Conflicts & War

Drug gang serves as de facto gov’t in remote parts of northwest Colombia

By Irene Escudero and Esneyder Negrete

Santa Maria La Nueva, Colombia, May 18 (EFE).- A neighborhood in this northwestern Colombian town near the Panamanian border is popularly known as “Las Casitas” (Little Houses), although some local residents refer to it as “Bendicion de Dios” (God’s Blessing).

That blessing, though, is in fact the fruit of a housing initiative carried out by the Clan del Golfo, a neo-paramilitary group and major drug cartel that serves as the de facto government in that corner of the Andean nation.

A total of 40 houses have been constructed and painted in the green, white, red and yellow of the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), an alternate name for that criminal gang that has filled a state vacuum in an area surrounding the Gulf of Uraba.

Deficiencies abound in that region, with authorities having failed to provide local residents with services including electricity, education, road infrastructure and health care.

In response, the Clan del Golfo has stepped in and put teachers in rural schools where needed; built roads that allow for the transportation of farm products, as well as coca; and helped alleviate homelessness through a house-building program.

The gang members also impose law and order, impart justice and resolve conflicts among neighbors, although local residents say they have been intervening less frequently as of late.

“I’m one of the beneficiaries of these houses gifted by …” Yira Berbel told Efe, stopping mid-sentence. In Santa Maria La Nueva, part of the Unguia municipality of the northwestern department of Choco, the Clan del Golfo is known as “the organization,” “the company” or sometimes “them” or “the ones in charge.”

The gang is typically referred to in a whisper, even though acceptance of the group is high among the population.

“You wouldn’t expect the government (to provide) 40 houses like that for a community,” the mother of two said. “If you’re in need, you don’t ask questions. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

A party was held on the day the houses were delivered in 2021. Residents remember that a draw was held and people chose a strip of paper out of a bag containing a number corresponding to their new home.

The Clan del Golfo required only that the recipients inhabit their new houses. They issued no threats and have asked the occupants nothing in return.

Local residents, many of whom had been displaced by violence several years earlier, praise the area’s “tranquility” and the sense of security they feel knowing their children are safe.

Ironically, the place they say inspires confidence and calm is a so-called “red zone” controlled by a gang dedicated to drug trafficking and illegal mining.

Indeed, that part of the country is the birthplace of the AGC, which was founded after a meeting of former members of the now-defunct United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) who decided to rearm themselves.

Ana Lucila Mestra, president of the Unguia municipality’s Asocomunal civic organization, said the Clan del Golfo is made up of the sons, fathers and husbands of families who were victims of state neglect, “anyone who due to lack of opportunities for providing for their families decides to pick up a weapon.”

“It’s sad that those illegal structures have to be the ones to arrive in our territories and fill the need that’s the legal duty of the state to fill. They’re the ones who help us in areas like roads, in areas like improving housing quality,” she said.

But although AGC members in Unguia paint schools, elsewhere in northwestern Colombia they wield rifles and sow fear, plant land mines that prevent peasant farmers from growing crops and even drive many young people fearful of being recruited by the gang to commit suicide.

Conditions for the local population are better in areas where the drug gang exercises full control.

Elsewhere, where their hold is less iron-clad, the AGC continues to rule by force, threats and targeted killings.

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