Death of Rastrojos Boss a Game Changer in North Colombia

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A leader of the Rastrojos, one of Colombia’s most powerful gangs, has been murdered by his own bodyguards in the northern Bajo Cauca region, giving the rival Urabeños the chance to consolidate their gains in the area.

Angel de Jesus Pacheco, alias “Sebastian,” was a former paramilitary from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), who became a regional chief of the Rastrojos. His body was found in Caceres, Antioquia province, with five bullets in his body and one to the head.

The northern reaches of Colombia’s Antioquia department is territory long valued by Marxist guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and drug traffickers, thanks to the dense coca crops found here, as well as the roads connecting it to the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Bajo Cauca, a region made up of Antioquia’s six northernmost municipalities, has never been under control of a single criminal group.

Now, Bajo Cauca has some of the worst drug-related violence in Colombia, partly due to the scheming of Angel de Jesus Pacheco. He was found dead on July 25, reportedly murdered by his two bodyguards. Understanding how Pacheco turned Bajo Cauca into a war zone is key to understanding why the dynamics of the Colombian conflict are so much more complex and unstable today than in the days of the AUC’s rule.

The main paramilitary warlord who based his operations in Bajo Cauca was Ramiro Vanoy, alias “Cuco,” who headed the Bloque Mineros. But he had to share territory and drug trafficking routes with other AUC commanders: Carlos Jimenez, alias “Macaco,” leader of the Bloque Central Bolivar (for whom Pacheco worked), Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” and the Castaño family. Before the 2008 extradition of 14 AUC commanders, including Vanoy, Murillo and Jimenez, to the U.S., there generally existed formal agreements between these various paramilitary factions which dictated who controlled what, and who had to negotiate with whom. Like other AUC blocs, Vanoy’s Bloque Mineros and Macaco’s Bloque Central Bolivar obeyed a strict hierarchy: leadership was respected, and mid-ranking lieutenants kept in line. All this would change by the time Pacheco entered the scene in the aftermath of the extraditions.

After Vanoy and Macaco were extradited, mid-level commanders from the AUC like Pacheco tried to fill the void, with bloody results. The first outsider who tried to establish control over Bajo Cauca was Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias “Don Mario,” an AUC commander with a long history of working with the organization’s founders, the Castaño brothers. But Herrera met stiff resistence from a few remaning factions of Bloque Mineros, who began working for the rural branch of the Medellin mafia and became known as the Paisas. Other factions of Bloque Mineros and Bloque Central Bolivar ended up working for the Rastrojos, the former armed wing of the Norte del Valle cartel, whose center of power along the southwest Pacific coast, far from Antioquia.

Angel de Jesus Pacheco was one of the latter, a former Bloque Central Bolivar commander who was eager to become Bajo Cauca’s new warlord. While trying to resist the advance of Herrera, Pacheco and his followers first tried to enlist the help of the Paisas, who were unable to pay serious attention to the war in Antioquia’s countryside, as the urban war in Antioquia’s capital, Medellin, demanded far more resources. Pacheco saw a more attractive alliance with the Rastrojos, and took the chance.

His decision dragged Bajo Cauca deeper into a spiral of violence. Spurred by Pacheco, the Rastrojos intensified the bitter war in Bajo Cauca against Herrera’s gang, who, after Herrera’s arrest in 2008, became known as the Urabeños. The Rastrojos, originally based along the Pacific coast, enlisted Pacheco to help them gain footing in Bajo Cauca, an area with a strong regional identity that does not take to strangers.

As a result of the Rastrojos-Urabeños war, five of Bajo Cauca’s municipalities registered homicide rates higher than 100 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2009. That year, the national average in Colombia was 39 murders per 100,000 people. In comparison, the most hotly contested municipality in Bajo Cauca, Caucasia, saw a murder rate of 224, among the highest in the country.

InSight Crime made two trips to Bajo Cauca last year. Authorities there spoke of an incredibly complex battle zone: in contrast to many other departments, all of the actors in the Colombian conflict are present in this area — the FARC, the ELN and three of the paramilitary successor groups the governor has dubbed “bandas criminales,” or BACRIM. What makes Bajo Cauca especially emblematic of the new nature of Colombian drug violence is, in part, the sheer multiplicity of actors, and the fact that former paramilitaries are now working with their former guerrilla enemies, buying coca base and, reportedly, in some cases, sharing intelligence. In contrast to the AUC era, there is little sense of discipline or hierarchy among the BACRIMs.

The BACRIMs typically operate by entering an area and recruiting local gangs — informants, hitmen and small-time drug dealers — to work for them. Many low-level arrests of alleged Rastrojos or Urabeños in areas like Bajo Cauca are of these operatives. In Bajo Cauca, these low-level gangs were constantly switching sides between the Rastrojos, Urabeños or Paisas: neither group was powerful enough to impose order, and low-level recruits had little incentive to stay loyal for long. Bajo Cauca is the epicenter of Colombia’s new generation of organized crime, and Pacheco was highly representative of the era.

InSight Crime considers there may be three explanations for Pacheco’s death:

1) It was a conspiracy among his own men. The commander of Antioquia’s police told InSight Crime that Pacheco was a deeply brutal man who commanded little grassroots support or respect from the locals. That his two bodyguards reported the death — calling the local police station in Caucasia early Monday morning — then turned themselves in, could be a sign that it was no more than an internal killing. Police have supported this theory in comments to Colombian media.

2) The Urabeños were responsible. The Urabeños do not outnumber the Rastrojos in Bajo Cauca in terms of military strength — police told InSight Crime that they think each group manages a cell of about 120 armed men. But the Urabeños rely on a much better system of informants in Bajo Cauca, police said. They have also made solid inroads into the departmental capital of Medellin, which grants them access to supply lines and to a reliable pool of recruits. With the Urabeños having already won important ground in Medellin, this could have given them the strength needed to convince Pacheco’s men that it was in their own interest to switch sides again.

3) The leader of the Rastrojos, Luis Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” ordered Pacheco killed. This could have happened because Pacheco disobeyed orders or (the typical justification for a hit) he lost/stole a load of cocaine.

Pacheco’s death will mark a clear shift in the power dynamics in Bajo Cauca, one of Colombia’s most strategically important regions. With Pacheco out of the way, the Urabeños may have the space needed to finish the job that their former leader “Don Mario” started: become the new powerbrokers in the area.

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