Caribbean coastal city Santa Marta is beset by neo-paramilitaries who want to turn it in to a “second center of operations,” reported Colombian daily El Tiempo Thursday.
The picturesque tourist destination, with a population of 450,000, was one of the most prominent places to be shut down by the “armed strike” early last month, when neo-paramilitary group “Los Urabeños” used threats to enforce a ban on trading and transport accross much of northern Colombia.
According to El Tiempo, it is understood Los Urabeños leader Melquisedec Henao, alias “Belesario,” is seeking to make Santa Marta a second hub for his group, with Colombia’s second city Medellin their current urban stronghold.
Almost a month after the strike, and despite a heavy army presence and deployment of 300 extra police officers, Santa Marta business owners remain subject to extortion and intimidation through phone calls, leaflet drops and personal visits.
Just as Medellin is of strategic importance because of its links to the western Uraba region, a departure point for drugs heading to Central America and the United States, Santa Marta’s proximity to the Gauchaca-Palomino drug route makes it of significant interest to Los Urabeños, who are heavily involved with drug trafficking.
The security forces have consistently urged Santa Marta citizens to defy neo-paramilitary groups and go about their business as usual, claiming they have sufficient presence to guarantee safety.
They have also sought collaboration from residents, with General Rodolfo Palomino telling El Tiempo, “We are requesting […] the community provide us with information and denounce the extortion, a crime we can only neutralize with timely reporting.”
However fear persists among residents that, while the security forces might later disperse, the neo-paramilitaries will remain and retribution for acting against them is typically fierce.
In 2011, Santa Marta saw 184 homicides, a 20% rise on the previous year. So far this year 14 people have been murdered in the city.