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Colombian Cartel Hijacks Cities in Reaction to Extradition of Drug Lord

More than 90 municipalities in the country were affected by the armed strike of drug traffickers

[Leer en español]

In the middle of one of Colombia’s main roads connecting Medellín —the country’s second-largest city— to the Atlantic Ocean, a truck burns slowly, consumed by flames.

The vehicle is a warning to the Colombian government of the beginning of an armed strike. A reminder that those in charge in the north of the country are a drug trafficking cartel known as the “Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia” —an allusion to the former proletarian leader of the 1940s, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan— or Clan del Golfo.

In Colombia, the name “Armed Strike” is given to an interruption of economic activity —mainly transportation and commerce— in a given territory by order of an illegal armed group that threatens to exercise violent reprisals against whoever dares to open his business or work during those days.

So-called armed strikes are not uncommon, two months ago the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas ordered an armed strike in the department of Arauca, on the border with Venezuela. In 2016, during the government of Juan Manuel Santos, the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) ordered a strike that paralyzed for a week the northwest of Colombia.

The current armed strike was ordered by the Gulf Clan in retaliation for the extradition to the United States of its top leader Dario Antonio Usuga, alias “Otoniel,” who, until his arrest in October 2021, was the most wanted criminal in Colombia for drug trafficking and other crimes.

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Police in Medellín patrol in the Sierra neighborhood, where the Gulf Clan has a presence (Image: EFE)

Otoniel, the Gulf Clan, and the Urabá Region

Otoniel —who, according to Colombian authorities, became the most powerful drug trafficker after the notorious Pablo Escobar— deployed a strong legal team that filed all appeals to prevent his extradition. These had been requested by the US judicial authorities for leading, for almost 20 years, a criminal enterprise dedicated to the illegal export of cocaine in that country, which would reach 1,400 tons per year.

The Gulf Clan was created 16 years ago as a result of the merger, under Otoniel’s command, of several guerrillas and paramilitary organizations dedicated to drug trafficking. According to Colombian authorities, they number around 4,000 men at arms and have a presence in more than 200 municipalities in several departments, especially in the Urabá region of Antioquia, from which they derive their name.

Although it is internationally recognized for the mountains that cross most of its territory, the department of Antioquia has more than 500 kilometers of coastline on the Atlantic, whose main geographical feature is the Gulf of Urabá. In the region of Urabá, made up of eleven municipalities, are the main banana plantations for export, which are shipped precariously in the waters of the Gulf, since there is no port.

colombian cartel
Drug lord Otoniel before being extradited to the U.S. (Image: EFE)

Since the beginning of banana production in the 1960s, the Urabá Region has been a kind of frontier zone, similar to the Old West of the United States, with a precarious presence of the State.

In Urabá, the State has never exercised a monopoly on arms. It was the birthplace, in 1967, of the Maoist guerrillas of the EPL; it was the headquarters of the powerful Fifth Front of the FARC, between 1974 and 2016, and was also the main area of operation of the self-defense groups of Carlos Castaño (Colombia’s top paramilitary leader). Many of the members of the Gulf Clan are veterans or descendants of veterans of those movements.

Despite the conflict that has characterized it, the Urabá region has not ceased to prosper over the years, with a growing population and an economy based on banana production. The region’s progress will continue and will grow thanks to the construction of the Port of Turbo and the completion of the connection with the interior of the country, through the modern Mar 1 and Mar 2 highways, which in turn include the construction of the Toyo tunnel, which with its almost 10 kilometers of extension will be the longest in Colombia.

In 2024 the highways will be inaugurated and in 2025 the port (in which $400 million will be invested) will be the most modern and technicized in the country and the closest to Bogotá, Cundinamarca, Antioquia and the Coffee Axis, where 70% of Colombia’s GDP is produced.

Iván Duque’s Government criticized for being inoperative during armed strike

The National Government was criticized for its late response to the actions of the men of the Clan del Golfo, who began their blockades by burning vehicles on the roads on Thursday, May 5, without encountering any resistance from the public forces.

Little by little, the criminals extended their actions to the town of Palmitas in the rural sector of Medellín, capital of the department of Antioquia and Colombia’s second-largest city. In addition to the municipalities of Urabá, the tourist towns of Santa Fe de Antioquia, San Jerónimo, and Sopetrán, a few kilometers from Medellín, were also victims of the strike closures. Owners of recreational farms reported that members of the Gulf Clan arrived to verify compliance with the strike order.

colombian cartel
The region of Urabá is in turmoil due to the Armed Strike of drug traffickers (Image: EFE)

In an interview with the local newspaper El Colombiano, the governor of Antioquia department, Anibal Gaviria, declared that the “armed strike” caused “the worst paralysis suffered in decades,” causing food and fuel shortages in several municipalities. He also reported that 104 motor vehicles were incinerated and that several police posts were harassed by the men of the Clan del Golfo.

On Sunday 8, the government ordered the deployment of 52,000 army and police troops to militarize the head towns of the affected municipalities and to accompany convoys of vehicles to ensure the movement of people and cargo.

So far, a total of 8 deaths and 190 armed incidents have been reported as a result of the strike.

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