Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez, alias “Gavilán,” transformed himself from Maoist guerrilla to paramilitary fighter to top leader of the Urabeños. He turned himself in to authorities twice, only to return to criminal life, each time a little higher up in the underworld. Gavilán was killed on August 31, 2017 during a joint police-military operation called Agamemnon II.
Gavilán began his criminal career with the leftist rebel group the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL). He demobilized in 1991, but took up arms again in the mid-1990s joining up with newly formed paramilitaries in the Urabá region. His name first came to the attention of police in 1995 when he was identified as leading a group of 100 fighters under the command of paramilitary warlord Salvatore Mancuso in San Pedro de Urabá.
Gavilán went on to join the Mineros Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), a force of some 2,800 fighters led by Ramiro “Cuco” Vanoy that operated principally in the Bajo Cauca area bordering Córdoba province in the north.
In January 2005, Gavilán demobilized during the Santa Fe de Ralito negotiations in Córdoba. However, some six months later the Úsuga brothers, Juan de Dios, alias “Giovanni,” and Dairo, alias “Otoniel,” former EPL and AUC colleagues, invited him to join them in the Urabeños.
Between 2005 and 2017, Gavilán rose to become second-in-command of the Urabeños, controlling their operations in the key province of Córdoba. He is thought to have been instrumental in recruiting leading members of the rival Paisas gang to join the Urabeños, including Rafael Alvarez Piñeda, alias “Chepe,” and German Bustos Alarcon, alias “El Puma.” Both were also former members of the AUC’s Mineros Bloc.
The US Treasury Department added Gavilán to their list of Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers in March 2010. The Colombian government offered a reward of 1 billion Colombian pesos (over $500,000) for information leading to his arrest. An Interpol blue notice had also been circulated seeking information on him as a criminal suspect.
Gavilán was a top figure in Colombia’s criminal underworld for more than 20 years. As a commander for the Urabeños, Gavilán was primarily responsible for managing the group’s drug trafficking operations in the province of Córdoba, as well as trafficking routes to Panama. Among his crimes, Gavilán is thought to have been the mastermind behind the Urabeños’ so-called “Pistol Plan” (Plan Pistola), which ordered the killing of police officers in the Antioquia, Córdoba and Chocó departments. At the time of his death, there were 22 warrants for his arrest on charges of homicide, conspiracy to commit crime, drug trafficking and forced displacement.
He was also known to pay up to $385 for the sexual services of girls between the ages of 12 and 17.
Gavilán was the head of Urabeños operations in the northern province of Córdoba, which lies along the Caribbean Sea. Following the death of two of his accomplices in 2011, he primarily stayed in the jungle of Urabá.
Allies and Enemies
Shortly before Gavilán was killed in an August 2017 security operation, internal divisions within the Urabeños had reportedly placed him at odds with the group’s top leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel.” Gavilán was also engaged in rivalries with groups like the Rastrojos and Paisas.
Gavilán was one of the most sought after men in Colombia, and narrowly escaped capture on several occasions. Beginning in 2015, Colombian authorities began stepping up operations against the Urabeños in their stronghold of Urabá. Under pressure from authorities, he apparently reduced his entourage from 12 people to five. In the months before his death, his brother was also killed during a military operation, and several other family members were arrested by authorities.
“Alias ‘Gavilán’, segundo al mando del Clan del Golfo, murió en operativo del Ejército”, El Espectador, August 31, 2017
“Treasury Designates Key Associates of Colombian Drug Lord Daniel Rendon Herrera as Narcotics Traffickers,” US Treasury Department, March 18, 2012
“Quien es alias Gavilan?” Caracol Radio, January 14, 2011
“Mancuso Sigue Guardandose Secretos,” Verdad Abierta, June 26, 2012