Colombia Gains Ground against Extortion and Kidnapping
By Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo June 01, 2018The Colombian National Army’s Unified Action Groups for Personal Liberty (GAULA, in Spanish) achieved unprecedented success in the first quarter of 2018. They worked alongside the National Police, prosecutors assigned to fight crimes against personal liberty, and judicial investigators from the Technical Investigation Corps (CTI, in Spanish) on joint and interagency operations that resulted in the arrest of 287 extortionists and 71 kidnappers in the country’s 32 departments, between January 1 and April 19, 2018.
“Thanks to citizens’ crime reports, joint and interinstitutional efforts, and the swift response of the Army’s GAULA personnel, $1.3 million were kept out of the hands of gangs dedicated to kidnapping and extortion this year . These threats and crimes are no longer the work of large organizations or armed networks, but that of ordinary criminals,” Army Colonel Samuel Salinas Valencia, commander of the military GAULA, told Diálogo. “There was a notable downturn in crime compared to 2017, with a drop of more than 76 percent.”
Between 2014 and 2018, military operations led to the arrest of 5,176 extortionists and kidnappers. “This is a major achievement on behalf of the authorities, the Attorney General’s Office, and GAULA,” said Col. Salinas. “The regions most impacted by kidnapping are Arauca, Chocó, Norte de Santander, and Valle del Cauca, especially border areas. Extortion is most prevalent in the central region of the country, [Antioquia, Medellín, and Cundinamarca].”
Created in 1996, GAULA comprises elite groups of military and police personnel qualified to rescue victims of kidnapping and dismantle mafias. Colombia has 26 Army GAULA, four Navy GAULA, 20 Police GAULA, and two elite groups under the Armed Forces assigned to complex cases.
Colombian authorities stepped up their security efforts to eradicate crimes against personal liberty. In a press release, the General Command of the Colombian Military Forces (CGFM, in Spanish) stated that, from April 3rd–7th, 1,000 GAULA members, 80 CTI investigators, and 20 prosecutors deployed as part of Operation Aurora, a national offensive aimed at countering criminal networks dedicated to extortion and kidnapping. Service members arrested 281 alleged extortionists in 26 Colombian departments linked to various investigations.
The operation dealt a blow to 38 criminal gangs. According to CGFM, the organized armed groups Clan del Golfo and Los Puntilleros, as well as ordinary criminal gangs Los del Chispero and Altavista in Antioquia; La María and Los Ingeniero in Valle del Cauca; Los Perturbadores in Caldas; Los del Sur in Magdalena Medio; and Los Brasilia in Cundinamarca, were among the most affected.
The successful crackdown on gangs was the result of four key components: interagency collaboration, criminal investigations, cooperation from citizens with crime tip-offs and other information gathered via the nationwide toll-free line 147, and prevention. “The secret is criminal investigation, which gives us insight into the phenomenon and allows us to capture all these outlaws,” said Col. Salinas. “The community is grateful because crime rates drop immediately. The sense of security increases, and you can see the difference it makes for people.”
In addition to dedicating much of their time gathering data to plan operations and respond to the frequent crimes citizens report, GAULA disseminates information on how to prevent and face those crimes. “Our personnel hand out flyers to people with tips to help them avoid being the target of criminals. We go door to door. People get to know us, and they give us information related to instances of kidnapping or extortion in particular towns or areas. Our success would not be possible without prevention,” said Col. Salinas.
“Officers are trained to take down entire gangs that threaten personal liberty,” First Lieutenant Camilo Andrés Coronado, a member of the Army GAULA, told Diálogo. “We operate in strict accordance with the law, regulations, and human rights principles. We also have all the equipment and energy needed to capture them and free victims.”
“The Army’s elite anti-kidnapping units undergo continuous training to improve their effectiveness against kidnapping gangs. We specialize in urban and rural combat, weapons handling with an emphasis on small arms and nonlethal weapons, prevention, and judicial procedures. Over the remainder of 2018, 28 GAULA officers will be trained in intelligence analysis and transnational and medical assistance operations in the United States,” said 1st Lt. Coronado.