that Los Pachenca weaken in the wake of Mercancía’s killing. That would leave key drug routes up for grabs in Santa Marta’s Sierra Nevada. Other criminal actors in the area include the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrillas and possibly the powerful drug trafficking group Los Urabeños. A fight with any of these groups for control of routes and coca crops could erupt.

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