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Colombia: The Unsolved Crime in “Total Peace”--Dealing with the Gaitanistas

What’s new? With its “total peace” policy, the Colombian government aims to engage all the country’s armed groups in talks, but it has no dialogue under way with the largest armed criminal outfit, the Gaitanista Self-Defence Force. This gap is significant, given the Gaitanistas’ deep pockets and their drive to expand. 

Why does it matter? From their Atlantic coast stronghold, where they run some of the country’s main drug trafficking routes as well as migrant smuggling rackets, the Gaitanistas exercise coercive control of numerous communities. If they remain outside peace talks, they could undermine negotiations with other groups or capitalise on their demobilisation. 

What should be done? Bogotá should start down a path of progressively more substantive discussions with the Gaitanistas aiming, first, to reduce violence against civilians and, secondly, to discuss legal conditions for laying down arms. In parallel, the police and military should continue operations to protect civilians and press the group toward talks.

Executive Summary

While Colombian President Gustavo Petro has made talks with armed groups an overarching goal of his government, the powerful Gaitanista Self-Defence Force remains largely outside his paz total, or “total peace”, initiative. The consequences are far-reaching. Originally comprising fighters previously aligned with Colombian paramilitary and guerrilla groups, the Gaitanistas (also known as the Gulf Clan, a name they reject) now have an estimated 9,000 members and are Colombia’s richest criminal outfit. They hold much of the northern countryside, manage the lion’s share of the drug trade and oversee extensive migrant smuggling. Petro had hoped talks with the Gaitanistas could rein them in, but his administration has struggled to get negotiations going. Legal obstacles, mistrust and crime bosses’ inflated expectations have scuppered progress. Authorities should craft a strategy to coax the Gaitanistas into talks aimed at immediately reducing violence against civilians and ultimately disarming as much of the group as possible, all the while putting pressure on the group through continuing military and police operations.

The Gaitanistas worry Colombian authorities not just because their ranks are growing, but also because they pose a threat to Petro’s “total peace” agenda. The group is a menace to all the negotiations now under way, including Bogotá’s dialogues with the leftist insurgency the National Liberation Army and with two dissident factions of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), known to the government as the Central Command and the Segunda Marquetalia. The Gaitanistas are battling with the first two of these groups for turf along the Pacific coast, near the border with Venezuela, around major ports and in the country’s rich agricultural heartland. No other armed group is likely to contemplate laying down its arms for the duration while the Gaitanistas are poised to grab their former lands and businesses.

The Gaitanistas’ newfound status as a potential spoiler of “total peace” follows close to two decades of evolution into a complex, hierarchical organisation that governs and imposes social control. Founded in 2007, they amalgamated former right-wing paramilitary commanders with veterans of leftist guerrilla movements. Today, dozens of former FARC members have joined the Gaitanistas, as have hundreds of ex-soldiers. The result is an organisation that harbours a will to expand in the style of former paramilitaries while applying the local discipline typical of a guerrilla movement. But the group also operates with the precision of a multinational company. It is structured like a conventional army but also hires civilians to perform roles such as bookkeeping and political organising.

In the areas they govern, the Gaitanistas are the arbiters of daily life, making an estimated $4.4 billion each year from links to drugs and arms trafficking, illegal mining and migrant smuggling. Yet rather than relying exclusively on any one illicit business, the Gaitanistas have honed the ability to monetise territorial control – above all near the Atlantic coast, a key transit point in the cocaine trade. They tax drug traffickers but also multinational mining firms. They charge large landowners for “protection” while extorting part of what farmers produce.

Just as they regulate economic activity to their benefit, the Gaitanistas have increasingly sought to recast communities and local government in their image. Many rural residents report that they see the group, which recruits heavily, as an employer of first and last resort in areas devoid of other opportunities. As part of their bid to co-opt the population, the Gaitanistas keep staple food prices down and distribute presents to children. But their techniques are also coercive. They build extensive civilian intelligence networks, meting out punishment, at times violent, for words or actions that displease them. Meanwhile, elected town councils must consult the Gaitanistas on decisions, in part because they rely on the group to fund projects like paving roads or fixing schools. 

The Gaitanistas’ prominence in Colombian crime and conflict both makes their participation essential for the success of “total peace”.

The Gaitanistas’ prominence in Colombian crime and conflict both makes their participation essential for the success of “total peace” and confounds efforts to include them. The government has struggled to get talks with them off the ground amid protests from Congress and the Attorney General’s Office about negotiating with criminals. While the government has all the authority it needs to start conversations, Congress has not given it leave to negotiate the demobilisation of a criminal group or offer it incentives to cooperate. The legislative reforms that would be required for that endeavour have proven difficult to enact, leaving the government heavily reliant on the military to contain the Gaitanistas. 

But a purely military strategy stands little chance against a group with the resources and know-how that the Gaitanistas command. Moreover, the group has, if anything, grown more formidable and audacious of late. Claiming that it has transformed into a political organisation that represents farmers and others in rural areas where state presence is low and services non-existent, its demands are more extensive than they were seven years ago, when the government of President Juan Manuel Santos explored the possibility of negotiating with it. 

Against this backdrop, the government’s challenge will be to find a way to include the Gaitanistas – or as many of them as it can – under the umbrella of “total peace”, while working to protect the vulnerable communities under their control. As a first step, the Petro administration could establish a channel for dialogue with the group in the hope of achieving confidence-building measures, such as ending the Gaitanistas’ threats against local community leaders. If this step succeeds, the two sides could pilot regionally focused violence reduction initiatives. Once sufficient trust is created between the sides, the goal should be to open talks aimed at demobilising as many Gaitanistas as possible. In the meantime, continued military pressure will be vital for safeguarding civilians and persuading the group to embrace dialogue in good faith.

Entrenched in its rural and coastal strongholds, the Gaitanistas are likely to play a central role in crime and conflict in Colombia for years to come. Though its leverage has clear limits, the government may be able to coax elements of the group to leave and help protect the communities that bear the brunt of the Gaitanistas’ coercive power. Even modest success cannot be guaranteed, but if “total peace” is the objective, then there is no choice but to try. 


The product of three decades of war, the Gaitanista Self-Defence Force is composed of combatants from at least four now defunct armed groups, as well as numerous ex-soldiers.  With members originating from both Colombia’s former Marxist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary forces, as well as the army, the group is active in about one third of the country’s municipalities. It is involved in various types of crime, most prominently drug trafficking and extortion. In terms of membership and territorial presence, the Gaitanistas today constitute the biggest non-state armed operation in the country. They are also almost certainly the criminal group best equipped to expand into an empire, with the stated ambition of holding sway all along the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, as well as in all the most agriculturally productive parts of rural Colombia. By one estimate, their ranks are growing by roughly 20 per cent every six months.

The Gaitanistas, also referred to colloquially as the Gulf Clan (a term they do not embrace), have become one of the state’s main security headaches. For years, under successive administrations, the Colombian military and police conducted offensives aimed at capturing or killing Gaitanista leaders, which failed to curb the organisation’s growth. By 2016, former President Juan Manuel Santos had classified the Gaitanistas as an organised armed group in Colombia’s internal conflict. The next year, after the guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had signed a peace agreement with Bogotá, the Gaitanistas approached the Santos administration in pursuit of talks about demobilisation. Dialogue between the group’s representatives and state officials eventually collapsed, and the Gaitanistas seized the moment to occupy territory the FARC had vacated, launching a further period of rapid expansion.

Since 2017, the Gaitanistas have become larger, stronger and richer. Today, they are the single biggest group linked to drug trafficking in Colombia, exporting an estimated twenty tonnes of cocaine per month in 2021.  Arguably, they are the victors in the national contest to take over criminal businesses abandoned by the FARC, with power over numerous territories once held by the rebels. In the areas under their thumb, the Gaitanistas use a mix of violence and co-optation to silence and discipline civilians. At the same time, their rhetoric has taken on an increasingly pronounced political tone. By way of example, a former senior leader of the group told Crisis Group that the Gaitanistas “are very clear on one thing: so long as there is no one else who can control these areas, and the state is incapable of doing so, we have to stay, and we have to control”.

The Gaitanistas have … become one of the main obstacles to Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s efforts at achieving “total peace”.

With their grip on territory and readiness to use violence, the Gaitanistas have also become one of the main obstacles to Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s efforts at achieving “total peace”. Petro’s election in August 2022 marked the first time a left-wing politician had assumed the presidency in the country. Upon taking office, Petro and senior officials argued that bringing decades of conflict to a close depended upon negotiating not only with leftist insurgencies but also with all other armed and criminal groups. The government has also promised to work toward remedying the causes – from rural poverty to massive inequality – driving cycles of violence.

Despite apparent interest from both sides, however, setting up a dialogue with the Gaitanistas is easier said than done. The Gaitanistas have repeatedly expressed enthusiasm about discussions with authorities. The Petro government, which is negotiating with the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN), a faction of the former FARC known as the Central Command (EMC) – with plans to open talks with a second FARC dissident faction known as Segunda Marquetalia – and several urban gangs, has demonstrated that it is keen on talks with the Gaitanistas as well. Officials held exploratory meetings with the group, yet the effort has stalled due to legal obstacles, hostile public opinion and specific Gaitanista leader demands. As a result, the Gaitanistas are now the only major, nationwide armed group that has no clear line of communication with the government – and thus no horizon for negotiations. That means they lack the incentive other groups have to reduce violence against civilians, as well as limit their criminal activities. Thus, the Gaitanistas continue to hold communities under their sway, put pressure on rival groups, and sabotage peace talks between these groups and the government.

This report endeavours to contribute to a better understanding of the Gaitanistas, an armed organisation that could determine much of the course of crime and violence in Colombia in the years ahead. It also explores reasons for including them in the “total peace” effort, a possible structure for building confidence and engaging in talks and steps the government should take to protect civilians under Gaitanista control, whether talks proceed or not. The report builds on years of Crisis Group work on ending armed conflict in Latin America, as well as on Colombia and the “total peace” initiative in particular.  It is based on 175 interviews, roughly one third of them with women, including with current and former Gaitanista leaders, community leaders, residents and local authorities, military officers and government officials, among others, in Antioquia, Atlántico, Bolívar, Cesar, Chocó, Córdoba and Sucre, as well as Bogotá and Medellín.

II.Origins and Recent History

The Gaitanistas emerged in the wake of the demobilisation of right-wing paramilitary forces in the early 2000s, seizing the money-making opportunities presented by various criminal rackets, forging ties with public officials and exploiting the blind spots in Colombian law enforcement. Today, the Gaitanistas are part criminal enterprise, part armed group and part cross-border commercial conglomerate. The organisation has absorbed decades of lessons from Colombia’s armed conflicts on how to make control of territory and communities serve business interests.

A.Counter-insurgents and Drug Traffickers

The Gaitanistas’ origins can be traced to a dissident movement of the former leftist insurgency the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), which declined to join a demobilisation program in 1991, in Córdoba, a department in northern Colombia.  Citing fears for their personal safety, these guerrillas remained under arms until 1996, when they reached an agreement with a nascent local “self-defence force” as a means of protecting themselves. The dissenting EPL members made a public show of handing over their weapons, but in reality they ended up joining the ranks of a paramilitary force being built under the auspices of a wealthy landholding family, the Castaños. The brothers Carlos and Vicente Castaño – together with other self-appointed leaders – emerged as the heads of this paramilitary group in the 1990s, which later became known as the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia. This marriage of left- and right-leaning combatants would create a core of commanders who would years later form the Gaitanistas.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the paramilitaries used scorched-earth tactics to “clear” vast regions of Colombia of FARC guerrillas. Working directly with state security forces in some instances, they perpetrated a rash of human rights abuses and war crimes. While expelling the FARC, they consolidated their own business interests, including through land grabs, embezzlement in contracts with state authorities and protection rackets that tested the patience even of their supporters.

The paramilitaries were from the beginning allied with drug trafficking networks.

Nominally a counter-insurgent movement, the paramilitaries were from the beginning allied with drug trafficking networks as a way to generate revenue and extend their territorial reach. The Castaño family’s wealth derived in large part from their alliance in the 1980s with drug lord Pablo Escobar. With the aim of protecting their economic interests, the family later switched sides and aided the security forces, providing information that helped lead to Escobar’s killing in 1993. One of the paramilitaries’ commanders was Diego Murillo Bejarano, alias Don Berna, who had his eye on becoming the dominant crime boss in the city of Medellín. Years later, in 2017, when the Gaitanistas and the Colombian government were exploring the prospect of talks, intermediaries close to Don Berna served as spokespeople for the group.

Even so, drug trafficking was not the sole source of income for the paramilitaries – nor has it been for the Gaitanistas. Throughout their various iterations, these organisations were supported and bankrolled by certain large landowners and cattle ranchers who were eager for protection from guerrilla attacks, particularly land seizures and kidnappings. These alliances between parts of the landed elite and the Gaitanistas persist today in parts of Colombia. As a former senior member of the group explained, “Business owners want to ensure that the self-defence forces never leave, because they are the ones who guarantee that other groups do not take over”.

B.Demobilisation and Re-armament

By the mid-1990s, successive Colombian governments had supported a legal framework enabling the creation of paramilitary self-defence groups as a way to fend off the guerrillas, fostering collaboration among them, state officials and security forces. But as public outcry grew over these groups’ crimes, and a 1997 Constitutional Court ruling put limits on state arms transfers to them, the paramilitaries began to fall out of favour with authorities in Bogotá. Self-defence forces were outlawed under conservative President Andrés Pastrana, who took office in 1998 and began to target the paramilitaries in 2000. It was President Álvaro Uribe, whose government began a major U.S.-backed offensive against the guerrillas in 2002, who led the way in negotiating demobilisation of the largest paramilitary units. By this time, the paramilitaries had permeated the political elite, controlling an estimated 35 per cent of Congress, as well as regional elected offices. With the paramilitaries trusting that support in the legislature would assure favourable judicial treatment, major paramilitary blocs entered negotiations to discuss a cessation of hostilities and steps toward disarmament before there was a legal framework in place. Under what became known as the Santa Fe de Ralito process, individual blocs began laying down their arms. Meanwhile, the Justice and Peace Law, passed by Congress in 2005, reduced prison sentences in exchange for truthful testimony from paramilitary members regarding past atrocities.

Over 30,000 paramilitary members handed themselves over to the state, assuming they would receive the benefits outlined in the new law. But the process was less than smooth. The Constitutional Court annulled several key articles of the law, insisting that paramilitary networks be dismantled as a pre-condition for any reduction in jail sentences. Congress amended the law, however, and demobilisation continued.  Most paramilitary leaders remained free until August 2006, when fourteen were simultaneously but separately captured for allegedly resuming criminal activity. The government then extradited the most important of these leaders to the U.S., in a move that surprised both the public and jailed commanders.

Mid-level commanders, including the future Gaitanista leadership, together with the rank and file, were left to make do with a limited economic and social reintegration program. Several future Gaitanistas returned to civilian life and supported themselves through initiatives such as fish farming and lime cultivation. Other demobilised fighters turned to what they knew best – forming private security firms – to earn a living. But, as the Constitutional Court suggested could happen, paramilitary networks were never fully disbanded. In the city of Barrancabermeja, a military officer explained, “the paramilitaries demobilised but they never really left. …. The demobilisation happened on paper, but their control persisted”.

Gaitanista members said they eventually returned to crime because of insecurity.

Gaitanista members said they eventually returned to crime because of insecurity. Over 2,000 former paramilitary combatants have been killed since demobilising, many in reprisals by rival groups or because they resisted efforts to force them back into lives of crime. Several senior paramilitary commanders were also killed during the early phases of talks with the government, including Carlos Castaño in 2004. In some cases, the dangers faced by former paramilitary fighters stemmed from their connections with Colombian security forces. “When the military or the intelligence service or police undertook operations”, one recalled, “they called me because I knew the region. They would ask for recommendations about the operation, which started to win me enemies again very quickly”.

Amid these frustrations at the difficulties of resuming peaceful civilian life, as well as fears of extradition to the U.S., Vicente Castaño, the former paramilitary leader, “called us back to arms” in 2007, a former Gaitanista member recounted. Castaño stressed the importance of re-establishing “order and control” in the paramilitary heartland of Urabá and Córdoba, in the north of Colombia. Just days after reaching out to former comrades, Castaño disappeared; he is presumed dead, although his body has never been found.

Despite this loss, and possibly even galvanised by it, the Gaitanistas began to form under the leadership of Daniel Rendón Herrera, or Don Mario, a long-time friend of Vicente Castaño who had run the finances of a branch of the paramilitaries in southern Colombia. A group of former paramilitary leaders set out to reconstruct their forces. According to Rendón Herrera, they recalled 26 mid-level paramilitary commanders, who were instructed in turn to summon their former sub-lieutenants. Commanders also undertook a census in former paramilitary strongholds such as Chocó, Antioquia, Córdoba and Bolívar departments, in which a reported 12,000 individuals between the ages of eighteen to 25 expressed interest in returning to arms.

The new armed outfit called itself the Gaitanista Self-Defence Force, a name that both asserted the members’ identity as former paramilitaries and evoked Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a Liberal Party presidential candidate whose killing in 1948 sparked a civil war with the Conservative Party. The Gaitanistas adopted the former statutes of the paramilitary forces but say they amended two elements. First, citing their disappointment in the paramilitary demobilisation and their distrust of the Colombian state, they claim to have decided to refrain from signing contracts with the public sector – even though these had been a major revenue source for the paramilitaries prior to demobilisation. Secondly, they say they promised to end the common paramilitary practice of assuming that all civilian residents of areas controlled by the FARC or other insurgencies were enemy sympathisers, thereby “justifying” indiscriminate violence.

With the support of friendly landowners and big local merchants, who advanced the cash to pay salaries until the Gaitanistas could re-establish their illicit businesses, the group began to recruit and rearm. In the areas they started to reoccupy, first in Urabá and Córdoba, local Gaitanista commanders would oblige a member of each family to attend a training session on “what to do if another armed group tries to enter and take over”. By the time Don Mario was captured in San Pedro de Urabá, Antioquia, in 2009, the group claimed to have 6,000 members.

In the aftermath of Don Mario’s arrest, Dairo Úsuga, alias Otoniel, became the new leader and presided over more than a decade of continuous expansion. First recruited into the EPL as a child, Otoniel brought several other former guerrillas with him into the Gaitanista leadership core. During this time, the Gaitanistas grew in part by allying with criminal groups up and down the Atlantic coast, which operated with some autonomy but answered to (and almost certainly shared profits with) the Gaitanista leadership. This model had its perils for group cohesion, the most notable of which was the emergence of a breakaway faction known as the Caparrapos. Beginning in 2016, the Gaitanistas clashed with this faction in the Bajo Cauca region, defeating it only five years later.

Under Otoniel, the Gaitanistas also sought to craft a more political identity, revising internal statutes governing the group’s structure and goals, as well as designing a Gaitanista flag, composing a hymn and a prayer, and drafting a set of political ideals. The group described itself as a self-defence force “for the lower and middle classes, but that does not hurt the rich”.

C.Initial Attempt at Talks

Much of what is known about the Gaitanistas’ potential negotiating positions comes from this moment in the group’s history and a previous attempt at dialogue in 2017 and 2018, under former President Santos, which collapsed because the Gaitanistas baulked at the judicial terms on offer and the government was unable to convince Congress and the Attorney General’s Office to allow more favourable conditions. At the time, the Gaitanista leadership was under heavy military pressure as a result of the security forces’ Agamenón campaign, which had started in 2015, and conversations began with the understanding that they would only discuss conditions for demobilisation, which would then be drafted into law. Over the course of 28 meetings, the sides addressed the issues of senior Gaitanistas’ confessions regarding atrocities and involvement in illicit markets in exchange for reduced jail terms.  The Santos administration also sought assurances that the group could honour its promises to demobilise rank-and-file members as well as provide information about collaborators in the government, the military and elsewhere.

The Gaitanistas insisted that the security of their members after demobilisation was their top priority.

Citing high rates of killings of ex-combatants from two predecessor groups, the EPL and paramilitaries, the Gaitanistas insisted that the security of their members after demobilisation was their top priority. Likewise, they argued that many of their members had taken up arms again because of economic hardship in civilian life. In response, the Santos government proposed a regional demobilisation process, starting in the group’s strongholds and gradually shifting to other areas. Despite progress, by this point the Santos government had lost part of its support base in Congress, and the final law on submission to the judicial system passed in 2018 added longer sentences and fewer concessions than anticipated. This offer failed to meet Gaitanista expectations, and the process collapsed.

After these incomplete negotiations, the administration of President Iván Duque continued the military and police offensive initiated by his predecessor, leading to Otoniel’s arrest in 2021 and extradition to the U.S. just weeks later. Since then, most of the former commander’s trusted circle have also been either killed or captured. Yet the group has also grown more cohesive and hierarchical, with a clear chain of command under the leadership of Jobanis Ávila Villadiego, alias Javier or Chiquito Malo.

Read thge full article here: The Unsolved Crime in “Total Peace”: Dealing with Colombia’s Gaitanistas | Crisis Group