The Urabeños – The Criminal Hybrid

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The mad scramble for criminal power in the aftermath of the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) is over. The Urabeños, or as they prefer to call themselves, the “Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia,” have won.

Following the completion of the AUC demobilization in 2006, more than 30 new criminal groups, known as the “BACRIM” (for the Spanish for criminal bands – “bandas criminales”) were born. Over the last eight years it has been a war to the death between these groups for hegemony.

The winners, the Urabeños, are the perfect amalgamation of Colombian organized crime. While they were born from the demobilization of the AUC, much of the Urabeños’ criminal pedigree goes much further back. Many of their members, before joining the paramilitaries, were part of one of the three main Marxist rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) or the People’s Liberation Army (EPL). And many others, particularly on the drug trafficking side, can trace their criminal history back to the Medellin Cartel, which pioneered the cocaine trade almost 40 years ago. The Urabeños encompass three generations of criminal expertise, melded into a hybrid structure forged by the current situation in Colombia.

SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile

Does this mean that Colombian organized crime has come full circle? Ever since Pablo Escobar was killed on a Medellin rooftop in 1993, organized crime has continued to fragment. Yet now, once again, a single criminal syndicate dominates the underworld. The Urabeños, though, are not a hierarchical, integrated criminal organization with a unified and central command structure. As shall be seen in Section 2, where the structure of the BACRIM is defined, Colombia’s National Police face a very different challenge than they did with the Medellin Cartel.

The success of Colombia’s security forces against drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) cannot be underestimated. Under constant pressure, Colombian organized crime has evolved and mutated. The result of this constant evolution is the Urabeños. It is a criminal network, built around a series of units, or “nodes.” The basic building block of this network is the “oficina de cobro,” a peculiarly Colombian manifestation of organized crime that, as with so many things in the underworld, traces its roots back to the Medellin Cartel.

If one node of the structure is taken out, the network simply shifts, with new nodes taking over the roles of their dismantled predecessors. This is true even in the case of command nodes, such as those formerly headed by Urabeños founder Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias “Don Mario,” and that of the next leader, Juan de Dios Usuga, alias “Giovanni.”

Another result of Colombia’s increasingly efficient police force is the phenomenon of criminal migration, or the “cockroach effect.” Turn on the lights in a room and the cockroaches run for the dark corners. The lights have been turned on in Colombia , and the criminal cockroaches have, in many cases, moved abroad. While the Mexicans now dominate the traditional cocaine market of the United States, the Colombians have been developing and exploiting new markets. They have targeted not only the European Union, but booming domestic markets far closer to home — those of Latin America’s most populous nations: Brazil, Argentina and Colombia itself.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Criminal Migration

As coca crops have been reduced in Colombia, the balloon effect has led to increased drug cultivation in Peru, now the world’s top cocaine producer, and in neighboring Bolivia. And at almost every link in the drug chain in these two Andean nations, you will find a Colombian.

The Colombians remain the pioneers of the world’s drug trade. The Mexican cartels may now overshadow their Colombian counterparts in terms of power and military capacity, but the fragmentation of organized crime in Colombia is being replicated in Mexico. The recent capture of Mexico’s so-called Pablo Escobar, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, of the mighty Sinaloa Cartel, will simply accelerate this process.

As more members of the Urabeños’ central command (its “Estado Mayor” or “board of directors”) get taken down, it is likely that the domination exercised by those from Colombia’s banana-growing heartland will be eclipsed, and the criminal network that currently exists may take on a different name. The evolution of Colombian organized crime is constant, and will remain so as long as the vast profits are available.

Cocaine is no longer the sole, or perhaps even the primary element of the Urabeños’ criminal portfolio. Gold mining, extortion, human trafficking, gambling and prostitution all provide criminal revenues, to name but a few. No longer can the National Police focus its attention solely on the cocaine trade. The Urabeños look for any criminal opportunity, and exploit it swiftly and efficiently. The police must keep up, and in the case of the gold industry, for example, they are trailing behind, hamstrung by the lack of adequate legislation and tools to combat this illegal industry.

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