Information has surfaced on apparent frictions at the heart at one of the Western Hemisphere's most powerful drug trafficking organizations. But while its leaders may be divided, this group continues to be a serious threat as it expands across Colombia.
A recent report has shed light on alleged divisions between the two top bosses of Colombia's Gaitanistas organization, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC): Commander-in-Chief Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," and Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez, alias "Gavilán."
"Otoniel distanced himself from his second-in-command … 'Gavilán' over a year ago, when rumors emerged that [Otoniel] would turn himself in to US authorities," El Tiempo was told by a source who is involved in operations against the structure. According to the source, at the time Gavilán "asserted that he would assume the leadership of the organization."
This apparently incited Otoniel's distrust towards Gavilán, and the top leader decided to place his nephew, alias "El Mocho," in charge of important cocaine shipments. This included, according to police, the notorious 9.3 metric ton load of cocaine seized in May 2016, even though it was initially reported that Gavilán was responsible for this cargo.
When authorities confiscated this huge cache, Otoniel scoured his organization for potential informers, which reportedly led to the assassination of around 20 people.
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While its leadership may be unsteady, the AGC organization -- which became the dominant criminal actor of its kind in Colombia around 2012 -- is still a force to be reckoned with.
Other than internal fractures, the group's upper rungs have been facing huge efforts by security forces to take them down. Over two years ago, Colombia launched what has been described as the biggest police operation in national history against the AGC: Operation Agamemnon. This began with over 1,000 men, although it has since shrunk to around 300.
The biggest blow Agamemnon has dealt so far was the killing in March 2016 of Jairo Durango Restrepo, alias "Gua Gua," of the group's board of directors. Almost 1,000 more alleged AGC members have been arrested.
But Otoniel -- Colombia's most wanted criminal -- and his closest partners, remain elusive.
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Prosecutors told InSight Crime last year that Otoniel is hiding in the AGC's jungle heartland of Urabá, on the Caribbean coast. He has evaded the man hunt against him by not using technological devices and by hiding in indigenous communities, where state forces are not authorized to carry out aerial bombings against him. The bombing of criminal groups, as opposed to insurgent forces, was approved in 2015.
That said, even if the AGC's commanders do fall to authorities, the group's franchise-like structure means that the operations of local cells would probably not be seriously disrupted. Indeed, the group continues to show signs of its power through its violent expansion and prolific drug exports.
However, if the leadership were to fracture completely, the AGC operations on the ground may well suffer the repercussions of intensified internecine conflict.