The capture of key leaders of "La Constru," including a longtime kingpin and a capo who kept company with a colonel, has exposed the high-level alliances the group's leaders forged to make it a major drug trafficking player in Putumayo, in southern Colombia.
A police operation in the department of Putumayo in late June led to the capture of 14 members of drug gang La Constru, including one of its key allies, Henry Loaiza Ceballos, alias “El Alacrán."
Previously a member of the Norte del Valle cartel, El Alacrán allied himself with La Constru after his release from prison in 2017, running crucial drug trafficking routes in Putumayo along the Colombia-Ecuador border.
El Alacrán's capture was not the only recent blow to the gang. A raid near the capital Bogotá saw the arrest of Miguel Antonio Bastidas Bravo, alias Gárgola, another top La Constru figure. Authorities said he was moving four tons of cocaine from Puerto Asís, in Putumayo, to the capital.
At the time of Gárgola's arrest, he was traveling with Colombian army colonel Elkin Alfonso Argote. Argote was also arrested but later released.
While the relationship between Argote and Gárgola has not been fully explained, initial findings suggest the officer was providing protection for the drug trafficker, who traveled around Bogotá in official army vehicles.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Constru’s recent arrests highlight that this one-time debt collection agency has emerged as the principal drug trafficking organization in the southwestern department of Putumayo, which is rich in coca crops and has ample drug routes along the Colombia-Ecuador border.
La Constru was formed in 2006 after the demobilization of paramilitary groups from the Putumayo Southern Front. The gang began as enforcers and a debt collection agency, including for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).
Upon the demobilization of the FARC in 2016, La Constru capitalized on its networks of contacts to install itself as a major drug trafficking organization in Putumayo.
But the group has not tried to take over the region through brute force alone, instead preferring to maintain alliances and contacts with other criminal actors in the area, including a cell of dissident FARC fighters called the 48th Front.
Another type of alliance which has proven key for La Constru has been its links with traditional drug traffickers, such as El Alacrán. After his release from prison, he wanted to regain territory he once controlled in Putumayo as a member of the Norte del Valle Cartel. La Constru clearly saw bringing him into the fold as good business, gaining an ally with knowledge of drug routes in the area.
La Constru has maintained close ties with local political leadership and former members of the public forces, which helped shield it from scrutiny by authorities. The capture of Gárgola in an army vehicle escorted by a colonel shows just how much protection the group's leadership enjoyed.
Gárgola's arrest may not seriously weaken La Constru. In 2011, he had already been arrested, yet managed to keep control of the organization with the help of his brother, Héctor Orlando Bastidas, alias "Bonito,” who is now on the lam.
La Constru's focus on alliances means that it's likely to remain a major player in Putumayo, where the group controls coca crops, processing labs and drug trafficking routes into Ecuador.