A Gaitanistas commander in east Colombia has surrendered to the authorities, offering up 17 more regional leaders as part of the deal, highlighting weaknesses in the group's loose-knit network structure that will likely be accentuated as their expansion continues.
Volmar Hernando Claro Torres, alias "El Mico," surrendered in a rural area outside Cucuta, the department capital of Norte de Santander -- a key drug production and trafficking region on the border with Venezuela. A further 17 members of the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), were subsequently captured, reported El Tiempo, reportedly given up by Claro as part of the deal.
Claro had previously been part of other armed groups engaged in drug trafficking in the region, including the Aguilas Negras and the Rastrojos, before aligning with the AGC and becoming second in command to regional leader Carlos Andres Palencia, alias "Visaje," according to la Opinion.
El Espectador reported that Claro sought to surrender after the string of deaths of local AGC leaders that followed the killing in September by Colombian security forces of the man believed to head of the AGC Caribbean operations, Jose Gregorio Velazquez Yaguidua, alias "Macario."
While the full details of the situation remain unclear, there have been rumors that Palencia had betrayed Velasquez and then ordered the killings of the other regional leaders, and Claro may have wanted to escape imminent danger to himself.
InSight Crime Analysis
The violence and betrayal that seems to be tearing apart the AGC network in Norte de Santander could be a harbinger of things to come for Colombia's most powerful criminal group, as it clearly demonstrates the stresses on the loose knit network, or franchise model, they employ. This hydra-headed structure, which sees a tight knit group of central commanders oversee a network of regional blocs and afiliates, is one of the reasons the group has been so difficult to stop, but is also one of its weaknesses.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile
In Norte de Santander, Palenica was reportedly sent to the region in 2011 with a handful of shock troops and orders to build an organization capable of challeging the Rastrojos. However, his group temporarily broke away after it was ordered to withdraw following a pact struck between the AGC and their rivals. In contrast, Claro's criminal history would suggest he is a longtime regional player who simply threw in his lot with the dominant organization of the day.
Both the fact that the local faction is led by an agressive commander who has proven he is prepared to strike out alone, and the fact that it relies on criminals such as Claro, who has few connections to the group and switches loyalties easily, illustrate how these horizontally organized networks can break down and fragment.
As the AGC continue to expand nationally by absorbing local groups and establishing regional blocs, the ties to the central command will likely weaken further, and situations such as this could become more common.