Despite a five percent drop in homicides in Colombia’s Valle del Cauca province over the past year, rising violence in certain regions has sparked concerns that a struggle for control of the region, precipitated by turmoil within the Rastrojos drug gang, may herald a mafia war.
Semana reported on September 7 that violence appears to be on the increase in the northern and central parts of Valle del Cauca, particularly in Cartago, Palmira, Jamundi, and Tulua.
In Tulua alone, four bodies bearing signs of torture have been dumped since the beginning of August, accompanied by threatening messages to rival gangs. Three of the victims were adolescents, prompting concerns about the recruitment of minors by gangs. The fourth, discovered by police on September 5, was a motorcycle-taxi driver who was apparently tortured and hacked to death with a machete.
The violence has prompted authorities to create a new command center in Tulua, adding 200 additional uniformed police.
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Officials fear that Valle del Cauca is caught in a mafia war similar to the one that engulfed the province during the disintegration of the Cali Cartel during the mid-1990s and the subsequent breakup of the Norte del Valle Cartel in the early 2000s. This time, however, the violence stems not from an intra-cartel power struggle, but from the battle amongst several smaller groups for control of the local drug trade and extortion rackets, a battle seemingly spawned by the breakdown of the top level of the region’s biggest group, the Rastrojos.
In recent months, the Rastrojos, formerly the armed wing of the Norte del Valle drug cartel, have taken a number of hits. In May, one of the group’s leaders, Javier Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” cut a deal with the DEA and surrendered to US authorities. One month later, the group’s founder, Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” was arrested in Venezuela and extradited to Colombia, effectively creating a power vacuum within the organization, with several potential successors vying for control. Even prior to Henao’s arrest, the organization had been plagued by infighting, with one faction loyal to Henao and the other to his former partners, the Calle Serna brothers.
The internal conflict has opened the door for other criminal groups, such as the Urabeños, to move into the Rastrojos’ stronghold. As InSight Crime reported in June, rumors have circulated that the Urabeños has formed an alliance with the Machos, a drug trafficking group already operating in the northeastern part of Valle del Cauca.