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.
The Urabeños take their name from Uraba, a northwestern region near the Panamanian border highly prized by drug traffickers as it offers access to the Caribbean and Pacific coasts from the departments of Antioquia and Choco. However, the origins of the group can be traced to Colombia's Eastern Plains, where Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias "Don Mario," once handled the finances of the Centauros Bloc, a paramilitary organization.
In 1997, top paramilitary commanders Carlos and Vicente Castaño of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) -- in competition with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for territory and influence in the Eastern Plains -- began sending troops to the area to seize the drug business from the guerrillas. In 2001, the Castaños sold the Centauros Bloc to another warlord, Miguel Arroyave.
Principal criminal groups
It was Arroyave who convinced Don Mario to come and work for him. Under Don Mario's supervision, the Centauros had become one of the wealthiest factions within the AUC. The Centauros trafficked cocaine, corrupted local politicians, extorted ranchers and farmers, and collected protection fees for products ranging from alcohol to petroleum.
But the Centauros soon began clashing with a rival paramilitary group: the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Casanare (ACC). The ACC was one of the oldest vigilante groups in Colombia, headed by Hector Germán Buitrago Parada, alias "Martín Llanos." It was allegedly ACC fighters who first began calling the Centauros “those from Urabá,” "Paisas" or "Urabeños," all references to the Antioquia region where many of the group's members hailed from.
By 2004, conflict between the ACC and the Centauros had left an estimated 3,000 people dead. Don Mario fled the Eastern Plains in June after a falling out with Arroyave, finding refuge in the Uraba region. There, his brother Freddy, alias "El Aleman," headed his own paramilitary group, the Elmer Cardenas Bloc.
After El Aleman demobilized in 2006, his brother Don Mario began to expand his drug trafficking operations in the Gulf of Uraba. He recruited many fighters that were once under Freddy's command, as well as ex-members from the defunct Popular Liberation Army (EPL) guerrilla group. From Uraba, the criminal group deployed go-fast boats loaded with cocaine to Central America or the Caribbean.
By 2008, Don Mario was one of the richest and most-wanted traffickers in Colombia. He began to expand his empire, moving into southern Cordoba province, the Lower Cauca region in northern Antioquia, and into Medellin -- a city long controlled by the Oficina de Envigado. His men soon began clashing with the Paisas, then a rural, armed wing of the Oficina. Police blamed Don Mario's organization for at least 3,000 homicides between 2007 and 2009.
Don Mario was captured on a farm in rural Uraba in April 2009 by a team of 200 police commandos. Following his capture, the remnants of Don Mario's organization fell under the control of the Usuga brothers, Juan de Dios, alias "Giovanni," and Dario Antonio, alias "Otoniel": two former mid-ranking paramilitaries believed to have worked with Don Mario since the 1990s. The two started out with an estimated 250 men but their ranks grew quickly.
In January 2012 Juan de Dios was killed during a police raid on a ranch in the department of Choco. In response, the Urabeños shut down much of the northern region by declaring an "armed strike" in protest against his death, handing out fliers referring to the group by its former name: the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces. The Urabeños also offered a $1,000 reward for each police officer killed in Antioquia.
The Urabeños top command deploys teams of trained, armed men to rural areas along drug-trafficking routes. These include zones with seaports along the Caribbean coast, or areas of coca base production, such as Caucasia or Taraza in Antioquia. Once established, the Urabeños recruit local informants and collaboratos, and have been known to contract local street gangs to help with micro-trafficking, extortion, and assassination.
Similar to other Colombian drug trafficking organizations, the Urabeños do not seek to control the entire chain of drug production. They have also expanded their activities into illegal mining operations (especially in Antioquia), and extort businesses in areas under their control as a source of revenue.
Dario Antonio Usuga, alias "Otoniel," is the head of the Urabeños, and has repeatedly managed to elude capture by Colombian authorities. His base of operations is in the northwest region of Uraba, where he keeps to the jungle to avoid detection. Given his life on the run, however, it is unclear how much direct control he actually exercises over the Urabeños day-to-day activities.
The Urabeños have a presence in around 17 of Colombia’s departments, as well as internationally. Their base is centered around the Gulf of Uraba, including the Tierralta and Valencia municipalities in Cordoba and the eleven municipalities in the Uraba sub-region in Antioquia. They also have a presence in La Guajira, Cesar, Santander, Valle del Cauca and in major cities including Medellin and Bogota.
Allies and Enemies
With an estimated 2,000 active members, the Urabeños are now arguably Colombia's most powerful criminal organization; in March 2013 the Colombian government stated the group was the only remaining BACRIM with a national presence.
In 2015, the Colombian government stepped up operations against the Urabeños in their stronghold of Uraba, with the goal of capturing the group’s top leadership and dismantling the organization. Then, in June 2015, the US Treasury Department unsealed indictments against 17 alleged Urabeños members.
This increasing pressure and attention on the Urabeños -- and the determination of the Colombian government to dismantle the group's operations -- means the organization will likely continue to see the capture of top leaders and the interruption of its illicit activities.