Jorge, a community activist from Colombia’s conflict-ridden province of Chocó, was already traveling to the city of Medellín when he heard some news that made him turn back to his home.
Paramilitary militiamen in balaclavas and military fatigues had erected a series of roadblocks and declared an “armed strike”, burning vehicles, forcing businesses to close and stopping all traffic.
“There’s absolutely no one around because any vehicle they find on the roads, they set it on fire,” Jorge said, using a fake name to avoid retaliation. “It’s total terror.”
Since Thursday, towns and villages in northern Colombia have been shut down by the fearsome Gulf Clan drug cartel, in retaliation for the extradition to the United States of its former leader, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, better known as Otoniel.
Otoniel faces a litany of drug trafficking charges in the United States, as well as more than 120 charges in Colombia, including allegations of murder, illegal recruitment, kidnapping for ransom, sexual abuse of minors, terrorism, illegal possession of weapons and drug trafficking.
But even as New York prosecutors boasted that the alleged ringleader would finally be brought to justice, Colombians across much of the country remained hostage to the terror unleashed by his thousands of henchmen.
The militiamen blocked the main roads and prohibited anyone from venturing out, even to buy food.
“Everything has been closed since Thursday noon, practically all businesses are now closed,” said a resident of Apartadó, a town of 200,000 people in the Urabá region, where the Gulf clan still holds territory.
“We don’t know how long this will last. Water and electricity are constantly cut off, there is no transport and food is running out. We just have to wait and see what happens.
Videos shared by residents with the Guardian show streets that would normally be packed with businesses are now completely deserted.
“The state has no control here, so at any time armed groups can stir up trouble and destabilize the whole region,” said a community leader in Montería, the capital of Córdoba province.
“Entire municipalities are closed, buses have been set on fire and no one can leave their homes.”
A threatening leaflet in the name of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) – the name the cartel uses for itself – has been distributed in several cities, stating that the armed strike will last four days and that the cartel will not be held responsible for “consequences which may be adverse”. Stores, schools and government buildings were tagged with the AGC insignia.
“We are the prisoners, not Otoniel,” said another villager in the area. “Everyone is confined to their homes, and nothing – not even an ambulance – is moving. It is silent chaos.
Otoniel’s capture was hailed by US and Colombian authorities as a blow to drug traffickers, but police say two of his lieutenants, known as Gonzalito and Chiquito Malo, took command of the militia, which is said to number up to 2,000 fighters, and in addition to drug trafficking, it is also involved in human trafficking, extortion, kidnapping for ransom and the forced recruitment of children.
Colombian authorities responded to the violence by launching an “anti-terrorism policy”, aimed primarily at lifting roadblocks. “The order for commanders is to deploy all their capacities, and above all to be on the offensive against these criminals,” a police spokesman said Friday morning.
Analysts say the terror in northern Colombia is a predictable consequence of the country’s hardline tactics in the “war on drugs”, which often neglect civilian populations living among traffickers.
“It’s a perfect demonstration of the problem with Colombia’s approach to groups like the Clan del Golfo, in that decapitating them with these large-scale, high-profile arrests like Otoniel’s did nothing. to affect the structure of the organization,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, a Colombian analyst with the International Crisis Group, a think tank.
“The daily reality in the regions they control or contest continues to involve high levels of social control, forced recruitment, coercion, extortion.”
“All of this is invisible, but at a time like this, it becomes impossible for the state to ignore the depth of the presence of a group like Clan del Golfo in this region,” Dickinson said. “It’s actually quite shocking.”