The International Criminal Court has called the Gaitanistas Colombia's most dangerous and well-organized criminal organization, stating that the group is powerful enough that they could become a player in the country's conflict.
In a report accessed by El Tiempo, the International Criminal Court (ICC) states that of the narco-paramilitary groups categorized by the authorities as BACRIM (an abbreviation from the Spanish for "criminal bands,") such as the Rastrojos and the Aguilas Negras, the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), has the by far the highest levels of "organization and capacity to do harm".
According to the ICC, the operational capacities of the AGC has reached a level that merits monitoring, as a group that "could become part of the armed civil conflict" -- though currently the level of conflict between the group, the security forces and rebel forces is not "sufficiently intense."
The report highlights the group's hierarchical structure and discipline, and how the leadership effectively controls its members and the territory where it operates.
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The ICC's concern over the AGC serves as a further confirmation that the group has consolidated its status as Colombia's primary criminal syndicate, whose reach and capacities far surpass those of its rivals.
The ICC's stance that the group could enter Colombia's conflict may even be welcomed by the AGC themselves, who have always tried to maintain a political facade rooted in their paramilitary ancestry. They refer to themselves as the "Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia" (Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces), have demanded to be included in peace talks and utilize tactics more commonly associated with Colombia's insurgencies, such as calling "armed strikes".
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However, this posturing is likely an attempt to keep alive the possibility of using demobilization as an exit strategy if needed and in reality, they have shown little inclination to behave as political actors.
InSight Crime's field research into the the AGC operations also calls into question the ICC's characterization of the group as a vertically integrated structure with a leadership that exerts direct control over all its members. While this may be true in its heartlands of north Antioquia, Choco and Cordoba, in most of the country, the AGC operate more as a horizontally organized franchise. In this network, regional factions have ties to the central command but operate semi-independently, or alternatively local criminal groups join the franchise -- operating under the name and receiving funding, supplies and contacts in return for acting in the AGC interests -- but as affiliates, not as part of a hierarchical chain of command.