Reports that the Gaitanistas are re-activating an old drug trafficking route in Montes de María, Colombia, may suggest that it has been pushed to do so due to losing power in other parts of the country.
On September 2, the governor of Sucre, Héctor Olimpo Espinosa, announced plans to support communities and social leaders in Montes de María to avoid rising criminality there.
This was in response to a spike in violence in recent months in the mountain range along Colombia's northern Caribbean coast, including a number of homicides and displacements of families around the municipality of El Carmen de Bolívar in recent months.
The targeted killings and threats against social leaders have been a constant of late, with one union leader and three land restitution activists having been killed and another community leader forced to flee. In July, houses in the municipality of El Carmen de Bolívar were tagged with graffiti, bearing the initials of the now-defunct United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), a coalition of paramilitary groups from which the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), separated.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños Profile
An increase in violence and extortion in the towns are likely connected to efforts by the AGC to expand its influence over Montes de María since 2018, as reported by the Ombudsman's Office.
In February 2020, an alert from the Ombusdman's Office stated that armed men belonging to the AGC in El Carmen de Bolívar were "safeguarding drug trafficking routes” and had expanded their control there since arriving in 2018.
The municipalities of El Carmen de Bolívar and the nearby municipality of San Onofre are crucial points along a longstanding drug route that connects coca-producing areas controlled by the AGC in southern Bolívar and Bajo Cauca, as well as cocaine processing centers in southern Córdoba department and Magdalena Medio to the Gulf of Morrosquillo, a major departure point for cocaine shipments to Central America, the United States and Europe.
In August, a shipment of cocaine seemingly bound for Costa Rica was seized in the Gulf of Morrosquillo, reinforcing concerns the AGC are using the mountain range as a major drug transit route.
And their use of Montes de María may drive violence in another way. According to Luis Fernando Trejos, a professor and investigator from the Department of Political Science and International Relations for the Universidad del Norte, local criminal groups are being hired by the AGC to carry and traffic drugs in exchange for money and weapons.
InSight Crime Analysis
AGC activity in the region would dredge up a lot of historical trauma for the residents of Montes de María. In the early 2000s, the mountain range was a hotbed of paramilitary activity, leaving behind a tragic history of massacres and violence.
But the AGC have been under dramatic pressure elsewhere in the country. A targeted campaign by Colombian armed forces, known as Operation Agamemnon II, has been putting pressure on the AGC in their historical backyard of Urabá. In July, 7.5 tons of cocaine, reportedly belonging to the group and with a street value of around $286 million, were seized from a ship sailing from Colombia to Panama, according to the Ministry of Defense.
The group’s presence in the Pacific has also been affected, due to the rising strength of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) and its control of shipment points along the Pacific Coast.