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Questions and Answers: How the AGC Jeopardizes Colombia's Plans for Complete Peace

The report released by the International Crisis Group in March describes how the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC) have become the largest armed group not currently involved in formal negotiations under President Gustavo Petro’s Total Peace (Paz Total) initiative. The report expressed concern that the AGC could interfere with and even sabotage other groups’ peace talks as they expand and fight for strategically valuable territory.

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A recent study revealed that Colombia's largest drug trafficking group is expanding its influence, posing a threat to the government's efforts to achieve peace with other criminal organizations.

The report published by the International Crisis Group in March details how the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC) has become the most significant armed group not currently engaged in official negotiations as part of President Gustavo Petro’s Total Peace (Paz Total) initiative. The report expressed concerns that the AGC could disrupt and even sabotage peace talks of other groups as they grow and compete for strategically important territory.

With approximately 9,000 members, the AGC is the biggest organization involved in drug trafficking in the country. Additionally, they generate income through arms trafficking, illegal mining, migrant smuggling, and extortion across numerous municipalities along Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

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Petro has successfully initiated discussions with some of the country’s other major criminal organizations, such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central – EMC) of the ex-FARC mafia. Petro has also announced negotiations with the Second Marquetalia (Segunda Marquetalia), another faction of FARC dissidents.

Shortly after the report publication, Petro opened opened the door to a “legal negotiation” with the AGC, which the group publicly accepted, with the condition that the negotiations follow a political process, similar to other groups involved in Paz Total, instead of a “sometimiento a la justicia” (submission to justice), which could result in harsher criminal penalties.

InSight Crime interviewed the report’s author, Elizabeth Dickinson, regarding the potential for peace talks with the AGC and some key findings of the report:

InSight Crime (IC): Do you think the AGC is genuinely interested in participating in these dialogues?

Elizabeth Dickinson (ED): Yes. The AGC is at a disadvantage compared to other groups because they are not part of ceasefire agreements. For example, in Sur de Bolívar, where the EMC, ELN, and AGC are fighting are present, the military is solely targeting the AGC. This strategic limitation on the battleground is likely their primary immediate motivation to engage in negotiations.

The group also has two long-term objectives driving their willingness to enter into talks. Firstly, there is a strong desire for legitimacy, which would come from having a seat at the negotiating table with the government. This group fundamentally questions why it is the only major armed group in Colombia not involved in the peace process. Considering the level of control and sophistication they have achieved in recent years, the leadership feels excluded from these discussions.

The second objective is judicial leniency. Successful peace talks could potentially result in reduced sentences in exchange for truthful testimony. Congress will need to establish the specific terms of this arrangement, but this proposal is particularly appealing to members of the organization who seek a way out of the ongoing cycle of violence.

The younger members of the group, aged 18 to 24, who joined in search of job opportunities, are realizing that the reality they are experiencing is not what they expected. Living in this group is not a very happy life, as they are exposed to violence, difficult environments, and are far from home.

That being said, some level of noncompliance or criminal interests will continue among the “mandos medios,” the mid-level commanders, who may not have the same incentives to participate in the peace process.mandos medios,” the mid-level commanders, who may not have the same incentives to participate in the peace process.

IC: The AGC has perfected the practice of “monetizing territorial control” by profiting off all economic activity, licit and illicit, in areas where they are the dominant actor.  Where is the group trying to expand its control and why?

ED: If you look at a map, you can understand precisely why they’re expanding where they’re expanding. I would point to three areas.

Map showing the AGC's presence throughout Colombia. 
Un mapa que muestra donde los AGC tienen presencia en Colombia.
Editor’s note: Criminal territories are constantly shifting. This map from November 2023 is based on InSight Crime fieldwork and varies slightly from Dickinson’s responses.

The first one is the Pacific coast. This group is ambitious to control both coastlines because if one drug trafficking route is down, the other route is open, and there are many different international markets accessible from various routes. They also think this will dramatically increase their political leverage. From their stronghold in Urabá, Antioquia, they have expanded south through Chocó. They are now in Bajo Calima, across the bay from Buenaventura, and they will likely continue into Valle de Cauca, where their expansion is motivated by control of fluvial routes and access to extortion revenues from a very lucrative industrial economy outside of Cali, in Tulua and Buga.

The second focus is mining areas in Bolívar, Antioquia, and Cesar. These are very obviously linked to gold mining, a very attractive product for all armed groups in Colombia, particularly with the market for coca a little bit out of whack. They are systematically pushing the ELN out of its strongholds in mining areas in these places.

The last area of expansion, based on their strategic positioning, seems to be Catatumbo, Norte de Santander, home to the highest concentrations of coca crops, coal mining, palm oil production, and the vast numbers of crossings on the Colombia-Venezuela border. If they were to achieve that, they would dominate the corridor from the Venezuelan border, across the entire Atlantic coast, all the way down to the Pacific coast, an enormous strategic prize.

IC: In the report, you quote one AGC commander saying he envisioned the organization “maintaining its structure and illicit business activities, but just making them less violent.” How is that reconcilable with what the government wants in the long term?

ED: In the short term, all armed groups in Colombia want to continue their armed control and their businesses while reducing violence. Under the previous peace commissioner, the government’s priority was reducing violence and dealing with the territorial control aspect at a later stage.

But if we’re disbanding a group with as much control over an area as the AGC and as many connections to the economy, the government must be ready to deal with the gaps it leaves. And currently, that’s not possible. When negotiating with the various criminal groups, planning should begin now — from a military standpoint, from an institutional standpoint, and a services standpoint.

IC: The AGC is one of several groups that broke away from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) when the coalition demobilized in 2006. What has made the AGC stronger and more resistant than other groups that emerged from that process, such as the Rastrojos?

ED: To understand their expansion model, it is crucial to understand the organization’s structure. It consists of three branches: military, economic, and political. This structure extends to the street level. In every town in AGC areas, the community can identify the person who is the political leader, the economic leader, and so on. Their expansion involves developing a social base, where they have a role in community organizations like the Community Action Boards (Juntas de Acción Comunal – JAC), and they control every aspect of the economy, with the threat of violence lingering in the background if anyone doesn’t comply.

Another important factor was their relationship with the landowners. A portion of the political and economic classes prefer to live with this group rather than risk exposure to unknown actors, like the ELN, the EMC, or criminal organizations. Those landowner networks have been fundamental for this group’s survival because, in times of economic scarcity, the landowners would step in and cover AGC members’ salaries for a month or two while they got back on their feet.

The other thing that is quite different from groups like the Rastrojos or some urban gangs is that the AGC is not urban. This is a fundamentally rural organization. They have intentionally chosen not to prioritize cities. This is not an organization within Barranquilla. They’re located on the outskirts, allowing the urban gangs to fight it out while they wait for a winner to decide who to work with. Being mainly in the countryside has helped them avoid scrutiny and security operations.

IC: After the capture of Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” in 2021, the group’s new leader, Jobanis de Jesús Ávila Villadiego, alias “Chiquito Malo,” has tightened his grip on the organization, according to the report. How has the group’s structure changed with this change of leadership?

ED: One way this group expanded was through a franchising model, which is still part of the organization’s DNA. At a local level, commanders have autonomy over extortion and low-revenue criminal economies, bringing in money for their specific bloc or front. But the big games like drug trafficking and mining are run by the Estado Mayor (central command).

When Otoniel was captured, there were some questions about whether this organization would even stay together. So Chiquito Malo took an aggressive stance towards consolidation, sending several envoys across the region to negotiate with the different fronts and bring them all on board. He’s also replaced local and mid-level commanders across the region in cases where the envoys were not enough to get them on board with the structure.

IC: The coca leaf market in Colombia is inconsistent, with prices varying by region. However, prices in AGC territory have remained steady. How has the AGC managed this despite falling prices in other areas?

ED: There are a few theories. The most influential one is the buyer relationship in the market. The AGC has a strong buyer relationship with international cartels, especially the Sinaloa Cartel on the Atlantic coast, and also with organized crime. When there is too much coca, as is the case in Colombia, the buyers have the upper hand, and the AGC has managed to seize this advantage. Sinaloa Cartel on the Atlantic coast, and also with European organized crime. In a situation of oversupply, like we now have in Colombia, where there is too much coca, it’s a buyer’s market, and the buyers get to choose who they work with. And the AGC has essentially won that buyer’s market.

The AGC has several advantages that make it the obvious choice. First, its territories are consolidated, and they are the sole participants in drug trafficking in their controlled areas. So, when traffickers come to an AGC area to buy coca or arrange a shipment, they do not have to worry about which group controls the exit routes that day. On the other hand, in Nariño, one trafficker might have to pay multiple extortion fees because there are many groups present.

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The second advantage is transportation. The infrastructure on the Atlantic coast is significantly better than that in southern Colombia. The Atlantic coast has the Troncal del Caribe highway, important ports in Barranquilla and Cartagena, and well-developed river routes.

Third, the AGC has been able to infiltrate security forces at a local level, albeit not systematically. This means that the organization can bribe specific police and military officials, making them consistent suppliers.

Fourth, due to their success in the cocaine business, they have a lot of capital. If a shipment goes missing, the AGC will ensure payment to the buyer. This also helps explain why coca prices have remained stable, because even if the market price has dropped, the AGC has the funds to pay their coca growers slightly more, maintaining popularity in these areas.

Featured image: A graffiti tag marks AGC territory in Acandí, Colombia. Credit: Henry Shuldiner

*This interview has been edited for clarity and fluidity.  

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