A top commander of Colombia's most powerful crime group has been killed during a security operation, marking a new level of success for authorities while potentially paving the way for more infighting within the increasingly fragmented organization.
Second-in-command of the Gaitanistas, Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez, alias "Gavilán," was killed during an August 31 operation carried out by military and police officials in Colombia's Urabá region, the group's home turf.
Gavilán, who has been a key figure in Colombia's underworld for more than 20 years, died amid airstrikes and ground attacks led by a military special forces unit as part of Operation Agamemnon II, Colombia's largest ever man-hunt, which until now had failed to take down members of the Gaitanistas' top leadership.
SEE ALSO: Profile of 'Gavilán'
Gavilán was one of Colombia's most wanted criminals, having moved up the ranks over decades from guerrilla to paramilitary fighter to top leader of the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC). At the time of his death, there were reportedly 22 warrants for his arrest on charges of homicide, conspiracy to commit crime, drug trafficking and forced displacement.
Earlier this week, another large-scale security operation carried out as part of Agamemnon II also led to the killings and arrests of more than a dozen other members of the AGC. Among those injured during the operation in Norte de Santander was the criminal group's fifth-in-command, Luis Orlando Padierna Peña, aliases "Inglaterra" and "El Viejo."
InSight Crime Analysis
Authorities' seemingly newfound success in targeting the AGC's highest ranks may be attributable to a recent shift that has placed the police, rather than the military, in charge of a joint operation for the first time in Colombia. In June, a second phase of the two-year-old Operation Agamemnon was relaunched under the leadership of General Jorge Luis Vargas, the director of the criminal investigations branch of the national police. And in recent months, authorities have taken down several leaders of the AGC, in addition to seizing drugs and other assets from the group.
At the same time, the AGC organization is spread thin, and may be on the defensive. As the group's heartland in the jungles of Urabá has come under siege by state forces, the Urabenos have worked to move operations from the northeastern Caribbean region of Colombia to the Pacific. With factions around the country fighting against rivals like the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) and the Rastrojos, the group may be having trouble evading or fending off state forces.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile
The recent captures and deaths of top AGC leaders will inevitably lead to a restructuring of the AGC's leadership, potentially generating further distrust within the group and fueling fights for control over drug trafficking routes. Indeed, even before the heavy blows of these recent security operations, internal frictions were already on the rise. In the months before his death, Gavilán had reportedly had a falling out with the AGC's top leader, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel." Now that Gavilán is no longer in the picture, and other high-ranking leader Inglaterra may be incapacitated by his injuries, Otoniel has a dwindling number of allies in his circle of trusted commanders.
However, even with fractures forming in the AGC's leadership, the group's franchise-like structure means that local cells will most likely continue their operations, and their violent expansion, without any significant disruption.