The latest in a series of arrests targeting emergent criminal organization the Giraldos may yet tip the balance of the conflict along Colombia's Caribbean coast, where the country's dominant criminal force, the Gaitanistas, are facing serious challenges to their authority.
The Giraldos are currently believed to be the only criminal organization aggressively attacking the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), on the AGC's home turf in Colombia's Caribbean. Confrontations between these two organizations helped make tourist capital Santa Marta one of the most violent places in Colombia last year, according to a violence watchdog group which recently listed the colonial town as the world's 29th most violent city.
The conflict has attracted attention from the Colombian security forces, who recently announced the capture of an alleged top leader of the Giraldos, Avelino Gomez Castro, alias "Peker." He was detained in Santa Marta on February 25 as part of a military operation. He is accused of running an extortion and kidnapping network in the coastal city, and acting as the financial chief of the Giraldos, who are also known as the Oficina del Caribe (a play on Oficina de Envigado, the drug trafficking and assassins' ring that Pablo Escobar set up in Medellin and which remains active today). An ex-member of former paramilitary organization the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), Peker is the most high-profile member of the Giraldos to be captured so far.
The Giraldos are linked to former AUC commander Hernan Giraldo, alias "El Viejo," a warlord who was known for his ruthlessness and was among the 13 top paramilitary commanders extradited from Colombia to the US in 2008. In recent years, his family members began recruiting demobilized members of the paramilitary bloc which Giraldo once headed, the Tayrona Resistance Front. Their aim was to raise a private army to drive out rival neo-paramilitary organization the AGC, and reclaim the criminal networks previously controlled by Giraldo.
The AGC reacted quickly and violently, declaring war in leaflets distributed around Santa Marta. As the conflict intensified, the murder rate in Santa Marta and the surrounding region skyrocketed. Hundreds were displaced, while several community leaders in the conflict zone were assassinated. By the end of 2012, Santa Marta had entered the list of the world's 50 most dangerous cities .
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Over the past year, the AGC have become embroiled in numerous turf wars. They are confronting drug trafficking organization the Rastrojos in the southwestern department Valle Del Cauca,as well as the Oficina de Envigado in Medellin. These wars appear to be part of an expansionist strategy that, if successful, will grant the AGC influence over nearly all of Colombia's most important cocaine export points. These include the Pacific coast in the Rastrojos' southwestern territory; the city of Medellin, which serves as a a transit hub for the rest of the country, and the northern Caribbean coast.
The war for Santa Marta stands out from these other conflicts, as it is the only major territorial dispute in which the AGC are not the aggressors; instead, it is their control of a region that is being challenged. It is unsurprising that so much of the conflict should play out in Santa Marta, which represents a lucrative criminal market. The criminal organization which controls Santa Marta can oversee drug shipments departing from the coast and collect revenue from local extortion schemes. The city also lies on a main route for contraband gasoline smuggled out of Venezuela.
While violence has dropped off somewhat during the first months of 2013, there are few signs that the conflict is winding down. The accusations levelled against Peker and other recently arrested members of the Giraldos suggest the group has succeeded in establishing control over at least some criminal activities in the region.
However, the Giraldos face some significant challenges in facing down the AGC, and the battle will likely only grow more difficult with Peker out of the picture. In one indication of the type of resources the AGC can mobilize, an alleged assassin recently arrested in Santa Marta was accused of forming part of a 20-member ring of AGC hitmen sent to the city. Having picked a fight with the strongest criminal organization in Colombia and having singled themselves out as an obstacle to the AGC's national strategy, the Giraldos will likely struggle to hold on to whatever slim gains they have earned so far.