Security in Colombia’s Caribbean under scrutiny after murder of Paraguayan prosecutor

Marcelo Pecci and Claudia Aguilera in Barú. Personal archive.

The murder of Paraguay’s chief prosecutor and anti-crime boss Marcelo Pecci on Tuesday morning, as he sat on a private beach next to his wife Claudia Aguilera, enjoying their honeymoon retreat on the peninsula of Barú, has cast a long shadow over security on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

The murder that took place in broad daylight was executed by two attackers who hired a jetski and disembarked on the beach in front of other vacationers staying at the all-inclusive Decameron hotel. Claudia had told Marcelo on the same day of his death that he would become a father, and posted a photo on social media of the couple holding hands with a pair of tiny red baby shoes, stating: “The best wedding gift is the approaching life that is a testimony to the sweetest love.”

Aguilera, a well-known Paraguayan journalist and television presenter, was not injured in the attack, and told authorities that her husband had no knowledge of threats against his life, despite his work as a specialized prosecutor against organized crime, drug trafficking, money laundering and terrorism financing in Paraguay.

The couple were married on April 30 in Asunción.

“There was no threat, we only came to spend the holidays, we walked without a guard, there was no risk of revenge, we had no risk, that’s why we were at the hotel,” said Aguilar to the press. The Barú peninsula is a popular destination for tourists visiting Cartagena, and accessible by a 45-minute boat ride from the city’s port. The peninsula is connected to Cartagena, but the overland route is not as scenic and longer for tourists given traffic delays at the bridge of Pasacaballos.

Paraguay’s Attorney General, Sandra Quiñónez, told the Colombian broadcaster Blu Radio that investigators are studying the hypothesis of whether Pecci, who “managed his entire security system himself,” would have been followed from Asunción to Cartagena. The 45-year-old victim had dealt with high-profile cases such as the arrest for passport falsification of former Brazilian soccer player Ronaldinho, and targeted assassination in January of model and influencer Cristina ‘Vita’ Aranda while attending the Ja’umina music festival in the Paraguayan town of San Bernardino.

Within hours of the killing, Colombia’s police chief General Jorge Luis Vargas assumed control of the investigation and offered a reward of COP$2.000 million pesos (US$550,000) for information leading to capture of the attackers. An official police circular depicts one of the alleged murderers as a dark-skinned man wearing a black T-shirt and Panama hat that partly conceals his identity. General Vargas had no knowledge that Pecci was in Colombia until news of his death, and remarked that “given his status, he was one of the most protected men in Paraguay.”

Defence Minister Diego Molano confirmed that a “high command” criminal investigation unit has been dispatched to Cartagena to work on the case with Paraguayan and U.S officials. President Iván Duque called his Paraguayan counterpart, Mario Abdo Benítez, to express condolences on behalf of the government and offered “all cooperation to capture those responsible.” President Benítez, also condemned the attack, stating on Twitter that “the cowardly murder of prosecutor Marcelo Pecci in Colombia mourns the entire Paraguayan nation. We condemn this tragic event in the strongest terms and redouble our commitment to fight against organized crime.

Pecci’s assassination occurred 24-hours after Colombia’s most violent drugs cartel, the Gulf Clan, ended a four-day “armed strike” in retaliation to the extradition of cartel boss David Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel”. Otoniel was extradited last Tuesday to the maximum security prison in the U.S and faces 122 drug-trafficking related charges, including murder and kidnapping. Otoniel pleaded “not guilty” before a judge of the East District Court of New York.

The four-day armed strike resulted in more than 137 buses, trucks and private vehicles set on fire by the members of the Gulf Clan, and a criminal organization that also goes by the name Los Urabeños or Autodefensas Gaitanistas. The actions of the 1,800-strong paramilitary group crippled local transportation, and resulted in food shortages along the Colombian coast. The Gulf Clan controls up to 60% of Colombia’s total cocaine exports. As investigators look for a connection between trans-national crime syndicates and motive for killing Pecci, during the first four months of this year, Cartagena registered 120 murders, the majority perpetrated by motorized assassins.