A woman walks by a blood-covered patio at the farmhouse in Santa Rosa de Osos,… (Luis Benavides, Associated…)
BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombian authorities launched an intensive manhunt for members of a drug-trafficking gang suspected in the massacre of 10 peasants in the northern state of Antioquia, apparently for not paying extortion money.
The killings occurred Wednesday night at a farm in Santa Rosa de Osos township, about 175 miles north of the capital, Bogota. Antioquia Gov. Sergio Fajardo said on his website that the farmworkers, nine men and a woman, were killed by a grenade thrown by gang members who have been fighting over a nearby drug-trafficking corridor. Other reports said the victims were shot as well.
"What we know is that those responsible were criminal gang members who use extortion and drugs as part of their criminal enterprise," Fajardo said, and the victims worked for a farm owner who apparently had not paid the gang vacunas, or vaccinations, as extortion payments are called here.
Police said that gang members had ordered the workers to pay, and that when the peasants said they didn't know anything about it, they were slain.
Authorities said they suspect the Rastrojos gang, which is locked in a war with the Urabenos gang for control of the northern river valleys leading to the Caribbean. The river valleys serve as transit routes for drugs produced in isolated rural areas.
Police say they believe the Rastrojos, or "Scraps," number in the hundreds along Colombia's Pacific coast and the border with Venezuela.
The massacre is believed to be the worst in Colombia since February 2009 when suspected FARC rebels killed scores of indigenous people from the Awa community in the southwestern state of Narino in two incidents in a single week. The rebels belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia killed the victims in retaliation for alleged collaboration with the army, authorities said at the time.
Police have been cracking down on the Rastrojos gang. On Monday, they arrested Carlos Mario Agudelo Giraldo, alias Papi, who was thought to control the gang's heroin trade as well as much of the gang's money laundering. Several other leaders were captured last week.
The Rastrojos are one of half a dozen gangs that control the bulk of the country's cocaine and heroin traffic. Many of the gangs were formed by demobilized paramilitary groups that later formed alliances with leftist rebel groups, including FARC, to control the cultivation of coca leaves, the production of cocaine and the transportation of the drugs to North American markets.
U.S. officials have described widespread extortion and protection rackets as Colombia's biggest law enforcement challenge after drug trafficking. The Antioquia public advocate's office has indicated that extortion by criminal enterprises is a growing menace that affects increasing numbers of bus owners, miners, store owners, farmers and other businesses.
"Extortion continues to be the tool of choice of the mafias, an instrument of fear and submission," Fajardo said on his website. "We are sad for the families and are with them in their tragedy."
Kraul is a special correspondent.