The arrest of a leader of Colombian gang the Paisas reveals the fast-changing dynamics of the drug conflict, in which gangs change names and sides constantly in the shifting world of narcotics trafficking.
Police announced the arrest of German Bustos Alarcon, alias “El Puma,” one of the most wanted criminals in Colombia’s Antioquia province, who had a 250 million peso (about $140,000) reward on his head. In 2011, he was indicted by a US court in the Southern District of Florida for drug trafficking, alongside powerful figures like Diego Perez Henao, the now-captured leader of the Rastrojos. This was part of the first set of indictments issued by the only prosecution unit set up in the United States to target the Colombian drug trafficking groups known as “criminal bands” (bandas criminales – BACRIM).
Puma was arrested in the subregion known as Bajo Cauca, the center of the Paisas’ operations, and one of the areas most hotly contested by Colombia’s organized criminal groups. Much of the area was once controlled by factions of paramilitary umbrella group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). But after the AUC officially demobilized in 2006, Bajo Cauca turned into a battleground between groups made up former paramilitary fighters, which the government has labeled BACRIMs. Almost all of Colombia’s BACRIMs — the Urabeños, the Rastrojos, the Paisas, and to some extent the Oficina de Envigado — have a presence in Bajo Cauca.
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In many ways, Puma is representative of the kind of criminal actor now driving Colombia’s conflict. He was able to work uninterrupted for generations of Colombian criminal groups, changing his allegiances many times.
Puma started out as a mid-level commander in the AUC’s Mineros Bloc, under the command of paramilitary leader Ramiro “Cuco” Vanoy. He was among the 2,789 paramilitaries who demobilized from this bloc in January 2006.
But like hundreds of other mid-level paramilitary commanders who went through the motions of demobilization, only to establish new criminal organizations under different names, Puma never truly left the drug trade. Along with other former members of the Mineros Bloc, he enlisted in the Paisas, an organization dedicated to trafficking cocaine through Bajo Cauca. This recycling of former AUC members into the BACRIMs is one of the main drivers of Colombia’s drug conflict.
The Paisas fought a bloody war with the Rastrojos and the Urabeños in Bajo Cauca between 2008 and 2010. This conflict is, again, representative of how Colombia’s drug war is now being fought between neo-paramilitary successor groups. It involved many former mid-level AUC commanders who never fully demobilized, with a constantly switching set of alliances between rival groups. Between 2008 and 2010, for example, the Paisas fought against the Urabeños in Bajo Cauca and were allied with the Rastrojos. But after the death of Paisa leader Cesar Augusto Torres Lujan, alias “Mono Vides,” in October 2010, the Paisas switched sides, and worked alongside the Urabeños in Bajo Cauca. However, these highly regionalized alliances are not enforced on a national level, as they were during the era of the AUC.
Even with Puma captured, the Paisas can still rely on Rafael Alvarez Piñeda, alias “Chepe,” another demobilized member of the Mineros Bloc, to hold the group together. While Mono Vides’ death apparently had the effect of switching Bajo Cauca’s conflict dynamics around by 180 degrees, it is unlikely that El Puma’s exit will cause a similar shift in the Paisas-Urabeños partnership, as the Urabeños move to become the most powerful drug smuggling network in Colombia.