Colombian military in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca

A new report by Cali-based newspaper El Pais details how the decimated remnants of the Norte del Valle Cartel decided to "sell" their province, home to Colombia's third-largest city and its most important Pacific port, to outsider group the Urabeños.

The Urabeños, poised to become Colombia's most powerful drug trafficking organization, are based primarily along the northern Caribbean coast. The most strategic department in Colombia's Pacific southwest -- Valle del Cauca -- has traditionally been controlled by a handful of homegrown groups: the Cali Cartel in the 1980s, the Norte del Valle Cartel in the late 1990s, and the Rastrojos in the mid to late 2000s. 

However, the Urabeños have been fighting the Rastrojos for a foothold in Valle del Cauca and its capital, Cali, since spring 2011. This caused violence in the region to spike and helped make Cali the country's most violent city, with a murder rate of 75 homicides per 100,000 residents.

As El Pais reports, the Urabeños were only able to properly enter Valle del Cauca at the invitation of another local drug trafficking organization: the Machos, a former armed wing of the Norte del Valle Cartel. Once responsible for shipping some $10 billion worth of cocaine to the United States, the Machos are now a fractured and weakened organization, especially after the surrender of their leader last year. According to El Pais, they now have no more than 35 members, led by an alias "Chicho," and are mainly concentrated on running extortion schemes in Valle del Cauca's rural, poorer areas. 

Chicho approached the Urabeños in August 2011 and offered to sell them the Valle del Cauca plaza, in exchange for support for the remnants of the Machos. Included in the deal was a lucrative drug trafficking route that the Machos controlled, stretching from Colombia's Pacific coast to Panama and Honduras. When the Urabeños agreed, the Machos essentially became part of the organization; they began calling themselves the "Urabeños," and gained access to the group's money, weapons, and brand name. The Urabeños, meanwhile, gained an opportunity to siphon territory away from their biggest rivals, the Rastrojos. They were able to strengthen their position along Colombia's Pacific coast, one of the country's most strategically important regions for the international export of cocaine.

The Urabeños are now present in nine of Valle del Cauca's 42 municipalities and are responsible for an upsurge in violence across the department, as they seek to consolidate their control and eliminate any suspected collaborators with the Rastrojos. Northern municipalities are now reporting more violent deaths and mutilations, in which the bodies are destroyed with machetes, as the Urabeños seek to intimidate the local population. 

As El Pais details, the Urabeños were only able to enter Buenaventura (Valle del Cauca's second-most important city and its biggest port) at the behest of another local interest group. Unlicensed miners reportedly asked the Urabeños to protect them from being extorted and harassed by a local organization. The Urabeños agreed to make a play for Buenaventura, one of Colombia's primary exit points for cocaine shipments, and killed the local organization's leader on October 6. This sparked a bloody gang war in Buenaventura, with at least 50 people killed in just over a month. 

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The El Pais report sheds light on a core part of the Urabeños' strategy: only entering a region far from their home base along the Caribbean if they can rely on the support networks already built up there by a local, more vulnerable group. This was demonstrated in Colombia's second-largest city, Medellin, where the Urabeños were able to establish a foothold after a local mob leader, alias "Valenciano," sold off part of his organization. Additionally, the Urabeños were able to make a bid for Cali by allying themselves with a former member of the Cali Cartel, who is engaged in a violent struggle with the Rastrojos over control of the city

Another key element of the Urabeños' modus operandi is recruiting local youths and urban street gangs to do their bidding, as confirmed by the El Pais article. The more elite recruits -- those in charge of logistics, or overseeing the group's larger economic and military strategy -- tend to be from the group's core, many of them former paramilitaries from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). But the group's foot soldiers are primarily local youths, who are given a salary and an opportunity to act in the Urabeños' feared brand name. 

The Urabeños' attempt to drain territory and resources from the Rastrojos goes against a truce reportedly brokered between the two groups earlier this year. As part of the agreement, the Urabeños agreed to respect the Rastrojos' hegemony in southwest Colombia. As the current tide of violence in Valle del Cauca suggests, the agreement appears to have fallen through. What seems clear is that with the Rastrojos so badly weakened, and with the Urabeños well-versed in co-opting local organizations in order to continue their expansion, Colombia's Pacific Southwest could soon see a changing of the guard.