The Evolution of the Urabeños

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Uraba, which means “promised land” in the indigenous tongue, was the cradle of the paramilitaries, and remains the country’s principal BACRIM stronghold. This is where most of the Urabeños command nodes still meet, and it is the seat of the organization’s “board of directors,” or Estado Mayor. The region is crucial drug trafficking real estate, providing access to coca crops located in the Nudo de Paramillo, the mountains of Bolívar and the jungles of Choco. It sits astride one of the most important drug movement corridors from the center of the country to the departure points on both the Pacific and Atlantic seaboards. Finally, it has a culture of illegality that stretches from the formation of the Marxist rebels in the 1960s, if not before, which provides fertile ground for today’s BACRIM to flourish.

The evolution of the Urabeños can be broadly divided into three phases: 1) the period from the group’s foundation to the arrest of Daniel Rendon, alias “Don Mario” (2006-2009); 2) the rise and fall of Juan de Dios Usuga, alias “Giovanni” (2009-2012); 3) the implosion of the Rastrojos (2012-2013).

1. Foundation to arrest of Daniel Rendon alias “Don Mario” (2006-2009)

The Castaño family founded the paramilitary movement in the early 1990s. It was likely the last of the Castaños, Vicente, who founded what was to become the Urabeños, before he was betrayed and killed like his brothers before him. One of the earliest names of what was to become the Urabeños was “Bloque Heroes de Castaño.”

Vicente Castaño refused to turn himself in when then-President Alvaro Uribe scooped up the AUC leadership in 2006 and locked them in a facility in La Ceja, Antioquia. Vicente called the government action a betrayal, and set about rebuilding his power base. He turned to two trusted lieutenants: Daniel Rendón Herrera, alias “Don Mario,” and Ever Veloza Garcia, alias “HH.” The first was a money man, who had run the finances of the AUC’s Centauros Bloc. He was also from Amalfi, the birthplace of the Castaños. HH on the other hand, had been with Vicente Castaño right from the foundation of the paramilitaries in 1994. He was his hatchet man, and a trusted military commander.[1]

The other paramilitary commanders, who had obeyed the government conditions, were unhappy at the prospect of Vicente Castaño scooping up their business, territory and drug routes. A contract was taken out on Castaño’s life by the Oficina de Envigado, most likely with the involvement of HH, who may have betrayed his old boss. Vicente Castaño was killed in March 2007,[2] most likely at his farm in Cordoba.

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This left Don Mario. He set up shop in Uraba, where his brother, Fredy, alias “El Aleman,” had commanded the AUC’s 2,000 strong Elmer Cardenas Bloc. El Aleman demobilized 1,500 of these fighters during three separate demobilization ceremonies in 2006. Don Mario knew many of these soldiers personally and quickly cobbled together a formidable fighting force of around 80 men. He then monopolized this important drug route, taxing traffickers for every kilo of cocaine that passed through his territory. It was a lucrative business. The tax was $400 per kilo.[3] And with up to 20 go-fast boats leaving the gulf every week, each capable of carrying two tons of cocaine, Don Mario was making close to $20 million per month. The Urabeños were in business, along with more than 30 other BACRIM (for the Spanish “bandas criminales” – criminal bands) identified by the police.

Don Mario sought to expand from his Uraba heartland and moved south into the strategic region of Bajo Cauca and Medellin. He met resistance from other BACRIM, principally Los Paisas and the Oficina de Envigado. Then in May 2008, President Alvaro Uribe extradited 15 top paramilitary leaders to the United States, claiming they were violating the conditions of the peace process. Much of the criminal underworld was now up for grabs and the BACRIM came into their own.

Don Mario had powerful friends, among them Guillermo Valencia Cossio, brother of then-Interior Minister Fabio Valencia Cossio, who ran the Attorney General’s Office in Medellin. However, he made too many enemies too quickly. His organization, which he called the “Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia” (the name Urabeños is a police invention) ended up embroiled in conflict with the Paisas, the Oficina de Envigado and the Rastrojos.

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Don Mario needed help moving into Medellin and he required top level drug traffickers to increase his earnings. He reached out to one man who could help him with both problems: Henry de Jesus Lopez, alias “Mi Sangre”.[4] Don Mario had met Mi Sangre while working for another Castaño associate and Amalfi native, Miguel Arroyave, the head of the AUC’s Centaurs Bloc who was looking to set up shop in Bogota. Mi Sangre, whose roots lay in the Medellin mafia, the Oficina de Envigado, had been sent to Bogota to work with Arroyave setting up the AUC’s Capital Bloc, which aimed to establish a number of oficinas de cobro in the capital.

Don Mario’s antics had attracted the attention of the security forces. By late 2008, the government’s reward for information leading to his capture had reached $1.5 million. He was the public face of the BACRIM.

It did not take the Colombian police long to track Don Mario down; he was captured in April 2009. By this time, however, the Urabeños had secured a presence in the provinces of Choco, Antioquia and Cordoba, and had probing teams in the cities of Medellín, Cartagena and Santa Marta. Scouts had been dispatched to the provinces of Norte De Santander, Bolívar, Cesar and La Guajira, where the Urabeños were moving drugs with the help of other groups.

The Urabeños now numbered close to 350, most of them ex-AUC members. With allies included, the Urabeños could call on up to 1,000 armed men. Don Mario had put the Urabeños on the map, but they were still just one of over a dozen major BACRIM.

2. The rise and fall of Juan de Dios Usuga, alias “Giovanni” (2009-2012)

It could be said that the capture of Don Mario was the best thing that could have happened to the Urabeños. Firstly, the security force pressure came off — with Don Mario in custody, the police turned their attention elsewhere. Secondly, Don Mario was replaced by a leader with far greater ability and cunning: Juan de Dios Usuga, alias “Giovanni”.

SEE ALSO: Giovanni Profile

Giovanni and his brother, Dario Antonio Usuga, alias “Otoniel,” were part of key personnel within the AUC who had previously been rebels of the People’s Liberation Army (EPL). The EPL demobilized in 1991, but its members came under pressure from the FARC in Uraba, who hunted down ex-EPL rebels as traitors to the revolutionary cause[5]. Many former EPL fighters ended up in the arms of the nascent paramilitary movement, becoming founding members of the first paramilitary unit, the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Cordoba and Uraba (Autodefensas Campesinas de Cordoba y Uraba – ACCU). The ACCU would later form the nucleus of the AUC, which was founded in 1997. Giovanni had worked with the AUC’s Calima Bloc in Cauca, to watch over the Castaños’ interests there,[6] while Otoniel worked with Don Mario and the Centaurs Bloc in Meta.

Giovanni gathered other former EPL guerrillas, among them Roberto Vargas Gutierrez, alias “Gavilan”; Francisco Jose Morela Peñate, alias “Negro Sarley”; Jacinto Nicolas Fuentes German, alias “Don Leo,” and Melquisedec Henao Ciro, alias “Belisario,” among others. This group of former guerrillas became the disciplined and capable military core of the Urabeños and members of its “Estado Mayor,” or board of directors.

It was at this point that the expansion of the Urabeños began in earnest, with trusted lieutenants sent from Uraba to take control of strategic drug trafficking real estate, preferably through alliances and agreements, but otherwise through violence.

Mi Sangre was a key player in this expansion. He ran large quantities of cocaine out of northwestern Colombia and up to Mexican cartels, principally the Zetas. He worked with an old friend and Oficina de Envigado associate, Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias “Valenciano,” who not only had power in Medellín as head of one faction of the Oficina de Envigado, but also ran one of the splinter groups of the Paisas along the Caribbean coast.[7] The Urabeños were able to provide Valenciano with arms and ammunition to help him fight rival factions of the Oficina de Envigado in Medellin. In return Valenciano gave them access to his international cocaine connections.[8] The contacts gave the Urabeños access to new routes, new clients and more money.

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The guerrilla background of the group’s leadership provided the Urabeños high command with a better understanding of how to set up links with local communities in areas where they operated, and also gave them an advantage when dealing with the FARC, the ELN and the dissident faction of the EPL that still operates in Norte de Santander.[9] Relations with these rebel groups are now essential for the BACRIM, as the guerrillas control much of the drug crops in the country and supply coca base to the BACRIM. Their territorial control also means that the Urabeños sometimes have to move shipments through rebel territory.

The Urabeños not only forged agreements with “Valenciano” and his Paisas, but with several other criminal players: the BACRIM of Alta Guajira, run by Arnulfo Sanchez Gonzalez, alias “Pablo,”[10] and the Oficina del Caribe (run by family members of extradited AUC leader Hernan Giraldo).

By the end of 2010, the Urabeños were in a much stronger position than Don Mario had left them in. They controlled most of the main routes from Medellin north to the Caribbean. They had also managed to open another major land route to the Atlantic, via the department of Cesar, which links the center of the country to the Venezuelan border and the coast. In short, they had become one of the top three BACRIM in the country, trailing only the Rastrojos and the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (Ejercito Revolucionario Popular Antiterrorista Colombiano– ERPAC).[11]

3. The implosion of the Rastrojos (2012-2013)

By 2011, the Rastrojos were the most powerful BACRIM and the dominant criminal power in the Colombian drug trafficking world. By the end of that year, they had a presence in up to 23 of Colombia’s 32 departments[12] by some estimates, and had a rural military force estimated to be in excess of 1,000 fighters[13], as well as control over many oficinas de cobro, sicarios and money laundering networks.

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They controlled the principal trafficking networks in the west and the northeast, with only parts of the Caribbean coast and the Eastern Plains lying outside their influence. Working closely with the drug trafficker Daniel “Loco” Barrera, they had established a plethora of international contacts. They had also secured a presence outside the borders of Colombia, controlling trafficking in Ecuador and on both sides of the Venezuelan border. Under the leadership of the Calle Serna brothers (Javier, Luis Enrique and Juan Carlos) as well as Diego Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” the rise of the Rastrojos had been meteoric. Their downfall would be equally precipitous.

SEE ALSO: Rastrojos Profile

In November 2011, the Rastrojos and the Urabeños negotiated what at the time appeared to be a ground breaking truce, dividing up criminal territories between them and seeking to finish a war that had cost both sides dearly. There is evidence that a meeting was set up between the groups in Bajo Cauca, where the entire top command of the Urabeños negotiated with local Rastrojos leaders and emissaries sent from Valle del Cauca, the Rastrojos headquarters. The agreement left the Urabeños in control of Bajo Cauca in return for ceding Cucuta, on the Venezuelan border, and withdrawing their support for Rastrojos enemies in Valle del Cauca.[14]

However, this agreement never had a chance to consolidate. At the start of 2012, persistent rumors emerged that Javier Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” was negotiating with the US authorities.[15] Suddenly, the Rastrojos empire seemed to be built on shifting sands. In May 2012, Comba turned himself in to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).[16] Just one month later, Diego Rastrojo was arrested in Venezuela.[17] The last leader who could potentially have held the organization together, Comba’s brother Luis Calle Serna, turned himself in to the authorities in October.[18] This occurred just a month after the loss of the group’s key international trafficking connection, Daniel Barrera, who was arrested in Venezuela, that September.[19]

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This string of surrenders and arrests was akin to the extradition in 2008 of the AUC high command. Suddenly, huge chunks of Colombia’s drug trafficking world were up for grabs. The Urabeños seized the opportunity. Suddenly, they appeared to be everywhere, even breaking into the Rastrojos heartland on the Pacific coast and making alliances with oficinas de cobro in Cali and in the strategic port of Buenaventura. With the region of Bajo Cauca now under their control, they were able to send more fighters and resources to other parts of the country, looking to take over crucial crossing points into Venezuela in the Norte de Santander department, and expanding once again into the Eastern Plains.

However, the Urabeños did not have it all their own way. The Colombian police have chalked up a series of significant victories against this BACRIM. Giovanni, the mastermind of the Urabeños consolidation and expansion, was killed in a raid by security forces on News Years Day, 2012.[20] To this loss has been added the arrests of Giovanni’s brothers, Juan Diego and John Fernando, alias “Simon,” in May 2012, and that of another relative, Alexander Montoya Usuga, alias “El Flaco,” in July 2012.[21] Mi Sangre and Belisario were also taken out of action, the former arrested in Argentina in October 2012,[22] and the latter captured in Colombia that same month.[23] In February 2013, Don Leo was captured in Peru.[24] El Negro Sarley[25] was killed in a shootout with police in April 2013.

The net around Otoniel has also begun to tighten. He was almost discovered when the police went to the town of Blanquizet, in Uraba, in December 2013 to arrest his nephew, Arley Usuga Torres, alias “07,” who was, along with those listed above, a member of the Urabeños’ Estado Mayor.[26] Otoniel was apparently attending a meeting of the Estado Mayor when the police arrived in helicopters. Also arrested in December, this time in Medellin, was Otoniel’s sister, Nini Johana Usuga. The police are using the same tactics that have been deployed successfully against other drug lords, hitting support networks and close collaborators in order to leave the principal target increasingly exposed.

References

[1] McDermott interviewed Ever Veloza on multiple occasions in Itagui prison on the outskirts of Medellin during 2008.

[2] Jeremy McDermott, ‘Revealed: The secrets of Colombia’s murderous Castaño brothers’, November 7, 2008. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/colombia/3391789/Revealed-The-secrets-of-Colombias-murderous-Castano-brothers.html

[3] Semana, ‘En pie de guerra’, April 19, 2008. https://www.semana.com/wf_InfoArticulo.aspx?idArt=111095

[4] See InSight Crime profile of Mi Sangre: /personalities-colombia/henry-de-jesus-lopez-mi-sangre

[5] Robin Kirk, “More Terrible than Death,” 2003

[6] Profile of Don Berna: /personalities-colombia/don-berna

[8] Profile of the Zetas: /groups-mexico/zetas

[9] InSight Crime, “Colombia’s Forgotten Rebels Now at the Heart of Drug Trade,” August 13, 2011. /news/analysis/colombias-forgotten-rebels-now-at-the-heart-of-drug-trade

[10] InSight Crime, “La Guajira: Dynamics of a Conflict,” November 21, 2010, /investigations/la-guajira-dynamics-of-the-conflict

[11] See InSight Crime’s ERPAC profile: /groups-colombia/erpac

[13] InSight Crime, “Comba Cuts Deal and Rastrojos Lose Ground,” May 8, 2012, /news/analysis/comba-cuts-a-deal-and-the-rastrojos-lose-ground

[14] InSight Crime interviews with police intelligence sources, August 30, 2012, later confirmed by independent sources in Caucasia

[15] InSight Crime, “Comba Cuts Deal and Rastrojos Lose Ground,” May 8, 2012, /news/analysis/comba-cuts-a-deal-and-the-rastrojos-lose-ground

[16] InSight Crime, “Comba Cuts Deal and Rastrojos Lose Ground,” May 8, 2012, /news/analysis/comba-cuts-a-deal-and-the-rastrojos-lose-ground

[17] InSight Crime, “Rastrojos Founder Captured in Venezuela,” June 4, 2012, /news/analysis/rastrojos-founder-captured-in-venezuela

[18] InSight Crime, “Last Rastrojos Surrenders to US,” October 5, 2012, /news/analysis/last-rastrojos-leader-surrenders-to-us

[19] InSight Crime, “Capture of ‘Loco’ Barrera is end of an Era for Colombia,” September 19, /news/analysis/loco-barrera-captured-venezuela

[20] InSight Crime, “Urabeños Leader Killed but Expansion Likely to Continue,” January 2, 2013, /news/analysis/urabenos-leader-killed-but-expansion-likely-to-continue

[21] InSight Crime, “Brother of Urabeños Chief to Face Extradition to US,” February 1, 2013, /news/briefs/brother-urabenos-chief-face-extradition

[22] InSight Crime, “Colombia Capo ‘Mi Sangre’ Captured in Argentina,” October 31, 2012, /news/analysis/mi-sangre-captured-argentina

[23] Semana “Capturado alias ‘Belisario,’ jefe de los Urabeños in Magdalena,” October 1, 2012, https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/capturado-alias-belisario-jefe-urabenos-magdalena/265633-3

[24] InSight Crime, “Arrest of Colombian Capo in Peru Could Swing Battle for Medellin,” February 7, 2013, /news/analysis/arrest-colombian-capo-peru-swing-battle-medellin

[25] InSight Crime, “Urabeños Boss Killed in Shootout with Police,” April 26, 2013, /news/briefs/urabenos-commander-killed-shootout-colombia-police

[26] InSight Crime, “Colombia’s Police Tighten Noose around Urabeños Leader,” December 13, 2013. /news/briefs/colombias-police-tighten-noose-around-urabenos-leader

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