Jobanis de Jesús Ávila Villadiego, alias "Chiquito Malo," is the current commander of the Urabeños, one of Colombia’s most powerful groups. The group is referred to as Clan del Golfo (Gulf Clan) by authorities and calls itself as the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC). Ávila assumed leadership of the organization following the arrest of Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," in October 2021.
Chiquito Malo inherited a criminal organization with significant challenges. Listed among them are persecution by the authorities, open warfare with other criminal groups and weak cohesion within the organization itself. He will have to confront these challenges in order to remain pertinent on Colombia's criminal chessboard.
Chiquito Malo was born in San Pedro de Urabá, a municipality in the Antioquia department, in northern Colombia. His criminal trajectory began within the paramilitary ranks of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC). He was part of the Banana Bloc, present in the Urabá region, until its demobilization in November 2004.
He later joined the Urabeños, a group that emerged in 2006 out of the paramilitary demobilization process, in which former members decided to return to arms and control criminal economies, such as drug trafficking, in the territories previously occupied by the AUC.
Due to his experience and knowledge of the Urabá area, Chiquito Malo quickly ascended within the structure. He was eventually appointed commander of the Urabá Central Structure, by which time he controlled the group's drug trafficking activities in the Gulf of Urabá, a key territory for shipping drugs to Central America and the United States.
By 2015, he was considered to be one of the group's top leaders. In June of that year, the United States government issued a formal accusation, identifying him as one of the main leaders of the drug trafficking structure.
That same year, after intense persecution by the Colombian authorities, Ávila Villadiego managed to escape a raid in Urabá, Antioquia, in which three men within his security team were killed and four more were captured. His whereabouts have since been unknown, but that has not affected his power.
In 2018, the United States requested his extradition to the United States on drug trafficking charges.
In February 2021, following the death of the second-in-command of the Urabeños, Nelson Hurtado Simanca, alias "Marihuano," Chiquito Malo became Otoniel's right-hand man, the person responsible for ensuring his safety. But that didn't last long. In October 2021, Otoniel was captured and Ávila Villadiego became the head of the criminal organization.
Behind him are other long-time commanders of the group, like Wilmer Giraldo, alias "Siopas" and José Gonzalo Sánchez, alias "Gonzalito." However, the extent to which he will be able to command their loyalty remains uncertain, as both of them were rumored to be vying for the top job.
Chiquito Malo took over the Urabeños with years of experience in controlling drug trafficking in Urabá, in both Antioquia and Chocó, a region where the group has historically maintained an influence and that is key to sending drug shipments to Central America, the United States and the Caribbean.
As the leader of the Urabeños, Chiquito Malo is at the helm of one of the country's largest criminal structures, which not only participates in drug trafficking, but also in other criminal economies, such as illegal mining, extortion and smuggling.
He is also in charge of managing and controlling the Urabeños’ internal network of structures, substructures and franchises, which maintain a certain degree of independence from the group's central leadership. These structures are key to the group's operations and criminal profits.
Before assuming leadership of the Urabeños, Chiquito Malo’s experience was concentrated in the Urabá region, which is divided between the departments of Antioquia and Chocó, and is key to criminal economies such as drug trafficking, illegal mining, migrant smuggling and contraband.
As the group’s leader, Ávila Villadiego is responsible for structures with a territorial presence in more than half of Colombia's departments. The group's greatest influence continues to be concentrated in the departments of Antioquia, Córdoba and Sucre. Nevertheless, the group still has a presence in Valle del Cauca, Bolívar, Magdalena, Cesar, Guajira, Norte de Santander and some municipalities in Nariño and Cauca. And through their franchises they have managed to participate in criminal dynamics in departments such as Meta, Casanare and Vichada. There has been speculation that Chiquito Malo will not be able to wield the same amount of authority across all Urabeños operations as his predecessor.
In May 2022, following the announcement that alias ‘Otoniel’ would be extradited to the United States, Chiquito Malo declared an armed strike in Colombia. This armed strike led to violence in 178 municipalities nationwide.
Allies and Enemies
As the Urabeños’ top leader, Chiquito Malo inherited allies and enemies, both domestically and internationally.
The Sinaloa Cartel has been among the Urabeños' primary drug trafficking associates for years, but the Mexican cartel is not the group’s only criminal ally. The group has managed to forge and maintain criminal ties with important European mafias, like the 'Ndrangheta and Balkan gangs.
These alliances require the Urabeños to control areas of cultivation, drug production and trafficking routes in Colombia, leading the group to engage in local battles over territorial control.
The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) is the Urabeños’ primary enemy in several areas of Colombia. In the Chocó department, the groups have clashed over control drug trafficking and illegal mining territories since 2018. In Norte de Santander, both groups have been fighting for key areas along the country's border with Venezuela since the end of 2020. The Urabeños had temporarily formed an alliance with the Rastrojos in the border area to wrest territory from the ELN, but the status of said alliance is uncertain.
In the northern department of Magdalena, Chiquito Malo’s men have been going head-to-head with the Pachenca since 2019. In the beginning, the Pachenca were the Urabenos’ main logistical operators for cocaine trafficking out of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, however, the Urabeños chose to dispute control of the territory and clear the way for them to dominate the area.
Similarly, in the Antioquia department, the group is fighting gangs associated with the Oficina de Envigado, its former ally, for control of the routes that connect southeastern Antioquia with the Chocó department and the Colombian Pacific. In other areas of the Antioquia department, such as the north and Bajo Cauca, the Urabeños have clashed with the 18th and 36th Fronts of the ex-FARC Mafia, which have been considerably affected by the group's actions.
In addition to the group's ongoing territorial wars within the country, Colombian authorities are on their heels, resulting in seizures, captures and casualties.
With just a few months at the helm of the criminal structure, Chiquito Malo's leadership faces significant challenges, both within and outside the criminal organization.
Internally, he faces an atomized structure with a history of betrayals and internal divisions, which he will have to circumvent if he wants to remain relevant on the country’s criminal chessboard.
Externally, criminal enemies and the Colombian and US governments have their eye on the group, with the latter focused on dismantling the criminal structure.
As Otoniel’s successor, Chiquito Malo was a top target as soon as he assumed leadership of the Urabeños. A reward of five billion pesos, more than $1 million, is already posted for information leading to his whereabouts.
In July 2022, the Urabeños launched a murder campaign targeting Colombian security forces, presumably on Chiquito Malo’s orders. The killings are likely aimed at keeping the group on the incoming government’s radar, as well as showing unity despite internal conflicts.