The Paisas first emerged as a rural militia that grew out of the demobilized AUC paramilitary army, with links to the Oficina de Envigado, but later became an independent drug trafficking organization. The group has lost power and relevance due to infighting within its ranks, as well as a brutal feud with competitor groups over access to smuggling routes to Colombia's coasts. Many key members have defected to the rival Urabeños, and it is arguable whether the Paisas still exist as a significant force.
At the height of its power, the group operated in seven departments, concentrated in Colombia's rural northwest. In 2009, homicide rates skyrocketed in the northern half of Antioquia due to clashes between the Paisas and rival gangs like the Rastrojos, the Urabeños and the Aguilas Negras. This hotly contested region is a key corridor for cocaine traffickers and coca growers, as it connects to both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.
Like many of its counterparts, the Paisas’ core was made up of remnants of the paramilitary groups that demobilized during a peace process with the government between 2004 and 2006. "Paisa" is the nickname typically used for locals from Antioquia, and the group’s stronghold was concentrated in that province. One-time kingpin of the Medellin underworld Diego Murillo, alias "Don Berna," used to maintain groups of urban thugs and ex-paramilitaries in the countryside to battle guerrilla forces, control drug trafficking routes and occasionally jostle with rival paramilitary leaders like Daniel Rendon, alias "Don Mario." Don Berna’s network was called the Oficina de Envigado. Following Don Berna’s extradition in 2008, the rural militia broke away from the Oficina and began launching increasingly furious offensives against Don Mario's forces, who were later dubbed the Urabeños, after their heartland in the region of Uraba. The Paisas and the Urabeños continue to clash even after Don Mario's arrest in 2008.
Despite expansive ambitions, the Paisas have stayed true to their nickname and remain most heavily concentrated in paisa country, namely Antioquia. However, they have also had some minor presence in La Guajira, Cordoba, Bolivar, Sucre and Cesar. They recruit mostly from paramilitary soldiers who demobilized between 2004-2006, and their modus operandi is similar to that of a paramilitary group. Working in mostly small villages and towns, they try and control the flow of drugs to the coast, where they sell them on to organizations that have larger infrastructures and can move drugs internationally. Authorities believe this includes Mexican criminal syndicate the Zetas. They also control “micro-trafficking” in areas under their command, as well as extorting local businesses and farms.
On the security front, the Paisas are ruthless, eliminating their enemies and, at times, families of their enemies in an attempt to instill fear. The group relies on many young assassins who cut their teeth in the AUC, many of whom know no other life than near-constant war. Within this context, the Paisas have set their sights on destroying the Urabeños at all costs. To this end, the Paisas may have reached agreements with other drug-trafficking groups, including some fronts of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla organization.
The group has been hit by a wave of defections. Commander Angel de Jesus Pacheco Chanci, alias "Sebastian," left to join the Rastrojos by 2009, before being murdered by his own bodyguards in July 2011. His faction of the Paisas, working alongside the Rastrojos, was believed to supply drugs to the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas.
The death of Paisas commander Cesar Augusto Torres Lujan, alias "Mono Vides," in October provoked more desertions. His allies Rafael Alvarez Piñeda, alias "Chepe," and German Bustos Alarcon, alias "El Puma," (captured in September 2011) left to join the Urabeños. They were recruited by a former colleague from the AUC's Mineros Bloc, Roberto Vargas Gutierrez, alias "Gavilan."
- "Colombia's New Armed Groups," International Crisis Group, 10 May 2007. (pdf)
- "Volvió el terror a Córdoba," Semana, 16 October 2010.