Arrests Point to Drug Gang’s Power on Colombia’s Pacific

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Colombia’s arrest of 39 alleged members of drug gang the Rastrojos, many of them working in law enforcement, indicates the power of this group to corrupt state bodies in the remote Pacific province of Choco.

The operation took place in the northern Pacific coast towns of Nuqui and Bahia Solano. The detainees include a dizzying range of officials, from the head of the local branch of the same prosecution body which led the investigation, to seven police officers, two soldiers, a navy marine, and a court employee, according to the Prosecutor General’s Office.

The organizational scope of this alleged branch of the Rastrojos is impressive. According to the navy’s account of the operation, Nuqui town Councilor Aristides Pacheco, who was one of those arrested, was charged with recruiting other politicians to the group in exchange for money. Another man, Manuel Bermudez Sanclemente, is accused of serving as the group’s lawyer. Other alleged members, employees of the regions’ various law enforcement bodies, were reportedly tasked with keeping the group informed of the authorities’ movements and of any investigations into the Rastrojos.

According to a report in El Pais newspaper, pay-offs started at 500,000 pesos a month per person ($280) — around the level of the nation’s minimum wage — going up to one million pesos ($560).

The Rastrojos’ alleged penetration of state institutions seems to have been well-coordinated, with corrupt officials carefully placed to cover all bases and prevent the authorities from taking action that could impede the organization’s activities. The group’s success may have been its own undoing; the failure of the authorities in northern Choco to prosecute criminals or intercept drug shipments raised suspicions, leading the authorities to open an investigation.

The group’s alleged ability to so effectively prevent law enforcement interfering in their business demonstrates the Rastrojos’ power and influence, even outside of their heartland in the Cauca region in southwest Colombia. The group was born out of the now-defunct Norte del Valle Cartel, which was active in this region. Choco, to the north, is a key location for trafficking, as it is a region long neglected by the government, where drug shipments out of the country can be organized in relative peace. In March the Rastrojos caused a mass displacement of indigenous people in Choco, presumably in order to seize their land for trafficking.

While the Rastrojos have had a presence in Choco for some time, there are also reports that the group is branching out still further from their traditional domain, and further moving inland to areas like the Antioquia department. They now reportedly have a presence in one-third of Colombia’s departments. Their influence, and ability to penetrate institutions, is indicated by reports that they have worked to inflitrate national politics, particularly in Nariño, Cauca and Valle, financing the campaigns of selected candidates.

According to the authorities, the detainees in Chocho were part of a sub-group of hired killers and drug traffickers within the Rastrojos. Some of those arrested were allegedly caught while in the act of packing a cocaine shipment. The group is accused of receiving drug cargoes from other members of the Rastrojos, based in the cities of Cali and Buenaventura, before shipping the product via the Pacific up to Central America. They would reportedly use the isolated coastal areas of Bahia Solano and Nuqui to launch drug shipments in go-fast boats to Central America, and from there to the U.S.

The investigation is a success for the Prosecutor General’s Office’s Unit Against Emerging Groups (Unidad contra Bandas Emergentes de la Fiscalia), which was set up in August 2010 to combat groups like the Rastrojos. But despite the large numbers and prominence of those captured in the recent operation, it is unlikely that it will be a lasting blow to the Rastrojos. The group’s decentralized structure can absorb arrests at this level, which do not touch the group’s central leadership. There have been a string of blows to the organization, involving large numbers of arrests, which do not seem to have seriously impacted the group’s operational capacity. In one case, 112 members surrendered in Nuqui in 2009, while more than 50 were caught in two separate operations in November 2010.

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