Colombia's northern city of Santa Marta has seen a shocking rise in murders this year as smaller gangs are getting recruited into a larger drug feud.
By early August, 101 homicides had been committed in Santa Marta, capital of the Magdalena department, according to local human rights groups cited by W Radio. This is a sharp rise from the 105 murders registered between January and November 2020 by the Attorney General's Office.
Human rights experts in the city attributed the rise in violence to the expansion into Santa Marta of one of Colombia's largest criminal gangs, the Urabeños, also known as the Gulf Clan and Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia - AGC). The Urabeños have reportedly been recruiting smaller gangs in the city to work for them, a common tactic they use around the country.
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This had put them at odds with the Pachenca, a family clan based in Santa Marta since the 1980s when self-defense groups were created to fight guerrilla groups.
This feud has been ongoing since 2019, but the Urabeños appear to have escalated attempts to control the city in 2021. According to investigators cited by El Espectador, Los Pachenca still dominate the city, controlling 40 percent of microtrafficking, another 40 percent is run by a gang led by local kingpin, Elkin López, alias “La Silla,” and the Urabeños control about 10 percent.
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Both the Urabeños and the Pachenca have suffered their share of reversals in recent years, and Santa Marta appears to be crucial real estate neither can afford to lose.
Colombian authorities have been trying their best to finally capture Urabeños leader, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” one of the country's most-wanted men, after having repeatedly arrested his relatives and closest allies.
But the group itself has been expanding in 2021, using franchise tactics to assert control of microtrafficking in crucial cities such as Santa Marta and Barranquilla. The Urabeños have even reportedly gained a foothold in neighboring Venezuela as part of a criminal alliance with another gang, the Rastrojos.
Besides this, gaining control of Santa Marta, one of Colombia's main northern cities on the coast, would allow the Urabeños to expand their dispatching of cocaine shipments north through the Caribbean.
The Pachenca are probably less ambitious. A smaller group, they have never fully recovered from the death of their commander, Jesús María Aguirre Gallego, alias “Chucho Mercancía," who was shot by Colombian authorities in June 2019.
The group has controlled drug trafficking shipments through Central America and the Caribbean but never on a scale comparable to the Urabeños.
As such, Santa Marta, their historic power base, is a needed source of income from drug trafficking and extortion. In 2020, InSight Crime reported that the Pachenca were making a move into the peninsula of La Guajira to the east of Santa Marta. Still, several arrests may have foiled that attempt.
According to Lerber Dimas, an investigator and professor at the University of Magdalena, a territorial “reorganization” is underway in Santa Marta. Both gangs are trying to control microtrafficking, extortion, and the ports. This could explain the rapid increase in homicides.
“The Urabeños' strategy has been to identify these small neighborhood structures […] endow them with franchises and names, so that they can begin to eliminate the competition, take out smaller groups and usurp territory from other criminal organizations, like the Pachenca,” Dimas told InSight Crime.