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Colombia’s Gulf Clan denies its paramilitary origins and seeks political status

The commanders of the self-proclaimed Gaitanista Army of Colombia ask that the arrest warrants against their leaders be lifted

Colombia’s Gulf Clan denies its paramilitary origins and seeks political status
Alleged members of the Gaitanista Army read a statement in a video published in February.Gaitanistas 1948
Daniela Díaz

In a five-page letter addressed to Colombian President Gustavo Petro, the Gulf Clan — also known as the Gaitanista Army of Colombia (EGC) (previously Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) — has called on authorities to drop the arrest warrants against several of its commanders. In the missive — dated April 23 and made public on Thursday —, the group argues that it is a political organization and deserves to be included in the negotiations for Petro’s “total peace” policy. It claims that it is not a paramilitary force, but rather opposed to all such groups. The government has not yet publicly responded to the letter. A few weeks ago, it called on the Gulf Clan to come to the negotiating table, but did not recognize it as a political group.

In the document, written in more legal than political language, the leaders of the Gulf Clan say that if the government wants a meeting, the group has to be certain that its leaders won’t be arrested. The group asks that the “respective arrest warrants, as well as the arrest warrants for extradition purposes, be suspended,” arguing that these measures are an obstacle to the “personal and legal tranquility” of the Gulf Clan’s High Command, the highest political body of the organization. This body includes Jesús Ávila Villadiego, aka “Chiquito Malo,” the main leader of the group and one of the most wanted criminals in the country.

The bulk of the letter concerns the group’s argument on why it meets the state requirements to receive political status — a status the group needs if it is to negotiate terms beyond handing itself over to the justice system. The Gulf Clan argues that it is the product of the failure of the peace accords. While it accepts that some of its early members came from the demobilization of the paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) under the government of Álvaro Uribe, it argues that it has had a Gaitanist identity since 2007. “That group of men and women who emerged in an armed group and as a tribute to the greatest popular leader in Colombian history, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, decided to call themselves Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia [...], and understood that Gaitán’s struggle was indeed their own struggle, that is, the conquest of power for the people,” states the illegal group.

The leaders of the Gulf Clan allege that paramilitary organizations are supported by the state, while their group has been constantly targeted by the military. In the letter, it argues that the Gulf Clan “has been attacked with the most ferocious military and law enforcement operations in the history of the fight against illegal armed groups.” To close its argument that it meets the requirements to be given political status, the group argues that it has internal statutes and a code of ethics, that its members are trained in International Humanitarian Law and that it has a structure typical of an army. In short, they appear to be a guerrilla.

Finally, the group refuses to be called drug traffickers, despite the fact that a large part of their income comes from illicit economies linked to cocaine trafficking. “U.S. security sources estimate the Gaitanistas’ annual income at $4.4 billion. This sum is roughly equivalent to a month’s worth of Colombian exports,” states the International Crisis Group in a report. “The paramilitaries were from the beginning allied with drug trafficking networks as a way to generate revenue and extend their territorial reach,” it states. Elizabeth Dickinson, the head of the NGO in Colombia, says that the Gulf Clan is the largest illegal armed group in Colombia, with 6,000 to 7,000 people in its ranks.

The letter from the Gulf Clan comes a month after President Petro criticized the group in Apartadó (Antioquia), a flagship region for paramilitarism, where the Gaitanistas have a presence. In a public event, the president bluntly said the group can only expect a “collective acceptance of justice,” the path outlined in the “total peace” policy for groups without political status. What’s more, Petro conditioned negotiations on the group giving up several of its illegal businesses. “To dare [to negotiate] is to dare to leave the illicit economy and illegality, and get into a difficult challenge, which is to transform this territory into a prosperous region,” he said. “[Jorge Eliécer] Gaitán was a revolutionary and not a narco,” he added.

Francisco Daza, coordinator of the territorial peace and human rights line of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (PARES), points out that the letter comes amid the group’s bloody disputes with the National Liberation Army (ELN, which has more visibility in the peace process) in the south of Bolivar. These confrontations have seriously affected the civilian population and forced a delegation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace to move from the area. “It seems that it is seeking to mitigate the military actions of the public forces against it in that department. Even so, the president has not contemplated political recognition for this structure,” says Daza.

The criminal organization’s request also coincides with the recent lifting of arrest warrants against nine members of the Second Marquetalia, one of the two dissident groups of the now-disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), with which the Colombian government is seeking to initiate a new negotiation.

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