Colombian authorities have announced a renewed offensive in the coastal province of Cordoba, where drug-trafficking gangs are clashing over the control of key smuggling routes to the Caribbean.
The department is an epicenter for the turf battles between the criminal syndicates known as the Paisas, the Rastrojos and the Urabeños. This week, combat between the rival gangs spurred the displacement of an estimated 110 people from the countryside to the town of Tierralta, reports the local newspaper El Meridiano de Cordoba.
The region has also received increased media attention in light of the killing of two biology students from a top Bogota university in early January. The young couple were shot at point-blank allegedly by operatives of the Urabeños while taking photographs of local flora in a rural area.
In a country long used to drug violence, the student murders appeared to bring about a renewed sense that insecurity in Cordoba had increased to the point where even those who are not linked to the drug trade are at risk. Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera announced Wednesday that Cordoba will soon see an “unprecedented offensive,” with a surge of 720 police and 240 military troops to be deployed to the southern municipalities of Tierralta and Puerto Libertador.
In recent remarks during a security council, Police Director General Oscar Naranjo took care to imply that the focus on Cordoba is not spurred by the student deaths. “We want to clarify that we are not just interested in resolving the double homicide of the students from Bogota, but we want to capture those responsible for the many homicides last year, which are a tragedy for Cordoba, concerning farmers, community leaders, ranchers, police and professors,” he said.
According to one of Colombia’s primary human rights organizations, known by its Spanish acronym CODHES, Cordoba saw 600 people murdered last year in gang-related violence and 45 deaths so far this year. These are higher statistics than those kept by the Police, who have counted 28 murders so far in 2011.
The department is a stronghold for the Urabeños, who are the remnants of a paramilitary, drug-trafficking bloc once led by Mario Rendon Herrera, alias “Don Mario,” arrested in 2008. Unlike other regions in Colombia, where the criminal bands usually operate in small groups and in civilian wear, Cordoba has seen instances of the Urabeños operating in uniform or else instigating large-scale battles with their rivals.
In March 2010, police arrested 56 men after breaking up an armed confrontation between about 200 members of the Urabeños, Rastrojos and Paisas.