Colombia's neo-paramilitary Gaitanistas are strengthening their presence across the border in Panama, expanding their influence over a key drug shipment route with easy access to money laundering networks.
Two months ago, Gaitanistas commander Francisco Morelo Peñata, alias “El Negro Sarley,” relocated to the Panamanian province of Colon to manage the group’s support network and money laundering activities, according an El Tiempo report based on police sources.
A former Popular Liberation Army (EPL) guerrilla, El Negro Sarley is a member of the Gaitanistas core leadership, and police believe his move into Panama could also be motivated by a desire to rebuild regional alliances established by former Gaitanistas commander Alexander Montoya Usuga, alias "El Flaco," which have fallen away since El Flaco was captured in Honduras in July, a source told El Tiempo.
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Colon has long been a major transhipment point for drug consignments moving from Colombia to Central America and it should come as no surprise that the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), are looking to expand their influence in this strategic hub.
Panama is a money laundering hotspot and the AGC are believed to have an extensive network of both legal and illegal business interests in the region, including transportation, auto-trading and construction companies, as well as prostitution.
It is also likely the AGC are looking to exploit the Colon Free Trade Zone, where luxury goods from whiskey to flat screen TVs can be bought with drug profits and smuggled into Colombia and resold.
The AGC's heartland in Colombia lies close to the border with Panama, where they are known to have agreements with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), whose 57th Front is located on both sides of the Darien Gap that forms the frontier, just one example of commercial collaboration between the two groups.