Colombian authorities have arrested an evangelical bishop affiliated with a local non-governmental organization (NGO) for allegedly laundering money on behalf of criminal group the Gaitanistas.
On May 11, authorities captured Jorge Armando Mercedes Cedeño, a pastor from the Dominican Republic based in Colombia's northwest region of Uraba. Another religious leader, Bishop Orlando Arce Ortiz, was arrested in the southwest city of Cali, reported Semana. Cedeño and Ortiz reportedly laundered over $400,000 in drug proceeds by sending the money to Central America and the Dominican Republic disguised as church donations.
Prosecutors in the Dominican Republic have opened an investigation into the potential links between the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), and an evangelical church that may have received the illicit funds, reported the Associated Press.
Authorities also reportedly possess audio recordings of Bishop Arce and an additional pastor, in which they discuss using their position within a local NGO, known as Colombia Peace Organization (OPC), to free three people from jail, according to El Tiempo. One of these inmates was reportedly the wife of the AGC's top boss, Dario Antonio Usuga, alias "Otoniel."
An unidentified member of Colombia's Attorney General's Office told El Tiempo the two pastors were attempting to pass off Otoniel's wife as a member of the OPC. As part of the plan, she would have pretended she was conducting humanitarian work meant to support the demobilization of the AGC, according to reports.
InSight Crime Analysis
In Colombia, it is not uncommon for authorities to accuse NGOs of collaborating with armed actors. However, this typically involves NGOs accused of supporting left-wing guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In contrast, the AGC belong to the newest generation of Colombian criminal groups, known as the BACRIM (from the Spanish acronym for "bandas criminales"), and are the successors to the demobilized right-wing paramilitaries. The BACRIM are not considered to be part of the country's armed conflict, as authorities say they lack political motivations.
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The AGC have tried to argue otherwise, calling themselves the "third actor" in Colombia's armed conflict, and have even asked to be included in Colombia's peace talks. In any case, if the AGC have indeed penetrated religious institutions in their homebase of Uraba, it is an uncomfortable reminder of how ingrained they have become in the social fabric of the region.