Authorities in Spain have busted what they describe as the "primary" Gaitanistas cell in the country, in a case underscoring the overseas reach and operations of Colombia's preeminent criminal group.
In a press release, Spain's Interior Ministry said 13 people had been arrested in the cities of Madrid, Toledo and Barcelona, including the group's 47-year-old Colombian ringleader, alias "El Invalido" (The Invalid). The group was what is known as an "oficina de cobro" (collection office), a Colombian criminal structure that provides services such as kidnapping, debt collecting and money laundering to larger organizations.
The arrests were carried out as the group prepared to kidnap a Barcelona-based Colombian businessman who allegedly owes the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), around $12.5 million, said the ministry. The kidnappers intended to demand $15.3 million for his release, which would have been split between the Spain-based gang and the criminal organization in Colombia.
Before working for the Gaitanistas, the group's leader had previously been a member of their rivals the Rastrojos, and another Colombian group known as La Cordillera.
According to Spanish authorities, this was the fourth such group to be dismantled in Spain since 2011.
InSight Crime Analysis
While this is not the first bust of an oficina de cobro in Spain, it may be the first captured under the charge of the AGC, as they apparently step up their involvement in the country -- the main entry point for Latin American drugs entering Europe. This latest bust comes six months after Spanish authorities captured a reported key Urabeños operative seeking to establish an oficina de cobro.
Previous groups dismantled have been linked to the Rastrojos -- a fading criminal group that was once the dominant Colombian criminal presence in Europe -- while one taken down in 2011 was apparently allied to Medellin's "Oficina de Envigado." Meanwhile, members of an oficina captured in mid-2013 apparently worked as free agents, without ties to any one group.
Oficinas de cobro are generally localized, financially independent and involved in criminal activity outside the services provided to larger groups, forming the second tier of Colombia's organized crime structure, below so-called BACRIM (from the Spanish abbreviation for "criminal bands"), of which the AGC are the arguably the sole remaining group active at a national level today.
SEE ALSO: The "Victory" of the Gaitanistas: The New Face of Colombian Organized Crime
The fact that the group leader previously worked for the Rastrojos shows not only how the balance of power has shifted to the AGC, but how also fealty in such networks is fluid and depends more on who has the money and the power than on any sense of loyalty.
The bust is also the latest evidence that, despite signs of an attempt by Mexican cartels to muscle in on the territory, Colombian criminal groups remain a powerful presence in Spain.