Colombian authorities arrested 18 suspected members of the Los Urabeños criminal gang who are accused in connection with 17 murders, tracking them down in three separate parts of the country, the National Police said Saturday.

The operations were carried out in the southwestern city of Cali, the northern city of Monteria and the Caribbean island province of San Andres, National Police director Gen. Jose Roberto Leon Riaño told reporters.

He said that thanks to intelligence work the suspects - including two women - were identified as members of the armed wing of the Urabeños gang, a so-called paramilitary successor group that emerged following the ostensible demobilization of the AUC militia federation.

Leon said that the suspects are linked to "17 documented crimes," including the killings of "three minors four months ago" in southwestern Colombia.

Bogota daily El Tiempo said the slayings of the minors were part of a drug-related turf battle.

The general said most of the 17 killings occurred in the southwestern province of Valle del Cauca, the northern provinces of Cordoba and Sucre and in San Andres, but he did not indicate in which year they occurred.

Authorities said the detainees took orders from Dairo Antonio Usuga and had previously answered to Juan de Dios Usuga, who was killed in a police operation early this year in the northwestern province of Choco.

Separately, El Tiempo reported Friday that the arrests of top leaders of the Los Rastrojos gang have brought that criminal outfit to the brink of collapse.

The newspaper said at least 300 members of the gang were looking to turn themselves in to authorities.

A report from the Indepaz think tank released in February said the paramilitary successor groups Los Rastrojos, Los Urabeños, Las Aguilas Negras, Los Paisas and ERPAC had a presence in 2011 in 406 municipalities in 31 Colombian provinces.

That means their presence expanded by 147 municipalities compared to 2008, when they were active in 259 of the Andean nation's 1,110 municipalities.

Los Rastrojos have a presence in 23 provinces, Los Urabeños in 18, Las Aguilas Negras in 23, Los Paisas in 14 and ERPAC in 14, according to the study.

More than 31,000 AUC fighters laid down their arms between the end of 2003 and mid-2006 as part of a peace process with former President Alvaro Uribe's administration.

The AUC, which arose in the mid-1980s to protect landowners and businesses from Marxist rebels but degenerated into a fractious coalition of death squads whose chiefs grew rich from drug trafficking, land grabs and extortion, has been blamed for more than 20,000 deaths. EFE