The end of an alliance between two local gangs is creating a volatile security situation in the northwest Colombian city of Quibdó, with larger criminal groups perhaps arriving to make the situation worse.
Quibdó, the capital of Colombia's northwestern department of Chocó, has experienced an increase in violence in recent weeks. Curfews, the recruitment of minors, threats, and rules imposed by the gangs have shaken the tranquility of this town of 120,000 where, according to its bishop, Juan Carlos Barreto, homicides are already well above the national average.
Behind this spike in violence is the dissolution of an alliance between two local gangs: Los Mexicanos and Los Palmeños, according to Colombian newspaper El Tiempo.
The two gangs have teamed up in the past to take on the Urabeños, a criminal group that emerged from the ashes of Colombia's paramilitary demobilization, and to block the Urabeños' access to the city's criminal economies. But now, differences between the gangs' leaders appear to have led to a war, in which they vie for control of micro-trafficking and extortion activities in Quibdó.
Quibdó is no stranger to the criminality and conflict that have long wracked the department. In recent years, the city has received thousands of forcibly displaced persons, who are fleeing confrontations between the Urabeños and the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) in the remotest areas of Chocó.
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Amidst this local gang conflict, still more alarming for Quibdó's residents is the possible arrival of criminal groups with a greater capacity for war.
Quibdó's local Mexicanos gang is rumored to have formed an alliance with the ELN, while the Urabeños already have a presence in the city. This is sparking fear among the civilian population that these larger criminal groups, whose clashes are currently concentrated in the south of Chocó department, could be behind the Quibdó surge as well.
The ELN and the Urabeños started waging war in Chocó in 2018. The department is strategically located for criminal economies such as drug trafficking, illegal mining and migrant smuggling.
However, the conflict between the two groups has escalated since mid-2021, with the Urabeños seeking to gain territory that has historically belonged to the guerrilla group. Additionally, blows by the Colombian army against ELN leaders have weakened the guerrilla group's presence in the region, possibly motivating it to seek out more local criminal alliances.
This type of proxy conflict is commonplace is Colombia. The port city of Buenaventura, located in the neighboring department of Valle del Cauca, provides a good example of how local dynamics can play into the interests of large criminal groups.
In Buenaventura, a small gang known as La Local has managed to impose its criminal rule in the important port municipality through an alliance with the Urabeños, while other groups like the ELN and dissident groups of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) have tried to establish a presence in the city.