Urabeños News

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

  Life of a Sicario Anatomy of a Hit   The BACRIM's control over territories such as the north Colombian region of Bajo Cauca comes at the point of a gun, and death is a constant price of their power. In rural sectors, uniformed BACRIM armed with assault rifles still patrol in units that are a throwback to their paramilitary origins. But in the urban centers, their capacity for violence lies with their more hidden networks of "sicarios," or hitmen. Life of a Sicario The sicario is one of the more specialized roles amongst the ranks of...

Urabeños Profile

Urabeños

Urabeños

The Urabeños -- also known as Clan Usuga -- are one of the most ambitious, ruthless and aggressively expansionist of Colombia's drug trafficking organizations. One of a number of groups made up of former mid-level paramilitary leaders, they are one of the last Colombian criminal groups with a truly national presence.

More Urabeños News

  • InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

     

    The BACRIM's control over territories such as the north Colombian region of Bajo Cauca comes at the point of a gun, and death is a constant price of their power.

    In rural sectors, uniformed BACRIM armed with assault rifles still patrol in units that are a throwback to their paramilitary origins. But in the urban centers, their capacity for violence lies with their more hidden networks of "sicarios," or hitmen.

    Life of a Sicario

    The sicario is one of the more specialized roles amongst the ranks of the BACRIM. Their only job is to kill or to torture when called upon. In Bajo Cauca, they are paid a wage of between 1.5 million and 3 million pesos (approximately $500 - $1,000) each month depending on how highly their skills are valued, and earn a bonus for each successful hit, which is usually 200,000 to 300,000 pesos (approximately $70 - $105). In special cases, these payouts can rise well into the millions.

    Freelance sicarios -- those who are not on the Urabeños' books -- usually earn much more than their salaried counterparts, though it depends on the target. There are several high profile freelancers operating across Bajo Cauca, who BACRIM commanders usually bring in when their own ranks cannot be trusted, do not have the skills or do not posess the resources.

    Most sicarios are recruited as teenagers. Local members of the BACRIM network will identify troubled or vulnerable children, often those with money or familial problems, and approach them with an offer of easy cash.

    Fifteen-year-old "Juan," who did not want to use his real name, says he was offered 100,000 pesos (approximately $35) to kill someone when he was 13.

    "They knew I was desperate and looking for work. I said no at first, but they followed me for a few days and eventually I agreed," he explained.

    "There are moments when you feel good because there is money, drugs, women and power" - 'Manuel'

     The murder was Juan's initiation into the BACRIM. He now lives with eight other young recruits in a house provided by the Urabeños. The small dilapidated shack has only two rooms and a piece of corrugated iron replaces the front door.

    "I don't know who I killed or why, but I don't care," said Juan. "It's easier if you don't know anything about the target."

    Such cold indifference is not unusual. The sicario is very rarely told who they are going to kill or why.

    "Tomy," who also preferred to provide a false name, is 18 and also lives in the house. He is a "campanero" or lookout.

    "I was homeless. They said they could give me somewhere to live," he said. "They gave me a phone and told me to keep an eye on everyone."

    InSide BACRIM shack 1

    A home in the Caucasia slum known as "the Camel"

    Campaneros, also known as "puntos," patrol their zone, looking for unfamiliar faces or strange activity and reporting anything unusual to their commander on a phone provided by the unit leaders. The campaneros also play a key role in gathering intelligence for assassinations.

    "If you want to kill someone or need information on them, it's easy, you go to the authorities" - 'Fredy'

    Those who start further down the chain as campaneros or "extorsionistas" -- extortionists -- know they are usually on a career path to murder. Eventually, the day comes when the commanders decide to test their mettle, often by simply pressing a gun into their hands and giving them a target to kill. Training, if offered at all, usually involves an afternoon of basic weapons handling and target practice with a BACRIM veteran.

    "I know that one day I will be asked to kill someone. But I am ready for that," Tomy said.

    Among the ranks of the BACRIM, the sicarios are viewed with a mix of respect and fear; they are tough but also crazy. However, the toll on them is often high. Some struggle with substance abuse, even taking drugs to prepare for a hit, and are haunted by the faces of those they kill. Others display little remorse for what they have done. But between the weight of their actions, the pressures of the law and the organization and the pull between social power and isolation, it is often a short and disturbing career.

    Anatomy of a Hit

    The BACRIM sicarios do not operate alone but are part of a team, each member of which has their own functions and responsibilities. Until recently, the Caucasia murder network comprised of more than 25 people, but many of them were recently detained in a police roundup.  

    The first stage of any hit is to gather intelligence on the target. While the campaneros usually perform this task, in the case of high profile or well-protected targets, it may also involve obtaining high level information from contacts in the security forces, local institutions or businesses.

    The sicarios are only armed for the duration of the hit, so their first task is to meet with the "guarda armas," or weapons person. In Caucasia, there are two .38 caliber pistols and a 9 mm revolver at the sicarios' disposal. There are two women who act as the guarda armas. They keep the weapons hidden, but ensure there is easy and quick access at all times.

    On the day of the hit, the campanero will often coordinate the action, informing the "piloto" -- the getaway driver -- where to meet the guarda armas and then where to find the target.

    The murders themselves often take place in public with little regard for who may be watching. Sicarios know most witnesses are too scared to talk. A lack of police, an easy escape for the sicario and no escape for the victim are their main concerns. The piloto will take the sicario near enough to the scene to identify the target, then wait with their motorbike engine running. The sicario will take the victim down with preliminary shots then, if there is the opportunity, finish them aiming at the head before re-joining the piloto and making their escape.

    Caucasia-murder-network 1

    There are numerous ways someone may find themselves a target of the BACRIM. Their territorial and criminal monopoly must be maintained by brutally policing the slightest of challenges to their authority.

    Any unauthorized drug sales, even at the lowest levels of street dealing, can result in a death sentence. Any member of the BACRIM caught stealing or running sideline activities such as using the Urabeños' name to run their own extortion rings is similarly punished by death. Any business owner that defies their extortion demands or other criminal operations will also find themselves a target.

    Also key to maintaining control is the policing of "sapos," or snitches. Informants, whether members of the organization, rivals or civilians, represent a serious risk to both the BACRIM members themselves and their economic interests.

    People who are a thorn in the BACRIM's side, such as crusading journalists and politicians, or incorruptible police and judges, also often end up on death lists. As such figures are often well-protected and their removal is not always a matter of urgency, commanders will put a bounty on their head, which any sicario from inside or outside the organization can collect.

    The BACRIM also carry out "social cleansing" campaigns informed by a combination of their warped moral and religious code and a desire to assert their authority and intimidate the population.

    InSide BACRIM Tyson 1

    The arrest of alleged Caucasia Sicario alias "Taison"

    Rapists and thieves -- aside from the BACRIM crews that steal motorbikes to use in hits and resell -- face an instant death penalty. Drug addicts -- despite being the BACRIM's own customers -- are often murdered, and the LGBT community is routinely threatened, although there have not been murders proven to be directly related to social cleansing of members of the LGBT community in recent years.

    In several communities across Bajo Cauca, citizens report how the BACRIM also act as de facto judge and jury in family or neighborly disputes. The commanders hand down sentences, but the sicarios do the work. Other civilians are killed in personal revenge attacks for having crossed a BACRIM member, or their family or friends.

    However, the BACRIM's victims are not only those who offend the organization. They also provide sicario services to anyone with the right connections and money. 

    Among their clients are politicians and prominent members of the region's social and economic elites as well as more common citizens who move in the right circles. Many have access to sicario services through the voluntary protection payments they make to the BACRIM, while others may make contact to place a bounty on the head of a rival or someone threatening their political or business interests. Yet more seek out the BACRIM's services for crimes of passion, often to pay a hitman to take revenge on the lover of their unfaithful wife.

    *Reported by James Bargent and Mat Charles. Filmed and edited by Mat Charles. Additional filming by Sven Wolters.

  • InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

     

    The BACRIM in places like the region of Bajo Cauca are a typical manifestation of Colombia's underworld today: a semi-autonomous local cell that is part of a powerful national network.

    The BACRIM's roots lie in the demobilized paramilitary umbrella group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC). The AUC swept across Colombia in the late 1990s and early 2000s in a blood-soaked campaign to drive out guerrilla groups and their alleged sympathizers, to seize land and to grab control of criminal economies. As happened throughout the country after the AUC disbanded, many of Bajo Cauca's paramilitaries did not rejoin civilian life but instead criminalized. They have since evolved into paramilitary-criminal hybrid networks with new structures, modus operandi and relations with other armed actors.

    The Bajo Cauca Franchise

    Bajo Cauca -- a region in the northern part of the department of Antioquia consisting of six municipalities -- is territory held by the Urabeños, the last remaining BACRIM with a truly national reach. The Urabeños are quite simply the most powerful criminal organization in Colombia today. However, as is often the case in the Urabeños partially decentralized network, the relationship between the Urabeños' national leadership and the local BACRIM is complex. Some cells are closely controlled by the central command, but others operate autonomously.

    The BACRIM cells that control the east of Bajo Cauca are "pure" Urabeños. They are directed by the Urabeños national command, who provide them with leaders and manpower from outside the region. According to military sources, the standard structure for such cells is a commander, or "Primero," who is supported by his finance chief, or "Segundo," and military chief, the "Tercero." Below them are five more chiefs, responsible for logistics, recruitment, intelligence and assassin networks, ideology, and community relations.

    BACRIM-Power-Structure 1

    However, the rest of the region is the domain of a different network with a long history in Bajo Cauca, and which, for the moment, maintains a level of autonomy from the Urabeños commanders. For the network's older members at least, they are not true Urabeños but the "Chepes."

    Rafael Alvarez Piñeda, alias "Chepe," is a former mid-level AUC commander and founding member of the Paisas, the first BACRIM to take form in Bajo Cauca. In the war for Bajo Cauca that raged between 2008 and 2012, the Paisas split into rival factions. Chepe's faction formed an alliance with the Urabeños while a rival faction joined with the Urabeños' chief rival, the Rastrojos.

    "There is going to be a war because of the criminal gangs, between themselves and with the guerrillas" - 'El Soldado'

    In 2012, the Rastrojos ceded Bajo Cauca to the Urabeños as part of a deal cut by the national leaders of both sides. The lower levels of the Rastrojos-Paisas were assimilated into the Urabeños backed Chepes, while the upper levels fled or were exterminated. Chepe himself was captured in 2013, but the network he formed continues to hold the territory on behalf of the Urabeños.

    The coopting of local BACRIM cells such as the Chepes into the Urabeños' franchise has helped the Urabeños spread their influence into key criminal territories across Colombia. It is a model that is mutually beneficial, with money and power flowing in both directions.

    The Chepes offer the Urabeños an armed presence along the drug routes and production zones of Bajo Cauca, and in return they receive the power and protection that comes with having a powerful national backer that can provide arms and reinforcements. The Chepes are paid for escorting drugs through the region and can run local criminal economies as a monopoly, but in return they route a monthly tax to the Urabeños through banks and businesses in the city of Medellín.

    InSide BACRIM arrests 1

    A lineup of those captured in a December 2016 anti-BACRIM police raid

    However, there are signs of growing tensions between the Chepes and the Urabeños after recent police operations have left the cell in disarray and a spate of murders has been blamed on a new turf war. Before his arrest in Medellin in March, Chepes commander, José Horacio Osorio Bello, alias 6-7, sold part of the Bajo Cauca franchise to the Medellín-based criminal group Los Triana without the permission or knowledge of the Urabeños, accorrding to sources from within both the BACRIM and the security forces. 

    BACRIM-Land

    In urban centers such as Bajo Cauca's de facto capital Caucasia, the BACRIM are a shadowy presence visible only to those who know. Their hitmen ride as motorcycle passengers. Their extortionists look like customers. Their lookouts are neighbourhood kids and their finance networks are local businesses.

    "People there live with fear, fear of death, fear of torture" - 'Manuel'

    However, in the lawless backwaters they have inherited from their paramilitary predecessors as territorial strongholds, the BACRIM wield power far more openly, and it is from these rural communities that they direct their criminal networks. With no state presence, the hundreds of residents living in these villages instead abide by the rules of the BACRIM.

    In Bajo Cauca, the BACRIM's strength lies above all in two sprawling rural districts in the municipality of Caceres that were once fiefdoms of some of the most powerful paramilitary warlords in Bajo Cauca: Piamonte and Guarumo.

    Piamonte was once a bastion of one of the AUC's most feared warlords, Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias "Macaco," and is now the Bajo Cauca BACRIM's strategic base. Piamonte's populated area is divided into sectors: one for the general population and one for BACRIM members. The population is at the mercy of the BACRIM, but there is little difference in the standards of living, with the BACRIM inhabiting the same basic rudimentary houses, only with more security features.

    Many of the BACRIM living in Piamonte do so as it is one of the safest places to avoid arrest warrants. Access to their sector is only by ferry and the short river crossing is heavily guarded with several armed "campaneros" -- lookouts -- monitoring those who come and go.

    InSide BACRIM Piamonte 1

    Motorbikes board the ferry departing Piamonte

    The only routes the police can take if they want to raid Piamonte are also closely guarded, with campaneros monitoring the road leaving Caucasia to the south and BACRIM sentries lining the banks of the river on either side of the town.

    Beyond the urban center, there is Piamonte's rural area, which is patrolled by units that guard the BACRIM's coca crops, cocaine processing labs, illegal gold mines, and hidden caches of heavy weaponry.

    Not far from Piamonte is Guarumo, another district that has become where the region's major local commanders live or use as a refuge.

    The commanders in Guarumo are attended by squads of bodyguards who keep a close watch on all movement into and out of the area, and maintain a permanent presence along the one road into town. As one of the most secure locations in the region, Guarumo is also used as the site for top level meetings, and for the weekly BACRIM parties and cockfights.

    The isolated islands of La Amargua and La Plantera, which are a short ferry ride from both Piamonte and Guarumo, are where the cell's top commanders reportedly live. These islands also provide cover for the BACRIM's torture camps. According to both locals and BACRIM sources, the islands have become mass graves.

    Both Piamonte and Guarumo are considered more prestigious turf for commanders than any others in the cell's zone of influence, as they are usually handed to those close to the commander. For the residents, each of which must personally pay the BACRIM their "tax," these commanders are the law.

    Armed Power Dynamics

    The BACRIM are not the only armed actors with a stake in Bajo Cauca. They must also deal with rivals and partners from both the legal world and the underworld in the form of the police and Marxist guerrilla groups, balancing relationships with both by maneuvering power and money. This delicate dynamic is now set to be disrupted by the ongoing demobilization of the most powerful guerrilla group in Bajo Cauca and Colombia as a whole -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).

    Corruption of the security forces, in particular the police, plays a key role in the BACRIM’s operations. The BACRIM say corrupt officers receive monthly payments in return for information. Tip-offs enable them to prepare for police or military operations and ensure drug shipments move through the zone unhindered.

    The BACRIM's intelligence networks penetrate every level of command from the street level patrolmen to, they claim, the regional police commanders. A senior army source, who preferred to remain anonymous, admitted that corruption stifles military operations in Bajo Cauca.

    "We know there are people on the inside who work for them. They warn them we're coming. It happens every time," the source said.

    Still, he did not give any specific examples.

    Tension between the police and the military is common in Bajo Cauca. They share responsibility for the region's security under the multi-agency network known as "Operación Corazón Colombia," or "Operation Colombian Heart."

    "Let's just say there are those who are driven by their own interests and not the interests of peace," said the army source.

    Corrupt officials not only ensure the safe passage of contraband, but also allegedly supply the BACRIM with weapons.

    In the AUC years, the paramilitaries of Bajo Cauca waged a bitter and brutal war against the FARC and the smaller guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). However, old hatreds have given way to new business relationships, and until recently the FARC and the Urabeños had an agreement. 

    Under the terms the agreement between the BACRIM and the FARC, each side would stick to their territories and the economic interests within. The guerrillas, whose territory covered most of the lands used for coca cultivation, would buy coca paste -- the precursor gummy paste that is the first part of transforming the plant into cocaine -- from the farmers and sell it to the BACRIM. If they wanted to move their own paste through BACRIM territory to another zone, they would pay a transport fee.

    However, with the FARC as a national organization now handing in its arms and preparing to rejoin civilian life, the Bajo Cauca underworld is reorganizing, and the new conflicts and cycles of violence are already taking shape. (See coverage of FARC-government peace process here)

    Violence linked to the peace process was already a reality before the signing of the final agreement in late 2016. During the last years of the negotiations between the government and the FARC, the Urabeños confronted an alliance of FARC and ELN guerrillas in the municipalities of Zaragoza and El Bagre, and the ELN in Cáceres. Since the FARC demobilization began, splinter elements are believed to be working with the new BACRIM alliance between a faction of los Chepes and Los Triana in Tarazá and Cáceres. 

    The demobilization is also affecting the drug trade. To the north in Nechí, coca growers report that the FARC have already disappeared and the BACRIM have begun purchasing the paste directly from the coca farmers themselves.

    "The guy who usually comes turned up with someone new and said we had to pay him from now on," said one farmer. "It was as simple as that. Nothing else has changed. The price has not changed. Just someone new is buying what we make." 

    In El Bagre, a mysterious new figure has emerged, known simply as "Misael." Locals say Misael is employing scores of people to harvest coca leaves on land near Puerto Claver. They say they are paid 12,000 pesos (roughly $4) per "arroba" (about 25 pounds) of coca leaves they pick. This is more than the usual 5,000 pesos (roughly $1.75) paid by other coca farmers.

    *Reported by James Bargent and Mat Charles. Filmed and edited by Mat Charles. Additional filming by Sven Wolters

  • InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Money

     

    Millions of dollars in dirty money circulate constantly around Bajo Cauca, flowing upwards and outwards from a broad range of criminal activities. The BACRIM are the chief regulators and beneficiaries of this shadow economy.

    Unlike their paramilitary and drug cartel predecessors, the BACRIM maintain a diversified portfolio of criminal activities that extends far beyond the transnational cocaine trade. In Bajo Cauca, the criminal economies controlled or exploited by the BACRIM include illegal gold mining and sales, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and above all, drugs and extortion. The huge sums of dirty money these activities generate flow through the region as cash and enter the legal economy through money laundering fronts.

    Drugs

    The top-level drug trade dealings with Mexican cartels and other international cocaine buyers are largely the preserve of the inner circle of BACRIM leaders and the independent drug traffickers they provide services to. Local cells, though, retain a critical role in trafficking drugs from production zones to dispatch points, allowing the Urabeños leaders to move their own product as well as offer a production to dispatch escort for other traffickers. In Bajo Cauca, the BACRIM network is tasked with shepherding coca paste from Bagre, Zaragoza, Tarazá or Segovia to the northern and western coasts of Urabá, a region along the Panamanian border.

    The Bajo Cauca BACRIM use their intelligence networks, armed presence and corrupt contacts to ensure the safe passage of coca paste, a service for which they charge 10 percent of the shipment's value.

    BAJO-CAUCA--DRUG-TRAFF-MAP

     

    The shipments are escorted by a "guía," or guide, who stays with the drugs through the load's journey through Bajo Cauca. This network of guides is coordinated from isolated villages like Cuturú on the banks of the river Nechí, which can only be accessed by the water or by a heavily guarded dirt track off the Caucasia–Zaragoza highway. Both the river Cauca and the river Nechí provide the best cover for the transportation of drugs, though public buses are another common method.

    Although the Bajo Cauca BACRIM are just one link in the chain of transnational drug trafficking, when it come to local drug sales -- microtrafficking -- they control almost the entire supply chain.

    "The microtrafficking money goes directly to the leaders for their luxuries and their parties" - "El Gordo"

    The cell has commonly sourced coca paste from the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), although this is now changing due to the FARC's demobilization. They sell a portion of every shipment as the smokeable coca paste known as "basuco," while the rest they process into powdered cocaine in laboratories their stronghold of Piamonte, an area in the municipality of Cáceres.

    A network of trusted motorbike-taxis then ferries the drugs to towns all over Bajo Cauca. In Caucasia, it arrives at a local distribution center in the neighbourhood known as La Ocho, where the cocaine is cut and portioned out into small plastic bags weighing a gram each. From here, a network of "mules" made up of homeless children and teenagers, who work in exchange for food and a roof over their heads, deliver the drugs to the various plazas around town, each operated by a drug dealing crew. Some of the crews are salaried workers of the BACRIM. Others purchase the BACRIM's drugs and pay a percentage of what they sell as a fee to be allowed to work. The network can expect to move around two kilos of cocaine a week in Caucasia, the profits from which stay within Bajo Cauca.

    Extortion

    Around Colombia, extortion has become the steady, reliable financial mainstay for local BACRIM cells. In Bajo Cauca, 20 percent of their extortion profits are paid to the national command, a tax to be allowed to operate as part of the Urabeños franchise. The rest of the profits funds the cell's operational costs. It is a far-reaching shadow taxation system that is near impossible to escape; in Bajo Cauca everyone must pay what is known in Colombia as "la vacuna," or the vaccination.

    In Bajo Cauca, the BACRIM extortion networks reach every type of business, large and small, legal and illegal. In many cases, the BACRIM extortion units calculate fees based on their own criminal financial analysis, while for others they obtain insider information on production or profits.

    In most small businesses, the vaccination is a percentage of estimated profits based on these calculations. Others, though, lend themselves to different payment schemes: casinos pay per slot machine, transport companies per vehicle and ranchers per head of cattle.

    Big businesses are often not exempt. The BACRIM in Bajo Cauca say even Colombia's biggest supermarket chains such as Éxito and Olímpica must pay, although neither company responded to these allegations. The Caucasia plant of the brewery Bavaria has also been targeted and pays a flat five million a month, according to BACRIM sources -- a claim Bavaria's head office denies.

    InSifde BACRIM seizure

    Arms, phones and money seized during the arrest of BACRIM members

    It is not just businesses that are forced to pay monthly fees; the BACRIM often also target individuals. They start with a simple telephone call to ask for money. Then come the intimidation and threats made in person. Finally, victims are summoned to make payment, usually in a park or a church. Failure to attend the meeting almost always ends in murder. "Fernanda," who did not want to give us her real name for print and works at the hospital in Caucasia, one day received a call demanding 200,000 pesos (roughly $70). "They said they would kill my daughter if I didn't go so what could I do?" she asked.

    "The people who work hard, who don't have money are the ones who are forced to pay" - "El Gordo" 

    The "multa," or fine, is another method the BACRIM use to charge extortion. It is a one-off payment that the groups use to obtain large amounts of cash quickly from those they perceive to be rich. "Jorge," another victim who did not want to give his real name, is a teacher and owns land in Cáceres. One day, BACRIM members arrived at his house, accused him of damaging their mining equipment, and demanded five million pesos (roughly $1,700) in compensation. He was forced to take out a bank loan to cover it, which he says he will be paying back for the next five years. His son had to give up studying medicine because Jorge could no longer afford to pay the tuition as a result.

    "I had to give them the money. We have had to make these sacrifices because they threatened to kill me and my family," he said.

    However, not everyone pays extortion out of fear.

    Those that pay "from their heart" in Bajo Cauca allegedly include major ranchers, bars, delivery firms and miners who work in the formal and informal markets. Bajo Cauca is rich in gold mining, and the BACRIM claim 90 percent of the operations in the region either pay the vaccination voluntarily or have connections to their networks. The miners and their representatives fiercely dispute this and say only a minority pay out of anything but fear.

    InSide BACRIM gold 1

    A "barrequero" or gold panner working in the municipality of Nechi

    Whether it is out of obligation or voluntary, any backhoe operating in BACRIM territory in Bajo Cauca must pay three million (roughly $1,030) a month just to work. Many must also pay a 10 percent cut of the profits every time they process their gold. The BACRIM also run their own mines either through frontmen or, in territorial strongholds such as Piamonte, directly.

    Collecting extortion is a task for the lower ranks of the BACRIM. The "extorsionistas," or extortionists, are often teenagers or in their early twenties. The BACRIM often use women to recruit and lure naïve, young males into their circle for these jobs. 

    The extorsionista does not carry a weapon when collecting the money, but is often trailed by an armed escort ready to step in if necessary. The money is usually deposited in trusted front businesses. In the town of Caucasia, for example, these businesses include a bar and a barber shop. From there a more senior figure, usually the zone's second-in-command, picks up the money, and the sector's takings are counted before the area commander personally takes the money to the Bajo Cauca command in Piamonte.

    Criminal Cash Flows

    Enormous sums of money circulate through Bajo Cauca's underworld, and the BACRIM have both sophisticated and rudimentary forms of handling the cash flows. Much of it is needed to keep the network functioning, while the rest feeds the upper echelons of the underworld, both inside and outside of the region.

    Each sector's money flows are managed by a finance chief, who is usually someone with no criminal record or outstanding warrants. However, the job is something of a poisoned chalice. The temptation to steal -- or the presumption of the temptation to steal -- has seen many Bajo Cauca finance chiefs killed after relatively short stints in the position.

    Most underworld economies are cash-based, and while many of the BACRIM costs, such as salaries and bribes, are made in cash payments, the rest must be moved into the legal economy using networks of front businesses and bank accounts. In Bajo Cauca, part of the cash is deposited into bank accounts in the names of clean members or frontmen, while the rest is laundered through front companies, which include gold traders, leather goods shops, bars and a carpenter's workshop.

    *Reported by James Bargent and Mat Charles. Filmed and edited by Mat Charles. Additional filming by Sven Wolters.

  • Colombia’s New Crop Substitution Plan Facing Old Obstacles: Report

    Colombia's government has set ambitious coca eradication goals

    Colombia's government has declared an ambitious plan to eradicate 100,000 hectares of coca crops by the end of the year, but an analysis of the program so far casts doubts on the ability of the government to prevent illegal armed groups from regenerating the vicious criminal circle.

  • Colombia Finally Gets Serious About Tackling the Urabeños

    Colombia’s Minister of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas and US Ambassador Kevin Whitaker in Necoclí

    The Colombian government has made some discrete changes to its hunt for the country's most wanted criminal, changes that may well tip the scales in what has, for the last two years, been a fruitless search.

  • Colombia's Largest-Ever Manhunt Hasn't Caught Its Top Target. Here's Why.

    Operation Agamemnon has entered its second phase

    Colombia's dense jungle on the Caribbean coast is the heartland of the Urabeños, one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the Americas. This is where its top leaders are hiding, and it is also where the government is rebooting its largest-ever police operation to try, once again, to force them out. But so far the massive effort has failed to achieve its main objective: capturing Colombia's most wanted criminal suspect.

  • Inside Colombia's Multimillion-Dollar Black Market Explosives Trade

    An Indugel explosives seizure

    Colombia's flourishing illegal gold mining business requires explosives, many of which are sourced illicitly. This essential yet overlooked trade has opened the door for powerful criminal bosses to forge a lucrative black market that involves a large cast of characters, including assassins, legal mining companies and even the Colombian army.

  • Economic Development and Organized Crime: The Two Faces of Urabá, Colombia

    The Gulf of Urabá

    The Gulf of Urabá boasts 323 kilometers of porous, thick, and deep coast dominated by the whim of the so-called Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, also known as the Urabeños; today, contraband, cocaine, migrants, as well as heavy machinery moving through the area is giving shape to a deepwater port yearning for government leadership. 

  • Colombia Govt Claims Success Against Urabeños, But Group Remains Strong

    A police vehicle after the alleged attack of the Urabeños

    A recent series of deadly attacks against police in Colombia attributed to the Urabeños hasn't stopped authorities from trumpeting their successes against the criminal group, despite evidence of the Urabeños' persistent strength.

  • Former Pablo Escobar Associate Killed in Medellín, Colombia

    Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellín Cartel

    A former associate of Pablo Escobar was killed in Colombia's second-largest city, leading to speculation that he continued to traffic drugs long after the fall of the Medellín Cartel.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

  The Bajo Cauca Franchise BACRIM-Land Armed Power Dynamics The BACRIM in places like the region of Bajo Cauca are a typical manifestation of Colombia's underworld today: a semi-autonomous local cell that is part of a powerful national network. The BACRIM's roots lie in the demobilized paramilitary umbrella group the United Self-Defense...

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

When someone is murdered in Guatemala, police, forensic doctors and government prosecutors start making their way to the crime scene and a creaky, antiquated 20th century bureaucratic machine kicks into gear. Calls are made. Forms are filled out by hand, or typed into computers, or both. Some...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

Homicides in Guatemala: Conclusions and Recommendations

Homicides in Guatemala: Conclusions and Recommendations

Olfato. It is a term used quite often in law enforcement and judicial circles in Central America (and other parts of the world as well). It refers to the sixth sense they have as they see a crime scene, investigate a murder or plow through the paperwork...

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

In the last decade, homicides in Guatemala have obeyed a fairly steady pattern. Guatemala City and some of its surrounding municipalities have the greatest sheer number of homicides. Other states, particularly along the eastern border have the highest homicide rates. Among these are the departments of Escuintla...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Money

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Money

  Drugs Extortion Criminal Cash Flows Millions of dollars in dirty money circulate constantly around Bajo Cauca, flowing upwards and outwards from a broad range of criminal activities. The BACRIM are the chief regulators and beneficiaries of this shadow economy. Unlike their paramilitary and drug cartel predecessors, the BACRIM maintain a diversified...

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

When violence surged in early 2015 in Guatemala, then-President Otto Pérez Molina knew how to handle the situation: Blame the street gangs. 

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

  Life of a Sicario Anatomy of a Hit   The BACRIM's control over territories such as the north Colombian region of Bajo Cauca comes at the point of a gun, and death is a constant price of their power. In rural sectors, uniformed BACRIM armed with assault rifles still patrol in...

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Following Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, members of the military were charged, faced trial and sentenced to jail time. Even some members of a powerful elite unit known as the Kaibil were put behind bars. Among these prisoners, none were more emblematic than Captain Byron Lima...