Economic Development and Organized Crime: The Two Faces of Urabá, Colombia

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The Gulf of Urabá boasts 323 kilometers of porous, thick, and deep coast dominated by the whim of the so-called Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, also known as the Urabeños; today, contraband, cocaine, migrants, as well as heavy machinery moving through the area is giving shape to a deepwater port yearning for government leadership. 

On the same day that a group of land claimants gathered in the town of Apartadó, in the Urabá region of the department of Antioquia, to discuss their security fears regarding the control that the Urabeños had achieved over the area, two police officers were attacked in cold blood by hitmen on mortorcycles in the neighboring municipality of Carepa, only a few kilometers away.

The incident, which occured at approximately two in the afternoon in the populous San Marino neighborhood of the urban center, left one officer dead and the other injured. Only 24 hours earlier, a police station located near Piedras Blancas, also in Carepa, had been harassed by unknown persons. 

*This story was translated, edited for clarity and length, and published with permission from Verdad Abierta. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

The truth, however, does not actually involve unknown persons. In Urabá, civilian and military authorities know that those responsible for these incidents are none other than the “gaitanistas,” which the the national government refers to as the “Gulf Clan” (“Clan del Golfo”) and which InSight Crime refers to as the Urabeños. In the region, these individuals are simply known as the “paracos” (“paramilitaries”), and they have merchants, farmers, officials, and communities living in a state of terror.

According to Colonel Luis Eduardo Soler, chief of the Urabá police department, the recent attacks against his men are retaliation from members of this criminal organization in response to the success of Operation Agamemnon. The most recent operation, as recalled by the official, took place on May 3, when there was an armed confrontation between police officers and various “gaitanistas” in the village of Los Guaduales in the rural zone of Necoclí. Ulder Cardona Rueda, alias “Pablito,” for whom authorities had offered a reward of 150 million pesos, was killed in combat during the operation, as were three of his bodyguards. 

Alias “Pablito” was considered by judicial investigators to be one of the most bloodthirsty members of the Urabeños. He was responsible for the finances of the organizational structures involved in crimes in Córdoba and Antioquia’s Urabá region. After alias “Otoniel” and alias “Gavilán,” he was also the most important member of this criminal organization operating in the northern corner of the country. Historical records show that in September 2005 he, along with 1,135 other paramilitaries of the Centauros Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), demobilized in the Tilodirán district of Yopal, Casanare. 

Without doubt, his death was a great trophy for police officers, who since then have patrolled the area in caravans of up to two, three, and even four motorcycles, all wearing thick bulletproof vests — an image that the inhabitants of Urabá Antioquia are growing accustomed to, just as they have grown accustomed to seeing motorcycle officers escorting beer and soda delivery vehicles.

The decision to accompany these vehicles was made following the burning of three cars on the same day in mid-January. The first of these, a soda distributor, was incinerated in the very center of Carepa; the other two were transporting beer on the road from Mutatá to Belén de Baijirá. The incidents, as explained at the time by the Urabá police department, were retaliation from the “gaitanistas” for non-payment of extortion.

The fear of extortion among the inhabitants of Urabá is nothing new, with this phenomenon being present for many years. In municipalities like Chigorodó, Carepa, Apartadó, Turbo, and Necoclí, reports of extortion have reached dramatic levels. Formal and informal merchants and transporters, other local public contractors, and even those who exploit the region’s wealth of wood or seek to smuggle and engage in other illicit activities in the port must all pay the “gaitanistas.”

“Unfortunately we have a high underreporting of extortion, because people do not denounce these activities. The best way to prevent and attack this crime is in this way, having citizens report incidents. One hundred percent of cases reported are resolved positively. But the people do not do it,” explains the chief of the Urabá police in relation to a scourge that is only growing day by day.

The Best Corner of America 

The 323 kilometers extending through all the Gulf of Urabá makes Antioquia the department with the second-most coastline on the Caribbean after La Guajira, a geostrategic privilege that the political and trade union leadership has been unable to fully take advantage of — until now. 

After many decades of failed promises, the Antioquia Port Society (Sociedad Puerto Antioquia), has begun to realize the dream of a deepwater port in the Urabá region with an investment of $350 million. The project began this year in the Nueva Colonia district of Turbo, and it is expected to generate 1,800 jobs directly to the region.

This is not the only large infrastructure project currently in the works in what is considered the “best corner of America.” Since 2015, sections of double-lane roads have been constructed in the municipality of Chigordodó-Carepa-Apartadó-El Tres, in the district of Turbo. This is in addition to the initiation of work on road projects Mar I, which provides for the construction of double-lane roads between Dabeiba and Mutatá, and Mar II, which will improve the connectivity between Santafé de Antioquia and Mutatá through the construction of sections of double-lane roads and a tunnel at the height of the site known as El Toyo. 

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profile

With their completion, the 12 and upward-hour overland drive from Medellín to Apartadó will be reduced to five hours, meaning that the exit to the sea will be substantially shortened, which has several implications in terms of competitiveness.

“It means that it will be cheaper distributing merchandise through the port of Turbo rather than through Barranquilla and Buenaventura and that Urabá will now be under scrutiny from the rest of the country,” says Carepa Government Secretary Camilo Calle. 

According to estimates from the official, Urabá will go from having a population of almost 650,000 to a little over a million in the next four years as a result of these projects as well as the consolidation of the banana industry, which currently covers 34,267 hectares in the area and saw export volumes of 68 million boxes in 2015. 

But this wave of progress and development has occurred without the region resolving the problems that have marked its history, such as land tenure, for example. Six years after the implementation of Law 1448, also known as the Law of Victims and Land Restitution, courts have managed to resolve only 176 out of 890 cases filed before land tribunals. These decisions have resulted in a total of 6,143 hectares returned to rightful owners. 

For Elkin Rocha, director of the Special Administrative Unit for Land Restitution (Unidad de Restitución de Tierras – URT) in Urabá, the process of restitution is proceeding at a good pace and could improve even further when a new group of nine judges designated to handle land tenure cases specifically in Urabá take office.

“We will have three to four judges more. Without doubt it will help resolve many cases,” assured the official, who additionally explained that out of 19,448 applications filed to date in the various offices of the URT in Antioquia, only 7,109 correspond to Urabá.

However, from the point of view of organizations like Forging Futures (Forjando Futuros), which legally accompanies victims of land deprivation in Urabá, the resulting balance of land restitutions in Urabá is very poor, because the land returned to farm workers via judicial sentences so far only represents four percent of the total usurped land in the region: 150,000 hectares. This does not even take into account how the security situation for farmer land claimants, even those that have actually benefitted from restitution cases, is increasingly becoming more complex.

Claimants Cornered 

Everything was jubilation and hope among the 106 claimant families on the Paquemás area of Turbo in the year that the courts not only recognized their condition as victims of one of the most significant dispossession of lands committed in the region, but also returned their usurped lands. Between 2014 and 2015, the land tribunals issued 22 sentences in which legitimate owners were returned 37 of the 87 farms currently in legal dispute. 

The cases involve farms that were first abandoned by peasants in 1995 who, fleeing from the paramilitary offensive being led by Herbert Veloza García, alias “HH,” had no other option than the forced exodus. Then came the land dispossession. A public official, taking advantage of the fear that prevailed throughout the region, forced the peasants though deceit and threats to give up their land titles, nothing more than adjudication pronouncements issued by the Colombian Agrarian Reform Institute (Instituto Colombiano de la Reforma Agraria – INCORA) in November 1994.

“Here there is a grave dilemma: they are exploiting a state of fear. The paramilitaries are the ones that control this business. And since nobody can say anything, then the productive projects for the families that have returned are vulnerable

Curiously, the land ended up in the hands of powerful landowners and ranchers who converted the plots of land into imposing livestock businesses. According to the accounts of claimants who spoke to, these livestock businesses are now furiously opposed to the restitution process, even ignoring judicial decisions.

“The cases are concrete: since the families that have returned still have these opponents as their neighbors, the opponents dump cattle in their land to harm their productive projects; they constantly run through the fences dividing the lands; they poison their animals. And who says anything if the law of the land is the paramilitaries?” says a farmer in the region, who asked for his identity to remain anonymous. 

The worries do not stop there. According to the farmer, various leaders of the land claimants in the Paquemás area have received death threats in the past few months. Since the courts have yet to rule on the rest of the usurped land, there is a total state of uncertainty between those who returned to the area and those who hope to regain what the war stripped away. 

“Here there is a grave dilemma: they are exploiting a state of fear. The paramilitaries are the ones that control this business. And since nobody can say anything, then the productive projects for the families that have returned are vulnerable, because occasionally they are laid waste to, befouled, and totally destroyed,” the source added.

The view by the land claimants is that “things are tending to get worse.”

A few kilometers from there, in the Macondo district of Turbo, the reality is not much different. Presently, there are 600 families that have decided to return since 2012 at their own peril to what they consider to be legitimately theirs. And peril is indeed what they have faced. Over the last two years, attacks against those that have returned have intensified: their ranches are destroyed, their animals and water sources are poisoned, or their women and children are intimidated.

Additionally, the most visible leaders receive threatening calls warning them that they will soon face a “pistol plan” (“plan pistola”). The assassination of Porfirio Jaramillo, a farmer who was claiming lands in the Guacamayas area of Macondo, on January 28 has stoked fears that said plan is a reality. Several recognized peasant leaders have been left with no option but to abandon the region.

The situation is just as complicated in territories like the neighborhood council La Larga-Tumaradó, on the edge of the Chocó Department. There, spokespersons for Afro-Colombian communities denounce how the “gaitanistas” can impose restrictions on them and patrol the territory with the same liberty that the paramilitaries in the service of Fredy Rendón Herrera, alias “El Alemán” once did. According to them, nobody can enter this vast territory without the “gaitanistas” being made aware.

The view by the land claimants is that “things are tending to get worse.” The courts have turned a deaf ear to their protests, and the threats, attacks, and homicides continue without a response. Opponents of the Victims’ Law have intensified their smear campaign against the URT and the land claimants, and their diatribes have begun to be accepted by local politicians. In the midst of all this, there has been an increase in reported incidents of abuses committed by ranch foremen, who take advantage of the ever-growing “gaitanista” control.

“The ‘gaitanistas’ have people scattered about in all the entrances to the districts and regions who are called ‘points.’ They pay attention to who goes in and comes out. It happens that sometimes the police enter the area to inspect how everything is. And they take longer to leave than it takes the so-called ‘points’ to come and ask us what we told the police. This is how control works around here,” said a farmer land claimant of Guacamayas. 

‘An Offensive with Results to Show’

“They are not paramilitaries,” said Colonel Luis Eduardo Soler, chief of the Urabá police department, without hesitation in response to a question about how his institution refers to members of the Urabeños. To him, this is a criminal organization that includes combatants from the extinct AUC, drug traffickers, the criminal elements that already existed in the region, and even individuals of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC); an organization that wants to demonstrate armed strength with a pseudo political discourse, “perhaps to one day pressure the government into a negotiation.”

“The group’s principal activity is narcotrafficking. And it has to their advantage a coast of more than 300 kilometers that, regardless of how much we try, is difficult to control. Everything moves through there,” explained Colonel Soler. However, he also added that the expansion of extortion and indiscriminate attacks against police officers “only goes to show how desperate the group is; it is feeling the pressure, knowing it is cornered and that its members cannot move around like they used to.”

SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile 

According to him, this is a consequence of the controversial Operation Agamemnon, a giant police operation that is seeking the capture of Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, alias “Otoniel,” the top leader of the Urabeños as well as the dismantling of the organization. Its most important results to date have been the seizure of more than 85 tons of cocaine that were ready for export and the capture of 1,300 members of this organization, including various local leaders and middle-ranking members. 

Given all this, the question asked in Urabá today is: why have officials been unable to capture “Otoniel,” despite so much police deployment in the region, and, moreover, why does the organization actually appear stronger? There is one thing that analysis by civilian and police authorities agree on in relation to the Urabeños: they have become one of the biggest employers in the region and have been able to build solid support networks by gaining the support of communities and recruiting mainly from family members.

“In many places the group is seen as a ‘Robin Hood.’ It helps the lady take her child to the doctor; if a family does not have a market to sell to it buys from them. It hires motorbike taxis to gain the support of the people. To that, it must be added that certainly many of them are family; they are not called the ‘Úsuga Clan’ for nothing,” says a Carepa City Hall official, who is likewise concerned about the growth in some municipalities of Urabá of something directly related to this criminal organization: small-scale drug trafficking. 

“There has been an increase in the consumption of psychoactive substances, something that is becoming a public health problem,” the official said. And not only that, the phenomenon of gangs has spread like wildfire in shanty towns in Carepa, Turbo, and Apartadó with all its known consequences: an increase in fights with bladed weapons and other scourges like glassbreakers. “These individuals become addicted, then they are put to sell drugs, and if they prove their fineness, then they are incorporated into the organization,” the source added. 

So is the state of Urabá today: a region that shows two completely contradictory faces. On one side, it is becoming one of the most important mercantile, financial, and real estate development hubs in the country; on the other, organized crime still bares its fangs and continues to consolidate at the expense of institutional strengthening.

*This story was translated, edited for clarity and length, and published with permission from Verdad Abierta. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

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