Urabeños Leader Killed, but Expansion Likely to Continue

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Colombian police have killed one of the leaders of the Urabeños, one of the most powerful criminal syndicates in the country, with links to Mexican cartels and highly skilled gunmen.

In a New Year’s Day raid, police surrounded a country house in northern Colombia reportedly owned by Juan de Dios Usuga, alias “Giovanni,” leader of the Urabeños. Over 90 people had attended a new year’s party hosted by Usuga in Acandi, Choco province and according to reports many guests were still there when police raided the ranch. During a 30-minute shootout Usuga was shot dead, along with a police officer. Another three men were arrested at the scene.

Police General Leon Riaño told reporters that they were led to Usuga’s hideout by a human source, who will receive a $600,000 reward.

According to police, Usuga ran Urabeños operations in the north of the country and was “in direct contact with all the ‘narcos’ in the area. He was the one who gave orders: control of trafficking routes, distribution points, crystallization labs for [coca] base and cocaine, as well as taking care of [illicit] crops.”

While it seems that Juan de Dios Usuga was the military head of the Urabeños, he has long worked alongside his brother Dario Antonio, alias “Otoniel,” who will be able to provide continuity of leadership and ensure that the Urabeños’ drug smuggling business and international contacts remain intact. Dario Antonio may also have been at the New Year celebrations, but managed to escape the police dragnet. The Urabeños also work with Henry de Jesus Lopez Londoño, alias “Mi Sangre,” a top level drug trafficker who is leading the group’s expansion into the city of Medellin. Over the last three years the Urabeños have been expanding from their base in the region of Uraba, from where they get their name, along the Caribbean Coast and into more than 13 of Colombia’s 32 provinces in up to 181 municipalities. This expansion is likely to continue, even with the death of Juan de Dios Usuga.

The strength of the Urabeños lies in their criminal roots. The Usuga brothers and much of the Urabeños top leaders were firstly in the left-wing rebel group, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), which laid down its arms in 1991. They then joined the right-wing paramilitary army of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which demobilized in 2006. This means that the group a long criminal pedigree, discipline, military training and deep connections with the communities in many of the areas it operates. Other operatives are either members of the security forces, or received training from former members of the military, ensuring that Urabeños tend to bring serious firepower and professionalism to their operations.

The raid which killed Juan de Dios Usuga had striking similarities to one carried out on December 25, 2010 when police assaulted a ranch owned by another powerful drug trafficker, Pedro Oliveiro Guerro, alias “Cuchillo.” Guerrero was celebrating Christmas with his men when the police closed in, although he managed to slip away during the raid, apparently still drunk, and later drowned in a nearby creek. It took police several days to find his body. His organization, the Popular Revolutionary Antiterrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC) splintered, with much of the group turning itself into the government in December 2011.

Usuga’s death is the latest in a string of operations by the Colombian security forces aimed at “High Value Targets,” a term and strategy used by the US government, which still provides funding and intelligence to Colombia. The strategy is having a great deal of success, taking down leaders of the main rebel group the Revolutionary armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), like Guillermo Saenz Leon, alias “Alfonso Cano” and Jorge Suarez, alias “Mono Jojoy,” and leaders of the new generation paramilitary groups, dubbed the BACRIMs by the government (‘bandas criminales’ or criminal bands).

However the evidence to date suggests that the elimination of these “High Value Targets” rarely disrupts the business of drug trafficking for long.

The Urabeños are engaged in a war with a rival BACRIM, the Rastrojos, which is also led by two brothers, Javier and Luis Enrique Calle Serna. The Rastrojos are unlikely to be able to take much advantage of the death of Juan de Dios Usuga, as the area where he was killed is an Urabeños stronghold and the leadership of the group is strong enough to absorb his loss. There have been rumors that the Calle Serna brothers are seeking to negotiate their surrender to US authorities.

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