A local gang is allegedly behind the murders of three bus drivers in Barranquilla, demonstrating the extent to which smaller criminal elements can still terrorize Colombia’s major cities.
The most recent murder came on July 31 in the Soledad neighborhood, when bus driver Jhon Pardo was shot dead after his killer got on his bus, newspaper Semana reported. Police have identified the assailant only as alias "21."
General Luis Carlos Hernández, the commander of Barranquilla’s metropolitan police force, accused a local crime gang known as the Rastrojos Costeños of carrying out the murder, reported El Tiempo. The Rastrojos Costeños are a group that splintered from the Rastrojos sometime around 2013 and are currently fighting for control of drug trafficking and other criminal economies in the city.
Pardo’s killing was preceded by two others. On July 23, Willington José Hernández was shot in Soledad 2.000, located southeast of Barranquilla. Days later, on July 25, José del Carmen Hernández was gunned down in the El Romance neighborhood. Both victims were driving buses at the time.
In protest against the attacks, bus drivers across the city refused to get behind the wheel, paralyzing the city’s public transport. One driver told El Universal that drivers do not feel safe and that their families are “left anxious, waiting to see whether or not we’ll return home alive.” On August 4, after three days of protest, bus drivers slowly began to return to work.
Bus companies in Atlántico, the department where Barranquilla is located, are often targeted by extortion operations. But some authorities say these recent slayings may signify more than unpaid extortion payments.
Barranquilla Mayor Jaime Pumarejo said the string of murders are intended to give the Rastrojos Costeños national relevance ahead of the arrival of incoming president, Gustavo Petro. The president-elect has talked of opening dialogues with criminal organizations.
“They [the Rastrojos Costeños] are confused by a belief that increasing extortions and murders in territories they do not control, but want to influence, will get the authorities to surrender to their demands,” Pumarejo told Blu Radio.
Meanwhile, the investigative unit of the Public Prosecutor's Office believes the killings may be in retaliation for authorities moving the Rastrojos Costeños' imprisoned alleged leader, Ober Ricardo Martínez Gutiérrez, alias “Negro Ober,” to a "cold cell" that left him unable to communicate with the gang, Alerta Caribe reported.
InSight Crime Analysis
Colombia’s incoming government will have to decide how it will deal with smaller, but highly active, local criminal groups like the Rastrojos Costeños. While limited in reach, these local gangs have demonstrated the extent to which they are capable of terrorizing Colombia’s cities.
The theories of retaliative orders by Negro Ober or a show of force before Petro assumes power, may have merit, but the recent killings could also be the result of the group’s ongoing turf war in the city against the Gulf Clan, also known as the Urabeños.
In September 2021, the Rastrojos Costeños sent out letters extorting bus drivers in Barranquilla. In the same letter, the gang indicated that they were fighting the Urabeños in the city. The letter claimed that the group was collecting a "tax" to help fund its war against the Urabeños. "For the war waging in our department, we are asking for a tax from all merchants, businessmen, moneylenders, ranchers, and particularly public transporters,” the letter stated.
That same month, one driver was murdered and attempts were made on the lives of two other drivers. This would seem to suggest that the Rastrojos Costeños are not conducting a ploy similar to the Urabeños’ Pistol Plan, which involves killing police officers as a calculated display of force. The September attacks on bus drivers in Barranquilla occurred before the election and before talk of “Total Peace,” a proposal by the incoming government that advocates for convincing criminal organizations to negotiate an end to the armed conflict.
One way or another, the incoming government will have to decide how it will respond to the local criminal groups wreaking havoc on the country’s major cities. In addition to Barranquilla, cities like Bogotá and Cali have an estimated 190 and 133 gangs respectively, while Medellin may have as many as 350. "Total peace" would require negotiating not only with criminal groups with a national presence, but with gangs on the local level.
Some of the gangs responsible for the violence in Colombian cities are affiliated with the Urabeños, such as the Local in Buenaventura, while others are local rivals of the group, such as the Pachenca in Santa Marta and the Rastrojos Costeños in Barranquilla. While a possible negotiation between the government and the Urabeños could potentially lead to a ceasefire with some of these criminal gangs, it could also leave a power vacuum that other criminal gangs would be eager to fill.