Colombia‘s government has blamed the massacre of 10 farm laborers in Antioquia province on the Rastrojos gang, though questions remain about the incident, which echoes the atrocities committed by paramilitary groups in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The massacre took place on November 7 on a ranch in Santa Rosa de Osos municipality, some 78 km north of Medellin, reported El Tiempo. Police said that three gunmen approached the ranch in the afternoon, and asked if the owners had been making extortion payments. When the workers answered that they did not know, the gunmen opened fire. Nine men and one woman were killed, and another man was seriously injured. Before leaving the scene, the attackers reportedly detonated a grenade next to the victims’ bodies.
Colombian authorities have said that the investigation so far suggests the attack was carried out by the Rastrojos drug gang, which is struggling for control of the area with the Urabeños. According to Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon, the attack may have been retribution for the arrest of alias “Jorge 18,” whom he said was a local Rastrojos boss and had been captured one week prior to the incident.
The killing recalls the violent tactics used by the paramilitary Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which massacred many thousands in rural Colombia during its heyday. As the Associated Press notes, this is the worst mass killing Colombia has seen in three years. The last one on such a scale took place in August 2009 when 12 members of the indigenous Awa tribe were murdered in southern Nariño province.
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If the Rastrojos are in fact responsible for the killings, this would be a surprisingly bold move by the group. The Urabeños have slowly but surely been winning the war against the Rastrojos in northern Antioquia, nearly driving them out of the province since November 2011. Committing the massacre will inevitably attract heightened scrutiny from law enforcement, and the group does not have the clout in the region to withstand this.
However, it would not fit with the Urabeños’ profile either. The group has already established control over much of the north of Antioquia, insinuating itself into local communities and charging extortion taxes even from fruit-sellers and small farmers. They could only stand to lose by attracting attention to themselves in this way.
Adding to the confusion is Pinzon’s claim that the massacre is revenge for the arrest of Jorge 18. Both military and police officials have previously identified him as a regional Urabeños leader, and there has been no public announcement of his arrest despite his high profile.
Whoever is behind the murders, it seems clear that the attack was meant to terrify. According to Santa Rosa Mayor Francisco Jair Palacio, it comes at a time when local businesses are reporting that extortion is on the rise, with local business people saying demands range from $50 for workers to as much as $50,000 for large agricultural businesses.
Northern Antioquia will likely see heightened law enforcement presence in the coming weeks as authorities scramble to find the perpetrators of the killings. Between coca production in the Bajo Cauca region, and the revenue to be made from illicit mining there, the region is an attractive asset to criminal organizations. With all eyes on the Rastrojos, the Urabeños may take advantage of this police crackdown to solidify their control over Antioquia, removing their rivals from the area for good.