A recent security operation confirmed the expansion of the Gaitanistas into Colombia's lucrative Eastern Plains region, highlighting the criminal organization's territorial expansion despite heavy pressure from the country's security forces.
On April 7, authorities captured Edrile Romero Palomeque, alias "Negro Andrés," in the eastern province of Meta, reported El Tiempo. Following the arrest, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said the Gaitanistas maximum leader Dario Antonio Usuga, alias "Otoniel," had chosen Romero Palomeque to lead the group's push into the Eastern Plains, reported El Colombiano.
Police say Romero Palomeque was sent to the Eastern Plains with four other operatives and a large sum of cash in order to buy land and take over the region's criminal activities, including drug trafficking and extortion.
Romero Palomeque was arrested by members of Colombia's newly created "Bloque de Búsqueda" (Search Bloc), which targets organized crime structures operating in the country.
InSight Crime Analysis
Romero Palomeque's arrest confirms what has been suspected for some time: the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), are making inroads into the Eastern Plains region. This territory is highly prized for its coca crops and drug routes into neighboring Venezuela, and an assortment of paramilitary, guerrilla, and organized crime groups have long fought for control of the region.
The Eastern Plains was once under the control of drug boss Daniel Barrera, alias "El Loco," but his capture in September 2012 left a power vacuum that was partially filled by Martin Farfan Diaz Gonzalez, alias “Pijarbey,” head of a splinter group known as the Libertadores del Vichada. There were indications Pijarbey was working with the AGC, and following his death last September authorities determined that the criminal group had established a presence in the region.
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The AGC's territorial expansion, coupled with its recent show of strength during an armed strike in Colombia's northwest, undermines the government's concerted efforts to dismantle the most powerful criminal organization left in the country. For the past year authorities have dedicated a huge number of security forces and other resources to capturing Otoniel and other top leaders of the organization. Although the increased security pressure has reportedly had a negative impact on the AGC's finances and drug trafficking operations, Otoniel remains free and the organization appears set to further grow its criminal franchise.