The Steady Downfall of Colombia’s Most Powerful Drug Organization

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Rocked by government assaults, internal dissent and a leader publicly looking to abandon ship, the Urabeños are facing a dire outlook, one that promises a violent reshuffling within Colombia’s criminal landscape.

The arrest in early August of Carlos Mario Tuberquia Moreno, alias “Nicolás,” one of the top bosses of the Urabeños drug trafficking organization, was the last nail in the coffin of this group’s historical leadership.

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In less than a year, Urabeños top chief Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel”, saw his command circle decimated by the successive arrests or deaths of longtime second-in-command Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez, alias “Gavilán;” Manuel Arístides Meza Páez, alias “El Indio;” Daniel Martínez Caraballo, alias “Samuel,” and now Nicolás, the group’s chief financial officer and a key coordinator of drug operations. Nicolás was also responsible for leading Otoniel’s surrender negotiations with authorities, according to El Colombiano. This process has since frozen, also according to the news outlet.

Otoniel has replaced the fallen generals by promoting a younger generation of Urabeños lieutenants, reported El Colombiano on September 21. The reshuffling has led to the rise of Giovanis Ávila Villadiego, alias “Chiquito Malo,” reportedly the main person in charge of maritime trafficking routes to the United States and Europe; Nelson Darío Hurtado Simanca, alias “Marihuano,” in command of the Central Urabá Bloc (Bloque Central Urabá) and some 700 men in the Caribbean sub-region; and other commanders of regional blocs, according to the news outlet.

Current Urabeños leadership and presence in Colombia. Courtesy of El Colombiano.

This internal power redistribution was partly confirmed by Blu Radio on October 2. The news outlet claimed that Marihuano was second-in-command and that Chiquito Malo followed. Citing Jorge Luis Vargas Valencia, the police general at the head of government operations against the Urabeños, Blu Radio also reported the rise of Dario Úsuga, alias “Pueblo,” relative of Otoniel’s.

Unlike the fallen generals, this new generation is perceived as being more purely criminal, with little of the ideology stemming from the Urabeños’ paramilitary and guerrilla roots.

The Urabeños’ toppled leaders represented a formidable source of power. Since 2013, they had led nearly 4,000 men in 20 of Colombia’s 32 departments, as well as international cells in Panama, Venezuela and Spain, according to El Colombiano.

Falling finances

It’s not only the loss of old-time generals that have wounded the Urabeños. Under constant government pressure, the group has been bleeding cash due to massive cocaine seizures. After three years of Operation Agamemnon — a joint police-military crackdown based in the group’s Urabá sub-region stronghold — the Urabeños have lost more than 300 metric tons of cocaine. Nearly 2,500 of its members have also been killed or captured.

This has directly affected the group’s capacity to pay its recruits, InSight Crime found during field investigations.

Seeing its power wane, some independent traffickers have begun using Urabeños drug routes without the groups’ permission, according to Semana, further denting the network’s finances and credibility. And Otoniel’s public decision to negotiate his surrender with authorities, reiterated in September 2017 after the death of alias Gavilán, is a clear sign of his declining power.

The end of the Otoniel era?

With troubled finances and a captain openly abandoning ship, cracks are appearing within the organization. This is most visible in the north of the Antioquia department, where a dissident faction named the “Caparrapos” has entered in open conflict with the Urabeños. Other elements of the Urabeños are moving drugs without Otoniel’s permission – a strong sign that the top leader is losing ground control fast – according to Blu Radio.

The growing independence of Urabeños sub-structures is also being catalyzed by the increasing influence of Mexican groups in Colombia, InSight Crime has learned. While the Urabeños high command is facing financial troubles, Mexican buyers are injecting cash directly into the hands of lower levels, further delegitimizing Otoniel’s leadership and driving wedges between different units.

A split of the Urabeños network looms large, and localized bursts have already given a taste of the violence that could ensue from the fragmentation of Colombia’s current most powerful crime group. Otoniel may well be the last leader of the Urabeños’ fading franchise.

*This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime’s Colombian Organized Crime Observatory.

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