Angered by extradition of their leader, murderous drug gang shuts down 100 Colombian towns
By Samantha Schmidt and Diana Durán
Francisco Miguel Soto López was preparing to start his day as he had since he was a teenager, selling plantains in his town’s central market, when the two men arrived on motorcycles. The men shouted an announcement that would repeat itself across northern Colombia: This was an armed strike! Everyone needed to go home!
That was when his nephew heard the gunshots. One hit Soto in the back, killing the 54-year-old uncle and soccer player here in the northern department of Córdoba.
A few hours later, two masked men stormed a school courtyard as students gathered for class and fired shots in the air. “It didn’t need to come to this,” said Soto’s niece, Yasir Mestra Soto. “They’re taking the lives of innocent people who had nothing to do with this.”
For more than four days, Colombia’s largest drug cartel terrorized cities across more than 100 municipalities in 10 departments, confining residents in their homes, blocking roads and paralyzing businesses. At least 187 vehicles and eight transportation terminals have been damaged.
The paramilitary group known as the Clan del Golfo unleashed the so-called armed strike in retaliation for the extradition to the United States of its leader. Dairo Antonio Úsuga, known more commonly as Otoniel, was arraigned in federal court last week on drug trafficking charges.
The Colombian and U.S. governments celebrated the extradition as a victory in their effort to dismantle a notorious drug cartel that dominates major cocaine smuggling routes through the country. But the response to the extradition has shown just how powerful the Clan del Golfo remains. “It makes visible the reality that these areas have been living for many months now, which is a complete political and social control under the Gulf Clan,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst with International Crisis Group.
The cartel is one of the largest employers in the region. While armed strikes are not uncommon in Colombia, the latest action was an unusual show of force in its geographic scope and strength — it paralyzed transportation and commerce in nearly the entire northern half of the country.
It came just three weeks before a presidential election in Colombia in which the front-runner, Gustavo Petro, is a former leftist guerrilla member. Analysts said the strike was sure to boost security as a campaign issue, and raised concern about the potential for further violence ahead of the first round of voting May 29. It also underscored the country’s failure to implement its 2016 peace accords, which sought in part to tackle violence in rural territories and decrease communities’ reliance on farming coca, the base of cocaine.
The Clan del Golfo was funded between 2006 and 2007 by a former paramilitary leader who was eventually extradited to the United States more than a decade later. Colombia’s paramilitary forces emerged as armed actors — sometimes with the complicity of the country’s armed forces — in the government’s decades-long conflict against the leftist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Úsuga, Colombia’s most wanted drug lord, was captured by soldiers and police in his jungle hideout in October. In addition to drug trafficking, he is accused of killing police officers, recruiting minors and sexually abusing children, among other crimes.
After Úsuga’s fall, the Clan del Golfo has reorganized its leadership and shown more sophistication, said Mauricio Velásquez, professor in government at Andes University in Bogotá. “They’re seeking legitimacy, claiming the armed strike derives from a state that does not listen to its citizens,” Velásquez said.
The government, criticized for what Colombians said was an inadequate response, deployed additional troops to the affected regions. On Monday, President Iván Duque met with his defense minister and other military and police officials in Antioquia, one of the affected departments.
Around Montería in Córdoba, Soto’s death on Thursday morning was among the first of several killings since the start of the armed strike. Local police officials said they could not confirm the gunmen were members of the Clan del Golfo. But at least one eyewitness, Soto’s nephew, said he heard the men mention the armed strike. In the days that followed, major streets across the region were blocked by armed groups. Garbage trucks, buses and motorcycles were burned. Schools and businesses closed, and city centers became ghost towns.
The armed strike dealt an economic blow to local businesses during what is perhaps the most important day for the restaurant industry in Colombia: Mother’s Day. Local restaurants were planning a weekend of parties and special events. Instead, only 10 percent of restaurants in Monteria were open Sunday, said Juan Carlos Rodríguez, head of a Córdoba restaurant and entertainment association. The few that were open struggled amid road closures to stock meat. Losses were estimated at $3.5 million. Local businesses are hoping for a do-over next weekend.
By Monday, the armed strike was lifted in much of the country, and business and traffic in Montería began to return to normal. But many families found themselves stuck in the departmental capital. About 25 families were living in the city’s main bus terminal between Thursday and early Monday. By the weekend, many had run out of money; terminal employees donated food so they could eat.
At least 172 dialysis patients in Córdoba were unable to receive at-home treatment, the local ombudsman’s office reported. Ambulances were unable to transport patients through roadblocks. Some nurses in Montería’s San Jerónimo hospital, unable to return to their homes while colleagues had no way of getting to work, worked 24-hour shifts.
Some patients remained in the hospital days after they were supposed to be discharged. Arelis Martínez Pacheco rushed her 15-year-old daughter to the hospital Wednesday for treatment of a hernia. She was set to go home by Friday. But by Monday, the family still hadn’t found a way to return home.
After using her last bit of change to buy bread and coffee, Martínez had no money for bus fare. She was still wearing the blue shirt and jeans in which she arrived. Her daughter, Nuris, worried about her older sister, home alone the entire time, and feared the “bad people who won’t let anyone pass” on the roads.
Martinez had been through this kind of terror before. She and her daughters were displaced from her home by paramilitary groups about 13 years ago. Her first husband disappeared in the conflict. But this is the first time since then that she has felt the same level of fear. “Sometimes I don’t want to remember those days,” she said. “My god, could it be that the same thing will happen again?”
Outside Montería, a school reopened Monday. But no students showed up; the teachers sat in the courtyard, talking. “A.G.C.” was scrawled on the school’s green walls, the Spanish initials of the paramilitary group Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, also known as the Clan del Golfo.
When the two armed men arrived last week, security guard Edwin José Monteyanez, 67, rushed to help two girls hide. “It was chaos,” he said. “These kids didn’t know where to go. We didn’t know what to do.”
But on Monday, the security guard had returned to the front gate, a Virgin Mary medallion around his neck — for protection.
Credit: Washington Post