Yefer Gamboa is the mayor of Nuquí, a city on Colombia’s Pacific coast whose beaches and tropical rainforest attract thousands of tourists each year. But, in addition to being a touristic paradise, Nuqui’s jungle is also a refuge for armed groups that occupy the area, controlling and profiting from criminal activities.
Even before being elected in 2019, Gamboa encountered Nuqui’s dark side. The most powerful of the area’s criminal groups, the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), offered to support him in the elections.
Gamboa refused their help. When he continued to reject the AGC’s advances, the threats began.
“They said the AGC was going to come in through my patio and kill or kidnap me,” Gamboa told InSight Crime.
Things got so bad that now, after four years, Gamboa is finishing his term as mayor from another city due to the threats.
His situation is not an isolated case in the department of Chocó, where the AGC has consolidated its control through violence.
In the lead-up to regional elections, which will take place on October 29, criminal groups have tried to influence voters. And one week before Colombians head to the polls, at least nine mayors in Chocó have been threatened or attacked by armed groups in the region.
The national government has recognized the crisis in the department. When President Gustavo Petro was elected in 2022, he promised to prioritize Chocó in his “Total Peace” plan, which aims to demobilize Colombia’s illegal armed groups. But negotiations with the AGC have deteriorated. And despite high expectations for Total Peace in the department, the future of Nuquí looks bleak.
After years of working in the private sector as a civil engineer, Gamboa decided to run for mayor of Nuquí, promising to fight the corruption that for years had hindered the city’s development.
“We won the elections by a very small margin. We won by 51 votes, but we won!” Gamboa said. “We put together a campaign — with mostly young people — and we promised change.”
But even before becoming mayor, the shadow of the AGC hung over Gamboa.
Since 2016, the AGC has been in Nuquí, which, with its access to many rivers that connect the coast to inland Chocó and the rest of the country, is strategically located for transporting drugs to North America and Europe.
Gamboa’s first run-in with the group took place during the campaign. During a visit to a rural area outside Nuquí, he was approached by one of the AGC’s alleged leaders known by the alias “Jonas.” The AGC had heard that Gamboa had a good chance of winning, so Jonas, who is in charge of the AGC’s ideology and relations with local communities, offered to help him campaign.
But Gamboa refused the offer. “I said, ‘Look, the only thing that I ask is that you let us tell people what we are proposing and that you leave our boats alone, that you let us do our job like the rest of the candidates.’”
After the encounter, the AGC did not contact Gamboa again, and when he won the election, he thought that was the end of things.
At that point, the AGC had been slowly consolidating its power in Nuquí and other parts of Chocó for three years. Paramilitary groups under the umbrella of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) have been in the region since the 1990s when they came to fight the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). But it was not until 2016 that the AGC began to expand rapidly.
When the FARC disarmed and left the area after signing a peace deal with the Colombian government in 2016, the AGC and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrilla group began a war over the FARC’s former territories that continues today.
In an “Early Alert” (Alerta Temprana) statement in 2022, the Ombudsman’s office said, “Following the turf war between [the ELN and AGC], it was the AGC who achieved an illegal and hegemonic control over the municipality of Nuquí and the rural areas around Bahia Solano.”
In the wake of the AGC’s victory, the group expanded its drug trafficking activities. According to Gamboa, they charge drug traffickers a fee to use the routes that go through Nuquí, which they also use for their own shipments. But the AGC did not stop there. The group extended their control not just over the territory and illegal economies, but also over local communities.
A Pervasive Presence
By 2020, Gamboa had noticed a change in the area: the AGC now exercised strong social control over rural communities. Nothing happened in Nuquí without their knowledge.
“It was totally normal to run into [a member of the AGC], to go to the communities and see them,” said Gamboa. “They had informants to tell them who found drugs in the open sea, so they could then go and charge them. If they didn’t pay, they would take their boats and motors.”
Around this time, Gamboa had his second encounter with the group during a visit to the town of Arusi, in the rural outskirts of the municipality. Armed men who identified themselves as members of the AGC approached him and asked him for a meeting, and Gamboa was forced to accept.
“It made no sense to refuse, because, even though I had a bodyguard, that is their territory,” he said.
Gamboa met with alias “Barbas,” the AGC’s new political leader in the Pacific region. Barbas was blunt, demanding support from the mayor’s office in the form of 900 million pesos (around $240,000).
The mayor flatly refused.
Barbas tried to negotiate, asking for 700 million (US$187,000), then 500 million pesos (US$133,000). In the end, Gamboa said, the AGC leader said their bare minimum request was seven boat motors.
But Gamboa would not budge. “Giving resources to illegal groups makes them stronger, and with those state resources, they buy weapons, extort people, and steal people’s boats. I don’t agree with that,” he said.
The AGC told the mayor that they were going to make their own inquiries to verify what he said about the lack of resources in the municipal budget. But first, they threatened him.
“Barbas told me, ‘We are going to look into the city budget, and if you have money, you have to give it to us. If not, we will take action,'” Gamboa said.
Two weeks after the encounter in Arusi, the AGC sent Gamboa a message saying he had to pay them 1 billion pesos (US$270,000) from the municipal budget.
In October 2020, confident in its territorial control, the group dared to assassinate the well-known environmental leader, Juana Perea. The media coverage, coupled with the government’s response — a joint operation between the police, the navy, and the Attorney General’s Office — forced the AGC to keep a low profile for a few months.
During that time, the AGC’s pressure on the mayor’s office eased. But Gamboa knew the calm in Nuquí would not last long.
Expanding Into Extortion
Once the authorities turned their attention elsewhere, the AGC returned to the territory in force — a scene that has taken place throughout Colombia. But, Gamboa said, the pressure from the authorities had affected the AGC’s main source of income, drug trafficking. So the group turned to Nuquí’s businesses, extorting tourism companies and gas stations.
“All the gasoline sellers had to raise the price of gasoline by 1,000 pesos to give it to these men,” said Gamboa.
The group also began to extort contractors working for the mayor’s office on various public works: remodeling the municipality’s airport, paving streets, and building community soccer fields.
According to Gamboa, the AGC demanded 6% of the value of the contract from each of the contractors in exchange for allowing them to continue with the projects.
“They called the contractors and said they were going to stop the project if they didn’t receive 6%. Of course, the engineers are not from Nuquí, they have no protection from anyone, so they stopped all the work,” the mayor said.
At the same time, the AGC began threatening Gamboa again. The group asked him for money and pressured him to meet with them.
But remote communities suffer the most.
“Since the end of 2021, the AGC has been a continuous presence in the Indigenous communities of Villa Nueva, Jagua, Puerto Indio, La Loma, Chorrito, and Yucal in the municipality of Nuquí, demanding that inhabitants sell their crops to the organization,” reads a 2022 report from the Ombudsman’s Office.
These rural areas also experience more violence because the ELN makes occasional incursions into the municipality, prompting an armed response from the AGC.
The outlook in Nuquí, and in Chocó in general, is not encouraging. As the local government struggles and officials flee the area, the AGC grows stronger, solidifying their control.
Since 2022, the situation for Gamboa and the communities of the municipality has been untenable. “Things got worse this past year, because [before] people saw them as distant, busy with their drug trafficking. But now they are messing with the people, now they are stealing people’s boats. Now they are coming to the mayor’s office,” Gamboa said.
By August 2023, the pressure was so high and the danger so imminent that Gamboa decided to leave the municipality. He has been interviewed in national media and continues to denounce his situation. But even with all this media attention, it is not safe for him to return to the territory. In a municipality like Nuquí, neither the army nor the police are sufficient to protect him from the AGC.
Although Gamboa’s term as mayor is almost over, it still may not be safe for him to return, he told InSight Crime. And the current mayoral candidates are facing the same security challenges.
Ahead of the local elections, there have been reports of the AGC rallying communities to influence which candidates win.
“They are participating in politics and they are telling people not to vote for this one and to vote for this one,” Gamboa said.
The election results will determine the future of Nuquí. If the AGC manages to influence the vote through threats and pressure, their control will grow. And if a candidate not aligned with the group’s interests wins, they will face the same threats and pressures as Gamboa.
Towns throughout the department are facing the same issue.
The mayors of the municipalities of Rio Iró, San José del Palmar, Sipí, and Bagadó have been threatened by the AGC and the ELN. The mayors of Atrato, El Cantón del San Pablo, Unión Panamericana, Medio Baudó, and Lloró have been victims of attacks in the last year.
As elections approach, the Total Peace plan’s promise of disrupting the control of armed groups in Chocó seems increasingly distant.
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