Pubdate: Tue, 17 Jul 2018
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Juan Forero


YOKY RIDGE, Colombia-On a hilltop base shielded with sandbags, police
sharpshooter Jose Diaz gazed into thick jungle as a fellow commando
checked tripwires protecting the stronghold. A radioman listened in on
the fighters they were battling.

"They're always looking for the right moment to attack our base," said
Hector Ocampo, commander of the Colombian detachment in a
cocaine-trafficking corridor near Panama.

Their adversaries weren't the FARC rebels that security forces had
long fought, but a cocaine-trafficking gang known as the Gulf Clan. In
the year since the powerful Marxist guerrillas disarmed, drug gangs
like this one have battled each other and the state for control of the
booming cocaine trade in remote regions where the FARC once ruled.

With the gangs fighting over the spoils, homicides in drug-crop
regions jumped by 45% in the first four months of this year, the
Bogota-based policy group Ideas for Peace said in a recent report.
Particularly alarming to many Colombians have been the killings of 181
community leaders in these regions since January 2016, many of whom
had openly opposed drug trafficking, according to data from the
Attorney General's office released July 9.

"You had social order with the FARC, and then you break that order,"
said Maria Victoria Llorente, director of Ideas for Peace. "And the
state is unable to impose a new order."

The accord with the FARC, after a four-year peace process, led to the
disarmament of thousands of rebels and the dismantling of their units
in regions where farmers grow coca, the crop used to make cocaine.

Four main drug-trafficking groups have grown in prominence and reach
during the negotiations, including the Clan. The gangs work with
dozens of smaller groups that run cocaine-processing labs, transport
drugs and provide muscle, the police's organized-crime analysts said
in interviews.

"New masters of these territories emerged," said Bo Mathiasen, head of
the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Colombia.

The most powerful gang in recent years had been the Gulf Clan, these
analysts say. Founded by a family whose members once belonged to death
squads that roamed this banana-growing region, the Clan has units in
several regions and hundreds of men, many armed with assault rifles
and land mines. Its cocaine-trafficking network starts with mule
trains in the swamps and ends in large markets like New York and Madrid.

But the Clan has been weakened by a state offensive launched in 2015.
With operations far bigger than anything mounted against former cartel
kingpin Pablo Escobar, the security forces have deployed Black Hawk
helicopters, Vietnam-era Hueys and specially trained police and
soldiers, more than 1,000 in all at any one time, said Major General
Jorge Vargas, commander of the police-investigations directorate that
conducts intelligence on the group.

Like guerrillas, the Clan relies on hit-and-run attacks, using
sharpshooters to pick off policemen. Its leader, Dairo Antonio Usuga,
better known as "Otoniel," has stayed a step ahead of the state by
hiding out in the jungle.

For the commandos assigned to track the Clan, the work takes a toll.
Though heavily armed, they are keenly aware of the inherent dangers.
Nearly 30 police commandos have been killed.

"You feel anxious," said commando Mauricio Espitia, who has spent
weeks at a time at the small base at Yoky Ridge. "It's worrisome,
because this is my life. My wife is waiting for me."

The offensive against the Clan has eroded its reach, so much so that
the a new law was approved to facilitate the collective surrender of
the gang's fighters in exchange for leniency in sentencing.

"They are now at the point of turning themselves in to the justice
system," said Gen. Jorge Humberto Nieto, head of the National Police,
explaining how commando strikes, month after month, have left Clan
leaders desperate.

In all, the Clan has lost more than 2,000 men, most of them captured,
and authorities have recovered more than $200 million to help choke
off cash the group needs for its fighters' salaries and supplies.

"Pay isn't getting to them," said a senior police analyst. "No money,
they begin to desert, to inform on the others."

Indeed, one former Clan member who only wanted to give his first name,
Jonathan, described trudging through brush, fearful of attack by
police but also by his commanders, who he thought could kill him
because of their paranoia about informants. He hadn't been paid in
three months when he finally slipped away and surrendered.

"I was waiting a long time for the opportunity to run," Jonathan said,
as he spoke in a small office with police intelligence officers around

Police say more than a dozen other commanders have been killed. Last
year, a commando firing from a canoe after he and a team trudged for
days into the jungle killed the Clan's No. 2, Roberto "The Hawk"
Vargas. The remaining leaders, police say, have split off into ever
smaller bands deep in the jungle.

"They've had to leave their comfort zone," said Col. Arnulfo Novoa,
who commands the main police base in the region, in Necocli. "They
thought we would be here two months. They didn't imagine we'd be here
so much time."

Still, the police and experts on the drug underworld here say a
dismantling of the Clan-or any other group-will mean the emergence of
offshoots, a phenomenon that bedevils law enforcement from here to
Mexico. Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America policy
group said the gangs that invariably pop up to replace those that
disappear rarely have a national or international reach.

"They'll be regional," Mr. Isacson said. "But it's as big a problem as
before. If you add up all the regional groups, you still have manpower
that's up as big as the FARC had."
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