A spate of recent attacks by the AGC, one of Colombia’s leading criminal groups, has raised doubts about whether its leaders can unite disparate factions and make a lasting commitment to the country’s ongoing peace process.
At least 18 people have been killed in recent weeks in Colombia’s northwestern department of Antioquia in acts of violence involving the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), also known as the Gulf Clan or the Urabeños, according to the country’s Attorney General’s Office.
As a consequence, President Gustavo Petro lifted a ceasefire between the government and the AGC and ordered armed forces to resume security operations in the affected region.
The ceasefire had been in place since January, shortly after the AGC had agreed to join Petro’s Total Peace (Paz Total) process, which has seen the government offer to negotiate with over a dozen armed actors.
Petro said the violence was connected to an ongoing mining strike that has paralyzed parts of northwestern Colombia in recent weeks. Miners, who often work in quasi-legal and dangerous circumstances, have been demanding greater recognition and better working conditions.
While the government has opened dialogue with the miners, Petro has accused the AGC of stirring up the strike. The criminal group draws a significant income from illegal mining and has been accused of using illegally extracted gold to help it launder its criminal proceeds.
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The AGC’s General Command (Estado Mayor) has soundly rejected Petro’s claims and said it has been respecting the ceasefire.
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While the end of a ceasefire with the AGC is a serious blow to Petro’s Total Peace, it is not surprising, especially because the AGC’s business model grants a high degree of autonomy to sub-structures across Colombia.
Since its creation in 2007, the AGC developed a franchise model which allowed it to rapidly spread its control of coca production and cocaine trafficking across much of Colombia.
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And while it became a lynchpin of the cocaine trade to the United States and Europe, its power base always remained in Antioquia, especially Bajo Cauca, a fertile region with plentiful coca crops and gold deposits. This region has been the focus of much of the recent violence as well as the mining strike.
The group’s leadership has tried to unite around Total Peace, but it is clear that not all AGC members feel the same. A highly prominent member of the AGC, Wilmer Antonio Giraldo Quiroz, alias “Siopas,” was found murdered in Antioquia in early March, after allegedly intending to leave the group due to the peace talks. Another commander was also found dead in the northern department of Sucre in February.
According to Carlos Zapata, a human rights observer at the Popular Training Institute (Instituto Popular de Capacitación – IPC), a think tank in Medellín, the support of each AGC sub-structure for the peace process will depend on how they deem it will affect their local economic interests.
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“There is no unity in the AGC’s central command. Getting the AGC to stop its criminal activities will have to…depend on such territorial interests,” he told InSight Crime.
As an example, Zapata explained the group depended on illegal mining as a significant source of revenue. Therefore, a recent government campaign to destroy or remove machinery used by miners had meant a “considerable decrease in their income,” he said.
Despite this setback, the government is still in talks with other major players such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and dissident groups who are remnants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).