Arrest of Paramilitary Warlord Opens Way for Urabeños

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The arrest of a former paramilitary leader who wielded significant power along the Caribbean coast could open the way for criminal organization the Urabeños to further consolidate their rule in the region.

Police in Bogota reported arresting Ruben Giraldo, a demobilized member of Colombia’s now-defunct paramilitary umbrella organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). He is charged with homicide, forcing internal displacement, and conspiring to commit a crime. 

Giraldo led a criminal organization active in the Caribbean departments of La Guajira and Magdalena, made up mostly of other former paramilitaries who once fought alongside him in the AUC faction the Tayrona Resistance Front. His criminal group, known as the Giraldos, or else as the Oficina del Caribe, has been accused of running cocaine trafficking operations in the coastal region.

The Giraldos are also known for their aggressive war against rival criminal organization the Urabeños, which is also made up primarily of former paramilitaries. The Giraldos-Urabeños war caused homicides to spike in Magdalena department, and helped make tourist hub Santa Marta one of Colombia’s most violent cities. 

The 42-year-old Ruben Giraldo lived in an apartment in one of Santa Marta’s most well-known beachside resort areas, and played an important role in directing the Giraldos’ campaign against the Urabeños, according to media reports. He was arrested in November last year for illegally carrying a weapon, but was released. He has been accused of being involved in more than 150 deaths in Magdalena department, when he was active in the AUC. 

InSight Crime Analysis 

As a nephew of extradited paramilitary warlord Hernan Giraldo, alias “El Patron,” Ruben Giraldo was a prominent figure in the criminal world. His story is indicative of many of the shortcomings of Colombia’s Justice and Peace process, which aimed to prompt paramilitaries to demobilize and testify about crimes, in exchange for reduced punishment. While Ruben Giraldo officially demobilized with the Tayrona Resistance Front in 2006, he took up arms again and refused to testify about the AUC’s participation in massacres and displacements. Colombian justice has only belatedly recognized Giraldo’s failure to cooperate: last December, the attorney general requested that he be expelled from the Justice and Peace process, alongside 354 other paramilitaries. 

Giraldo’s arrest will likely ease a great deal of the pressure that the Urabeños were facing on their home turf. As previously noted by InSight Crime, the Giraldos were the only criminal organization that were challenging the Urabeños in the Caribbean. Elsewhere, the Urabeños are battling the Rastrojos for a foothold in southwest Colombia and factions of the Oficina de Envigado for Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellin. If Ruben Giraldo’s arrest leads to the weakening of the Giraldos, this will grant the Urabeños more breathing space in a territory where, arguably, they cannot afford another bloody, drawn-out conflict. 

The Giraldos faced significant obstacles in battling the much larger and wealthier Urabeños. They were able to gain a slight advantage after Urabeño top commander Melquisedec Henao Ciro, alias “Belisario,” was arrested by police last October. It is worth questioning whether authorities gained the intelligence needed to capture Ruben Giraldo from Belisario himself, who would likely have an interest in facilitating the arrest. Notably, the Urabeños are also known for their corrupt links to some elements of Colombia’s police force: three officers based in the Caribbean coast were arrested in February, accused of collaborating with the criminal group. 

There are other signs that the Giraldos may not have much of a future ahead of them. On May 1, police in Santa Marta arrested 22 alleged members of the organization, accused of working as hitmen, look-outs, and as collectors of extortion payment, among other jobs. Another alleged top leader of the organization was reported captured in February. Law enforcement authorities appear set on pursuing the Giraldos, and the group will likely face some significant struggles in attempting to recover from these blows. 

Nevertheless, the weakening of the Giraldos will likely have the side-effect of further strengthening the Urabeños’ position in the Caribbean. This is one of the most strategically important areas for Colombian criminal groups, thanks to the ports which facilitate the international export of cocaine shipments, as well as a thriving trade in contraband petrol smuggled from Venezuela. The winding down of the Urabeños-Giraldos conflict should bring a welcome drop in violence in the region, but Colombian authorities still face the larger challenge of stopping the Urabeños from becoming the most powerful criminal syndicate in the country. 

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