Beyond BACRIM, Urabeños Set Sights Higher

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Juan de Dios Usuga, alias “Giovanni,” has seen all sides of Colombia’s conflict, as guerrilla, paramilitary, and now head of one of the country’s most powerful emerging criminal groups, the Urabeños.

A profile in newspaper El Colombiano shows the broadening ambitions of this professional combatant and of his organization, which is now one of Colombia‘s most disciplined drug gangs.

Usuga shares the leadership of the Urabeños with his brother, Dario Antonio Usuga. Using files from the police in Uraba, a region which is the brothers’ powerbase, the newspaper gives some insight into their current operations.

One interesting point in the report is that Juan de Dios appears to be taking on a semi-political role. The Uraba police say that he is seeking support in certain regions of Uraba through holding “pseudo-political” public meetings, in which local people can seek the group’s protection and presumably make deals with its leaders.

He also apparently throws festivals and holds markets in an effort to gain grassroots backing. This all suggests that Usuga is seeking to broaden his power and go beyond straight-forward trafficking activities to gain social control in areas where his group is present. This is more in the style of the old paramilitary organizations, which claimed to have political aims, than of the the emerging criminal groups (known by the government as “bandas criminales” – BACRIM), which are generally described as one-dimensional drug trafficking organizations.

The police report seen by El Colombiano may indicate that the Urabeños are deepening their hold on the drug trade, moving from simply shipping the product to exert control further down the supply chain. It says that Usuga maintains direct contact with local narcotics barons, organizing transport routes, cocaine base and HCl processing laboratories, as well as managing drug crops.

It also appears that the Urabeños are stepping up the volume of their drug activities. Local police commander Jaime Avila told the paper that police had seized 367 kilos of cocaine thought to belong to the Urabeños in the first three months of this year. This indicates a much higher volume of narcotics moved than in 2010, when a total 480 kilos were seized from the group in the entire year.

The rise in seizures is also likely a product of the increased motivation of the authorities to pursue the Urabeños, following the murder of two Bogota students whose bodies were found in the Cordoba department in January 2011. The drug gang seemingly killed the pair after the students stumbled upon some of their illegal activities.

There are currently fifteen arrest warrants against Usuga, according to El Colombiano, and the police have offered a 500 million peso (about $270,000) reward on information leading to the arrest of either him or his brother.

The pressure is mounting on Juan de Dios; El Colombiano quotes an unnamed source as saying that Usuga, who is said to be highly safety-conscious, currently moves within a strip between Mutata in western Antioquia, on the border with Choco, and land close to Turbo, on the Caribbean coast. This means he does not step outside the territory securely held by his group.

The reports of Juan de Dios’ attempts to raise grassroots support, likely involving the offer of protection to pliable local elites, as well as the extension of his power over the drug supply chain, indicates that the Urabeños are evolving.

The group emerged, alongside the other BACRIMs, to take the place of the paramilitaries in managing Colombia’s drug trade after the AUC demobilized in the mid-2000s. The most powerful of these groups are likely following the logic of the business and broadening their aims out from drug trafficking in order to raise profits. This could include social control over populations; pursuit of political power, as exemplified by warnings that the BACRIM could intervene in the October local elections; and control over the production of drugs as well as their transport. Such developments could bring groups such as the Urabeños closer to the model of an insurgency, like the paramilitaries they replaced.

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