Mon. Apr 22nd, 2024

ON the dusty streets of Barrancas, a boy rides past a painted mural of Liverpool ace Luis Diaz that reads “Barrancan Pride”.

The street art represents a rare symbol of hope in Colombia’s northern desert region of La Guajira, which has been torn apart by a wave of sinister abductions as heartless cartel thugs battle for control.

GettyLuis Diaz comes from the town of Barrancas, in Colombia’s northern state of La Guajira[/caption]

GettyThe National Liberation Army (ELN) is one of the main cartels that exerts control in the region[/caption]

On Saturday, the shock kidnapping of Diaz’s parents sparked an international manhunt after they were brazenly snatched by gunmen.

The 26-year-old’s mum and dad had stopped at a petrol station in Barrancas, their hometown, when they were ambushed.

Diaz’s mum, Cilenis Marulanda, was rescued the same day, but her husband is yet to be found, with Colombian authorities offering a reward of up to £40,000 for information.

The sickening incident has shone a light on the crime wave gripping La Guajira, whose idyllic, sun-kissed beaches have been turned into a deadly gateway for drugs and trafficking.

Warring cartels run a virtually lawless state through gut-wrenching violence and warped Taliban-like rules, which uphold strict curfews and punishments for ‘anti-social’ citizens.

Elizabeth Dickinson, an expert on Colombia’s organised crime scene, tells The Sun: “La Guajira is living a silent nightmare.”

The senior analyst at International Crisis Group, who is based in the country’s capital, Bogota, adds: “It’s a region where fear is used as the main instrument of control.

“Armed criminal groups have carried out violent crimes – and left the evidence in plain view – to send a clear signal to the population about the price of non-compliance with their control.”

AlamyLa Guajira boasts stunning beaches but has become a virtually lawless cartel state[/caption]

GettyAbout 3.5 tons of liquid cocaine were seized at a Colombian port in 2022[/caption]

AFPColombia’s National Police offering a reward of 200 million Colombian pesos for Luis Manuel Diaz Jimenez[/caption]

The southwest municipality of Barrancas borders the Venezuelan jungle and is the birthplace of Diaz, who moved to Liverpool last year for an initial fee of £37million.

Sitting at the tip of Colombia with unrestricted access to the Atlantic coastline, the deprived area is a smuggling haven.

The lucrative trafficking corridor see tons of drugs, arms, contraband and people leave its shores illegally every year.

La Guajira – the surrounding ‘department’, or region – is deeply underdeveloped, with blood-stained cartel bosses preying on its impoverished locals.

Dickinson says: “The department consistently suffers from the highest rates of malnutrition in the country, and many areas lack basic services such as potable water and healthcare access.

“This has rendered the area more vulnerable to armed and criminal groups who prey upon the desperation of the population to entrench their control.”

Cartel clash

AFPMembers of the ELN guerrilla group are escorted by cops before extradition to the US[/caption]

AFPThe Colombian cocaine trade is reportedly worth more than £8billion[/caption]

Colombia remains the world’s biggest producer of cocaine, with more than 1,400 metric tons churned out each year.

The global trade is estimated to be worth more than £8billion – causing bloodied rivalries as gangs attempt to seize ultimate control.

It has been reported that for every gram of coke snorted in Britain, someone in Colombia will die.

According to Statista, there were 26 homicides per 100,000 residents last year.

In 2012, Colombia had one of the highest murder rates in the world – sitting at 15,733. That was more than the US, which had 14,827 in the same year, despite its population being seven times bigger.

In La Guajira, there are two main groups behind the latest wave of devastation.

The newest cartel operating in the area is the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), which is a branch of the notorious Clan del Golfo.

Clan del Golfo was until recently run by Dairo Antonio Usuga David, also known as Otoniel – considered one of the world’s most dangerous men.

It allegedly has around 4,000 members spread across 12 of Colombia’s 32 regions. The fighters have been accused of murdering cops, sexually abusing children and recruiting minors as foot-soldiers.

A recent documentary also revealed how Otoniel’s men chopped off the limbs and heads of innocent villagers suspected of supporting rival organisations.

Villager Viviana told the film: “They took my father. They killed them with chainsaws. A man had his head cut off, they say they played soccer with it.”

Their main rivals are said to be the Luciano Ariza and 6 de Diciembre fronts of the National Liberation Army, also known as the ELN.

The ELN is a bilateral guerrilla movement, which largely controls the Venezuelan and Colombian border. It has about 2,000 fighters and is considered a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union.

Forming in 1964, the insurgency group is more structured and carries out military style assaults, assassinations, extortion operations and hostage takings.

Their leaders usually target the government but have been known to wipe out rural areas – using a mix of small arms, machine guns, mines and IEDS.

In 2019, the ELN notoriously killed 21 police cadets with a car bomb outside a station in Bogota.

Extortion, laws & curfews

EPADairo Antonio Usuga David, former leader of the Clan del Golfo, was captured in 2021[/caption]

Clan del Golfo make millions off their illegal ventures including extortion and drugs

But as these groups clash in the north, innocent villagers are getting caught in the cross-fire.

Dickinson says: “The AGC are making a push into La Guajira, which has until now been dominated by the ELN – particularly along the border.

“They are seeking to consolidate its corridor for trafficking along the Atlantic coast, as well as to engage in lucrative extortion and protection rackets.

“Increasingly, the groups use social control as a means to dominate territory.

“Extortion is one example; everyone from a small businessperson to a large landowner will be asked to pay a fee to the group.

“Other examples include curfews, setting rules on commerce, and penalising allegedly socially deviant behaviour.

“Then there are the violent punishments for those who fail to comply with these and other rules.”

Kidnapping incidents soar

AFPA bus burnt to ashes by members of the Clan del Golfo drug cartel in northern Colombia[/caption]

.Foot-soldiers of the Clan Del Golfo gearing up before an attack[/caption]

GettyAn aerial view of the Perija mountain range[/caption]

Neither cartel has claimed responsibility for the high-profile kidnapping case of Diaz’s parents, which has been condemned by Colombia President Gustavo Petro.

Yet with Diaz earning roughly £3million a year, experts believe the wealth subsequently accrued by his family could make them a target for ransom payments.

Dickinson said it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

She added: “By the time the Colombian state signed a peace accord with the former FARC rebels, kidnapping nearly disappeared.

“But in recent years that trend has reversed.

“In 2022 and 2023, we have seen the highest levels in nearly a decade.

“This is a crime that carries enormous political weight in Colombia, because of its deep relationship with decades of conflict.”

FARC – known in Spanish as ‘Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia’ – were arguably one of the most notable guerrilla forces in the world.

Forming in the 1960’s, the Marxist-Leninist leaning rebels fought bloody wars against the Colombian Government up until signing the 2016 Peace Accord and downing their weapons for good.

Its fighters set the precedent for bombings, assassinations, hijackings and ruthless armed attacks against political and economic targets.

The rest of South America would soon follow suit, boasting a grim track record of elite athletes being targeted.

The first notorious case was in 1994, when the father of Brazilian star Romario was kidnapped.

At the time, Romario was considered the best player in the world. He used his stardom to appeal to the public and eventually his dad was released.

Almost a decade later, Argentine brothers Diego and Gabriel Milito had to deal with the kidnapping of their father in 2002.

The players had to fork out cash to pay the ransom for his release.

And in 2004, Manchester City striker Robinho’s mother was also taken.

In response to the latest horror, the Colombia football federation issued a statement to the captors.

It read: “We ask the captors of Luis Manuel Diaz, father of Luis F. Diaz, to release him immediately, without conditions.

“Football is peace. Luis, we are with you. Colombia is with you.”

Luis Manuel Diaz Jimenez, pictured, and his wife Clienis Marulanada were kidnapped on Saturday

AFPLiverpool FC midfielder Luis Diaz is a local hero in the region[/caption]

AFPColombian jungle commandos have been deployed in the Perija mountain range[/caption]

AFPSoldiers guard a truck that was ambushed by Clan del Golfo thugs last year[/caption]

ReutersPiles of cash seized in Italy, believed to be tied to the Colombian cocaine trade[/caption]

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