Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said the regional chief of the Los Rastrojos drug gang was captured Thursday in connection with the massacre earlier this month of 10 farmworkers in northwestern Colombia.

Oscar Dario Barrientos, 27, was arrested along with two of his associates in a rural area of Santa Rosa de Osos, the municipality where the massacre was carried out on Nov. 7.

"This individual was the head of that criminal structure that went and killed these 10 peasants, and directly participated in this massacre," Pinzon said in a press conference in Bogota.

The victims, including a woman, were fruit-pickers at a tamarillo farm who were killed after the owner refused to pay protection money, according to investigators.

In the same press conference, Pinzon announced that the local head of Los Rastrojos in the northwestern town of Segovia, Ever Renteria Leudo, was killed in clashes with security forces. He said six other members of the group also were captured.

Los Rastrojos is one of several heavily armed drug-trafficking gangs that emerged following the ostensible demobilization of the AUC militia federation in 2006.

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 last year 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 had 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 linked to more than 20,000 murders. EFE