In the wake of former paramilitary leader Hernán Giraldo’s deportation to Colombia, an armed group linked to him has reappeared in a coastal region he once controlled, raising fears of his influence on the criminal landscape.
At the end of February, a pamphlet signed by the Conquering Self Defense Forces of the Sierra Nevada (Autodefensas Conquistadoras de la Sierra Nevada – ACSN) circulated among merchants at a market in the Caribbean port city of Santa Marta. The ACSN — better known as Los Pachenca drug gang — demanded merchants pay between 12 to 70 million pesos ($3,329 – $19,400), El Tiempo reported.
The payments, according to the group, were for protection from other criminal groups in the region, such as the Urabeños drug gang and ex-militants with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). Santa Marta Police Commander Óscar Solarte, said an investigation into the pamphlets has begun.
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The ACSN’s threats come just weeks after Giraldo, 72, was deported to Colombia after serving a 12-year prison sentence in the United States for drug trafficking. Giraldo was taken into custody upon landing in Colombia, where he still faces charges — including homicide, kidnapping, torture, human trafficking, and forced displacement — from when he led the Bloque Resistencia Tayrona paramilitary force.
Giraldo led the paramilitary group, which operated principally in Santa Marta’s Sierra Nevada region, from the mid-1980s until 2006, when he laid down his arms as part of the demobilization process of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), a coalition of paramilitary groups that operated throughout the country. In 2008, he was arrested and extradited to the United States.
After his extradition, Giraldo’s family continued to act in the residual armed group known as Los Pachenca or the Conquering Self Defense Forces of the Sierra Nevada.
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Hernán Giraldo’s return has stoked fear in the Santa Marta region, and for good reason: he was one of the bloodiest paramilitary commanders during Colombia’s conflict. But the various groups connected to him have been severely weakened in recent years — much like their septuagenarian leader.
The last time the Conquering Self Defense Forces of the Sierra Nevada appeared publicly was in an October 2020 video message to the government of President Iván Duque, proposing that the group would surrender in exchange for the state performing its functions in the region. At that time, the likelihood of Giraldo’s return was already known, and it is possible that the offer to surrender was a gambit to secure benefits for Giraldo. The government, however, didn’t blink.
The arrival of Giraldo, also known as “El Patrón,” appears to have animated the group to try to re-establish its influence in Santa Marta. But the criminal landscape is far different now than in Giraldo’s time, and the group must contend with an array of armed actors that are much stronger.
Meanwhile, Los Pachenca have received several blows from public security forces in recent years, including the killing and arrests of several key leaders. Though the group has managed to withstand the losses and internal disputes, its future remains in doubt.