With the imposition of a curfew that paralyzed transport and shut down business in northwestern Colombia, the Gaitanistas defied the government and protested the killing of their leader, Juan de Dios Usuga, in a show of the type of strength hitherto only displayed by Marxist rebels.

The show of force by the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), has brought the full attention of the government of Juan Manuel Santos onto the group. It also showed that the AGC are more than a simple drug trafficking gang, and have deep roots in many of the communities in areas that they dominate.

“The Urabeños are trying to show a power that they do not have,” insisted Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon.

Except of course they do have the power, the power to reach into the life of northwestern Colombia, into six of the country’s 32 provinces, and force the local inhabitants to adhere to their will. They sent out pamphlets calling for 48 hours of mourning on the 4 and 5 of January, following the death on January 1 of their leader, Juan de Dios Usuga, alias “Giovanni.”

The order to cease economic activity and a ban on movement was largely obeyed across swathes of northwestern Colombia, either through fear or loyalty to the group. In the Caribbean city of Santa Marta, it cost the local economy $5 million. The AGC burned 11 vehicles that violated their ban on movement, and local bus services cancelled their routes during the period of mourning. The security forces did arrest 41 alleged members of the AGC who were enforcing the stoppage of transport and trade. Many were simply handing out pamphlets announcing the plans.

The Usuga brothers, who have led the AGC since 2009, are from the region of Uraba, where the group gets its name. Juan de Dios was killed on new year’s day in Acandi, Choco, near the Panamanian border, where the gang dominate. His brother Dario Antonio, alias “Otoniel,” age 42, is now believed to head the group. Santos has placed a million-dollar bounty on his head.

The background of the Usuga brothers lies first with the Maoist rebels of the People’s Liberation Army (EPL), which surrendered its arms in 1991. This means that the AGC high command has ideological formation and understands the power this can give an armed movement, and how social work with the local communities is essential to long-term survival. After leaving the EPL in 1991, Juan de Dios and Dario Antonio Usuga joined the pioneer paramilitary group, the Self-Defense Forces of Cordoba and Uraba (ACCU), which became the nucleus of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The ACCU could count on a great deal of support from local communities, particularly ranchers and businessmen threatened by guerrilla extortion and kidnapping.

It is interesting that the group call themselves the “Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia” (Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) in the pamphlets. The AGC is simply a name given to the group by the police. The “Self-Defense Forces” label harks back to the paramilitary roots (and political facade) of the AUC, from whence much of the group sprang, while “Gaitanistas” refers to Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a radical politician whose murder sparked the great wave of violence that began in 1948, this marking out the group’s “revolutionary” and “social” credentials. The name was picked by the AGC’s first boss, Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias “Don Mario,” who was captured by police in April 2009.

The police put the number of AGC at 1,600, which is likely an underestimation of their strength, something confirmed by a police claim that last year to have arrested more than 1,000 members of the gang. Alejandro Lyons, governor of the province of Cordoba, where the AGC have great strength, insisted that the gang had at least 1,000 members there. They have presence in another 11 departments, although their strongholds are in Antioquia, Choco, Cordoba, Bolívar, Magdalena and Sucre, along the Caribbean coast, where the blockade has had most impact. The AGC have a stranglehold on the Colombian border with Panama. They control the drugs crossing the border and moving up through Central America, or charge “taxes” on other drug traffickers who seek to move through their territory.

The type of curfew which the AGC enforced during the period of “mourning” are a tactic often used by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), which call them “armed stoppages” (paros armados). They impose them in areas they dominate when they want to make a show of force. This is the first time that a new generation paramilitary group (called BACRIMs – bandas criminales – by the government) have imposed such a measure.

Their actions embarrassed President Santos, and he has already responded, even as his Defense Minister Pinzon promised to wage “war without quarter” against the AGC. Santos announced that 16 new prosecutors would be dedicated solely to building cases against the group along the Caribbean coast, as well as an increase in the police force in Santa Marta.

The AGC’s bitter rivals for national dominance, the Rastrojos, may well benefit from not just from the death of Juan de Dios Usuga, but from the increased attention the security forces will pay to the AGC this year. While the Urabeños has been considered as the less powerful of the two organizations, it has a very different nature, as illustrated by these stoppages.

The Rastrojos have their roots in the Norte del Valle Cartel, and have never been much more than a drug trafficking organization, while the AGC, with their paramilitary and guerrilla roots, seek to present themselves as something more than a criminal syndicate; as a group with some sort of ideology and a social program, protecting the communities that work alongside them. As such, the government will need to employ a different strategy if they are to defeat the AGC, separating the group from the local communities that currently hide and protect them within their ranks.

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Jeremy McDermott is co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime. McDermott has more than two decades of experience reporting from around Latin America. He is a former British Army officer, who saw active...