A police offensive against the Gaitanistas in north Colombia has drawn attention to the narco-paramilitary gang's operations on both sides of the Colombia-Venezuela border and their growing strength in a region that until recently was a Rastrojos stronghold.
Police attempts to capture a regional Gaitanistas leader in the Norte de Santander department sparked a shootout on the outskirts of Cucuta, near the Venezuelan border, in which one police officer and six alleged Gaitanistas members died. The operation was targeting Carlos Andres Palencia, alias "Visaje," a fugitive former paramilitary who police identified as the head of Gaitanistas operations in the region, reported Cucuta daily La Opinion.
The Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), have responded to the assault with a series of revenge attacks, which killed one policeman and seriously injured two others, reported El Tiempo.
On the other side of the border, the local head of the police forensic investigation's department was also murdered in an attack local media attributed to Colombian "paramilitaries."
Following the confrontations, Venezuelan authorities discovered two camps in Tachira that police said belonged to the AGC, reported El Tiempo. According to authorities, the AGC charge drug traffickers for the use of trafficking routes, run extortion rings and smuggle drugs and contraband on both sides of the border.
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The key drug trafficking territory of the Colombia-Venezuela border has long been dominated by AGC rivals the Rastrojos. However, since at least 2011, the area around Cucuta has been disputed territory, after an AGC unit under the command of Palencia was sent into the region to wrest control from the Rastrojos.
According to a local police commander cited in KienyKe, Palencia's unit went rogue following a 2011 pact between the groups' national leaders in which the AGC ceded the territory to the Rastrojos, and began operating under the name "The New Generation Self-Defense Forces of Norte de Santander."
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However, since that time the Rastrojos have been in disarray following the loss of their national leadership, and there are few signs the pact remains intact. Under these circumstances, it is likely that Palencia's operations have been brought back into the fold, with the AGC keen to secure one of Colombia's prime slices of drug trafficking real estate.
The presence of AGC camps in Venezuela not only offers further proof that the group is firmly established in the region, it also offers another sign that Colombian criminal organizations are increasingly operating on both sides of the border.