Colombia a changing map of crime and violence: Report

New waves of violence have emerged from the fragmentation of Colombia’s neo-paramilitary groups and drug cartels, concentrated in Colombia’s central region and Caribbean and Pacific coasts but is present in all regions of the country, weekly Semana reported Sunday.

With a constant flow of FARC bombings, drug trafficking busts and displaced persons in Colombia, it is hard to discern an obvious pattern of crime and violence in the country.

Newspaper Semana weekly however, has analyzed Colombia’s current criminal situation and revealed what they believe to be a new “map of crime” in Colombia that is paradoxically the result of a relentless line of drug kingpins and neo-paramilitary leaders being arrested, ultimately causing fragmentation and a vacuum for up and coming law-breakers to prove themselves, fight for local dominance and wreak havoc in their wake.

The “Rastrojos Effect”

“The Rastrojos effect,” as it is colloquially called after one of the country’s most notorious gangs, is the effect that occurs after gang leader(s) is captured, leaving the opportunity for new talent to emerge, split off and take over operations. This effect, Semana claimed, is currently spreading throughout Colombia and causing anarchy in the country’s underworld, afflicting its civilian population as a result.

“In the last year authorities have not left, literally, a single puppet master in the world of drug trafficking,” stated Semana, which according to them, conversely creates space for more violence to occur amongst the figurative puppets and the areas around them.

“Between the fall of Don Diego [Don Berna], in September of 2007, that marked the end of the last great cartels, of the Norte del Valle [cartel], and of Daniel el ‘Loco’ Barrera, the last of the great capos, two months ago, 42 paramilitary and criminal band leaders that succeeded them… have died during authorities’ operations or were subjected to justice.”

The final outcome of authorities’ cracking down on gang leaders is this so callled “Rastrojos effect”– named after the Rastrojos gang whose entire leader force has essentially been taken down by authorities.

The “big guys” being taken out of the equation, along with their consolidated power, creates a vacuum in large gangs, like the Rastrojos. The vacuum then provides the opportunity for 2nd and 3rd tier members to rise up and seize territory and illicit business, creating an atmosphere of disintegration and “brutal clashes between factions” in the fight for dominance.

In the case of the Rastrojos, gang members are split in who to follow, some fighting for independence from the fragmented force that remains, engendering localized gangs and a “state of anarchy.” In essence, the uncontested Rastrojos umbrella group that somewhat contained a status-quo of controlled violence no longer exists.

Semana quoted an unidentified official on the matter saying that, “a wave of violence is coming which, at the very beginning, is going to be very difficult to control and is going to greatly affect the citizens because it makes a lot of noise. The authorities have to change tactic: from pursuing outstanding capos and large organized groups, intelligence has to be focused on the hundreds of small groups scattered throughout the country. A daunting challenge.”

Semana also claimed that an alarming aspect of the fragmentation is that the emerging small gangs, coming from much larger operations, are armed with a vast and heavy weaponry that includes machine guns, grenades and rifles rather than small knives and pistols, with the number of seized rifles allegedly on the rise.

Colombia’s “Changing Map”

PACIFIC SOUTHWEST

Ombudsman Jorge Armando Otalora stated last month that Colombia’s southwest was in the midst of a humanitarian crisis due to all of the violence– 40 reported homicides with several dismembered bodies in October alone –and massive displacement–reportedly at 1,300 people this year in Buenaventura municipality and thousands of other leaving the city of Buenaventura– that is plaguing the southwestern Valle de Cauca department.

In particular, the port town of Buenaventura is a notorious criminal hotspot on the Pacific coast, hosting all stages of cocaine production and breeding more and more violence of various armed groups, according to truth and reconciliation organization Verdad Abierta in their report last month.

“In the urban zone, members of the Rastrojos, the Farc, and the Urabeños, make threats against leaders and social organizations, perpetrate killings and bombings, establish norms of coexistence, restrict the mobility of residents in the neighborhoods, control prices and impose extortion fees and taxes on legal trade, control micro-traficking [of drugs] and prostitution, manage companies of hired assassins and practise torture and throatcutting,” said an August 23 report by Ombudsman Otalora. The ombudsman received numerous threats after the publication, but published another communique last month on the dangers of the Valle de Cauca region.

Semana claimed that the rampant violence in the southwest department of Valle de Cauca is due to the debris left behind from hegemonic Rastrojos gang leaders being arrested. An internal gang war between Rastrojos factions and with rival gang, the Urabeños who are trying to step in and take over previously Rastrojos held territory, has ensued and left the community in the middle between drawn guns.

CARIBBEAN COAST

A fatal grenade thrown in a supermaket for an alleged unpaid Urabeños extortion fee in the Caribbean town of Santa Marta was yet another incident of gang violence that rocked the area and splattered Colombian newspapers in October.

This “explosion of violence” is allegedly caused by the Urabeños’ assault to take over control of fragmented local Caribbean gang territory. Although the Urabeños had previously been clashing with local groups over drug trafficking territory, the push apparently came after the capture of Urabeños commander Belisario in September along with captures of other local gang leaders, sparking massive inter-gang fighting and violence in the Caribbean region around Santa Marta.

Barranquilla allegedly suffered the same fate, with the Urabeños trying to beat out or absorb dissident local gangs such as the “40 negritos” and “los Grasas.” According to Semana, the conflict resulted in approximately 300 killings since last November in the Barranquilla area.

Semana claimed that at least another 20 incidents, similar to the grenade attack in Santa Marta, have occurred between the less touristy Rioacha and Guajira, further north on the Caribbean coast, in recent months without massive publicity. The explanation for the grenade attacks is again attributed to the Urabeños who are ruthlessly fighting provincial criminal groups that are conducting local drug trafficking operations out of the country.

ANTIOQUIA

The publicized Santa Rosa massacre last month of 10 farmworkers by a Rastrojos faction, called the Renacentistas” for unpaid extortion fees, was just one among at least six others that occurred in the same central department of Antioquia since June, claimed Semana.

The relative calm in the area, a result of the Urabeños and Rastrojos reaching an agreement on the division of territory in 2011, was supposedly broken when a splinter group of the Rastrojos, called the “Seguridad Héroes del Nordeste” defied the Urabeños and its predecessor organization with the fall of leadership for control of the gold rich area in Segovia and Remedios, regions where deaths have allegedly doubled this year, according to Semana.

Although coca production and trafficking continues to be a root of the disputes between gangs, much of the recent violence is due to increasing clashes over mineral rich lands in Antioquia that were previously undisputed territory divided between the Urabeños and the Rastrojos. With the dismantling of Rastrojos leadership however, the so-called “gold wars” between clashing gangs have risen along with the region’s death toll, claiming up to 280 lives this year so far.

The shift in illicit business from coca to gold mining is attributed to the crack-down on drugs, where, according to Semana, 1,500 kilos of coca have been seized, and 10,000 hectares of coca have been sprayed in the past three months alone.

Extortion of gold mines and illegal mining, on the other hand, has proven to be more lucrative and without as high a risk as cocaine. Again, the paradoxical outcome of authorities putting pressure on larger criminal structures and their illigal activities has caused unintentional repercussions.

The same pattern of violence is true for Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city located in Antioquia. Colombia Reports editor agrees with Semana in the case of Medellin, that the city is on the brink of extreme violence caused by the arrest of resident gang leader Sebastian this year, leaving no one to rule Medellin’s Oficina de Envigado with an iron fist.

The Urabeños and smaller gang factions have subsequently seized the opportunity to drive into previously undisputed Oficina de Envigado territory, vying for control, instilling fear and committing violence in their path in areas such as Comuna 8 and Comuna 13.

COLOMBIA

According to Semana, the crime paradigm continues throughout the country, with the capture of large crime syndicate leaders resulting in criminal groups disintegrating into chaotic violence throughout the country, region by region– the Venezuelan border, the western plains and Bogota are all included in their analysis.

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