Shortly after the extradition of former Gaitanistas leader, Otoniel, to the United States, the armed group ordered a show of force across Colombia, imposing strict curfews on communities, burning vehicles and blocking off highways.
The first actions took place on May 4, the same day that Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” the former commander of the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), was extradited. Members of the group detained mine workers traveling along a river in Nechí, a town in the north of the department of Antioquia, according to newspaper Semana. The workers were released a short time later but were told all transport along the river was forbidden.
However, this has since grown into a major incident involving over 100 acts of violence, mostly in northern Colombia. The department of Antioquia is the worst-affected, according to news organization Caracol, with over 35 municipalities affected. On May 6, at least one homicide in the town of Fredonia was connected to the paro armado (armed strike) by the Urabeños. Some rural parts of Antioquia reported having their supply of gas shut off. and blockades along highways had reportedly left at least 33 municipalities inaccessible by road.
In Bajo Cauca, a drug trafficking hotspot also in Antioquia, business owners received messages from the AGC, ordering them to close for four days. Similar shutdowns were ordered in municipalities under the control of the group in the northern departments of Atlántico, Magdalena, Chocó, Urabá, Cesar and Córdoba. This even reached parts of Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city.
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“Armed men ordered all businesses to close and that those who didn’t would face the consequences,” one resident of La Sierra, a neighborhood in eastern Medellín, told El Colombiano. They added that the gang members were patrolling the streets to ensure these orders were being followed. Also on May 4, AGC's members allegedly hijacked a truck and used it to temporarily block the main highway between Medellín and Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
In Bolivar, another northern department through which the AGC run numerous drug shipments, reports from residents spoke of vehicles being burned and houses being painted with the letters AGC. This stands for Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), which the group calls itself.
This paro armado was reportedly ordered by Jobanis de Jesús Ávila Villadiego, alias “Chiquito Malo," one of Otoniel's supposed successors, according to Colombian press reports. A statement issued by the group declared that “absolutely everything will have to remain shut in streets, municipalities and cities. We want no commerce open, we don’t want to see terrestrial or fluvial transport circulating (…) Transport will only be accepted in emergency situations such as hospitalizations…or funerals.”
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The paro armado has been a common way for Colombian armed actors to show their power when their leaders are killed or arrested, when they face military operations or ahead of national elections.
The AGC have mounted such nationwide demonstrations of force repeatedly in the past. In February 2021, the group organized a four-day paro armado in parts of northern Colombia after their second-in-command, Nelson Darío Hurtado, alias “Marihuano,” was shot dead by security forces. In 2017, the death of another senior leader Roberto Vargas, alias Gavilán, led to another show of force. Previous such armed strikes have also been interpreted as potential attempts to start peace negotiations with the Colombian government.
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However, in recent years, the scale and participation in armed strikes by the AGC have been far outstripped by those launched by their rivals, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN). In March 2020 and March 2022, such nationwide actions involved dozens of separate incidents, including ELN flags raised on public buildings.
With doubts mounting about the AGC's ability to stay united in the wake of Otoniel’s extradition, the ability to organize another paro armado may also dwindle.