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Friday, Oct 07, 2022
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Colombian narco militia seeks peace talks after calling ‘unilateral’ ceasefire

Feared Gulf Clan has unleashed terror campaign since arrest of leader in May but keen to talk to leftist president Gustavo Petro

One of Colombia’s most feared armed groups has announced a “unilateral” ceasefire in the hopes of entering peace talks with the government of Colombia’s new leftist leader, Gustavo Petro.

The Gulf Clan, a notorious drug-trafficking militia, has unleashed a campaign of terror following the May extradition to the US of its leader – Dairo Antonio Úsuga, or “Otoniel”, assassinating dozens of police and holding large swaths of the country hostage.

The rightwing group said the ceasefire, announced by the group on Sunday, was an “expression of goodwill with the new government and its broad willingness to search for paths of peace”.

The offer comes as Petro said his government was “about to restart” negotiations with leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels, for the first time since the Colombian government broke off peace talks after the rebels carried out a car bomb attack at a police academy in Bogotá in 2019.

The two armed groups are among the largest and most powerful in Colombia, both wanted internationally for narco-trafficking.

Petro, a former insurgent of the now defunct M-19 guerrillas, was voted into office on a wide range of promises from fighting inequality to consolidating peace with armed groups that have only grown more violent in recent years.

“We must end once and for all six decades of violence and armed conflict … the perpetual war of Colombia,” the president said in a speech as he was sworn into office Sunday.

Any peace pact with the militias would solidify Petro’s legacy as a historic leader.

Negotiations with such groups are not uncommon in a place like Colombia, which has struggled with waves of armed conflict for much of its history. The government hatched deals with paramilitary groups in the mid-2000s and with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) rebels in 2016.

“It’s an opportunity,” said Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis. “The Gulf Clan has already shown its capacity to cripple 11 departments of Colombia. And the ELN believe this is an opportunity to negotiate with a more favorable government on the left.”

But many Colombians fear the talks could only deepen ongoing conflict in the South American country.

Violence in human rights defender Yirley Velazco’s northern home of Los Montes de María, an area key to illegal gold mining and drug trafficking, has surged in recent years, following the country’s 2016 peace pact with the Farc. Failures by previous governments to fill the power vacuum left by the rebels have triggered violent power grabs by other groups including the ELN and the Gulf Clan.

Velazco has fled her home and now travels with an armed government bodyguard after receiving hundreds of death threats from the Gulf Clan.

“This wave of violence has grown massively,” Velazco said. “You never know what can happen to you.”

The leader said she hoped the Petro government would end the violence, but also worries that any new accords could only create a new, more bloody fight for control.

““I’m scared, because if [they’re fighting for power], they’re even more dangerous,” Velazco said.

And while Guzmán said the peace talks would be a step in the right direction, Petro will be hard-pressed to reach an agreement with groups due to political polarization in Colombia and failures by the previous government of Iván Duque to implement the 2016 peace pact.

Petro will have to show he’s not “simply handing over the keys of the castle” to groups wanted for human rights abuses and narco-trafficking, he said.

Meanwhile, fighters considering laying down their weapons will want security and economic reassurances by the government, which Petro may not have the capacity to deliver on.

“It’s not going to be easy,” he said.

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