Colombia’s largest criminal group said on Tuesday it had accepted President Gustavo Petro’s offer to begin peace negotiations, but the next steps in the talks were not immediately clear.

The Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia – called the Gulf Clan by the Colombian government – have been described by analysts as a threat to Petro’s ongoing efforts to negotiate peace deals with the country’s remaining rebel groups.

Petro said Monday night he was willing to start peace negotiations with the group if it “dares” to get out of the drug trade, stop taxing local businesses and stop profiting from the transit of migrants to the United States.

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The group responded to X with a statement on Tuesday saying it had accepted the president’s invitation to begin negotiations. It denied being involved in migrant smuggling.

The Gulf clan was founded by former members of right-wing paramilitary groups who demobilized in the early 2000s. It has been described as an apolitical group that increasingly controls communities where it administers justice, taxes local businesses and employs youth.

The group has an estimated 9,000 fighters and earns more than $4 billion a year from its illegal activities, according to a report released Tuesday by the International Crisis Group. This makes it the richest armed group in Colombia.

Gustavo Petro

Colombian President Gustavo Petro attends a news conference with U.N. Security Council members after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Bogota, Colombia, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara, File)

“The armed groups negotiating today (with the government) are not under military pressure from the state, but from the Gulf clan,” Elizabeth Dickinson, the report’s author, told The Associated Press. “Hovering over all ongoing negotiation processes is the threat that laying down arms … will result in the handover of illegal economies, territories and communities” to the group.

Dickinson said starting negotiations with the Gulf clan was crucial to the government’s efforts to pacify rural areas of Colombia.

But talks with the Gulf clan have been hampered by laws that limit the government’s ability to negotiate with criminal groups believed to have no ideological motivations.

Colombia’s “total peace” law, created in the early days of the Petro government, designated the Gulf clan as a criminal group rather than an insurgent group.

While a 2023 ruling by Colombia’s Constitutional Court says the government can begin talks with criminal groups, it is not allowed to offer them specific conditions for disarmament.

Instead, the Gulf clan would have to negotiate its disarmament with the Colombian attorney general.

On Monday, Petro said he had asked the attorney general to work out conditions under which Gulf clan members could collectively lay down their arms.

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“If they were born here, they have the right, like any other citizen, to discuss what they want for the future of their territory,” Petro said during a town hall meeting in Apartado, a town where the Gulf clan is said to be staying active.

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