While the Urabeños are presently established as Colombia’s top drug trafficking group, it remains to be seen how the evolution of organized crime in Colombia, and the future of the BACRIM, will play out. Below are some predictions.

The president of the Urabeños board of directors, Dario Antonio Usuga David, alias “Otoniel,” will fall. It is not a question of “if,” simply “when.” He not only has the invigorated Colombian police intelligence apparatus chasing him, but international agencies including the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

There are others within the Urabeños heartland that will be able to step up, and create another command module. Roberto Vargas Gutierrez, alias “Gavilan,” is probably that man. However, the strength of the Urabeños has been in its core of former People’s Liberation Army (EPL) and paramilitary fighters, men with a long criminal experience, military training, and the ability to win the hearts and minds of many of the local communities in which they operate. This pool of hardened criminals is drying up, as a result of captures, violence and internal disputes. The new recruits for the Urabeños tend to be common criminals. They do not have the discipline or training of their predecessors, meaning the quality of the Urabeños’ recruitment pool is getting diluted.

It is likely that over time the domination of those from Uraba will diminish, and this region will become just another criminal fiefdom, perhaps losing the “presidency” of the criminal board of directors. However the nature of this criminal network is such that it can quickly shift and recompose itself around other command nodes, making it almost impossible for the Colombian national police to dismantle the network in its entirety. The best the police can hope for is to target the command nodes as they appear, and undermine the finances of this group and other criminal organizations, which is a slow and long-term project. The successes against the drug trade must also be replicated in the other criminal industries that fund the different levels of the BACRIM (for the Spanish “bandas criminales” – criminal bands). Current priorities, for example, should include the illegal gold trade and extortion, primary sources of earnings for oficinas de cobro across the country.

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A new dynamic may well enter the Colombian underworld in 2014. At least 200 leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) are due to leave prison during the year[1], having served the eight years specified under the Peace and Justice legislation. One of those who may be eligible for release is Fredy Rendon, alias “El Aleman,” brother of “Don Mario” and of alias “JJ,” both of whom are Urabeños board members. The temptation to return to criminal life may be too great for some of these paramilitary fighters, who have great experience, criminal contacts and influence in the areas they operated. They could either boost BACRIM power, or set off power struggles, creating more violence.

Then of course there is the wild card, the Marxist rebels. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), if they wanted, could become the most powerful drug trafficking organization overnight. The ruling body of the FARC, the seven-man Secretariat, denies any involvement in drug trafficking. The Secretariat members are well aware that drug trafficking is their most important earner, but it is left in the hands of front commanders rather than being directed from above, to allow the top leadership to deny involvement in the trade. The only bloc commander who took direct control of the drug trade at a higher level was Victor Julio Suarez, alias “Mono Jojoy.”

This means that the FARC’s drug trafficking activities are not centrally coordinated. If they were, and the FARC decided to take control of drug trafficking in Colombia, they could do so, and quickly. The FARC, along with their National Liberation Armey (ELN) and EPL allies, have a stranglehold over coca cultivations. If they chose to stop selling coca base to the BACRIM, the Urabeños would find their drug trafficking operations crippled.

This raises the possibility of the criminalization of the guerrillas, and the birth of the “FARCRIM” following peace negotiations with the government. This subject has been discussed in detail in another InSight Crime paper, “The FARC, Peace and Possible Criminalization.”[2] It is inevitable that some elements of the guerrillas will criminalize. What is still to be determined, is whether these elements will join the existing Urabeños criminal network, or set up a rival network, which would inevitably lead to confrontation and further violence. During interviews conducted on the Medellin truce between the Oficina de Envigado and the Urabeños, it became clear that factions of the Oficina perceived the criminalization of guerrilla elements to be their greatest threat to their long-term future.

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The guerrillas could become a drug cartel in the true sense of the word. They could gain control over all the links in the drug chain, from crops up to exportation of cocaine shipments. They have the military power to take on and defeat any rival criminal elements that stand in their way. There is already evidence to suggest that the Mexican cartels are seeking to cut out the BACRIM middlemen, and negotiate directly with the FARC. There are signs of this specifically with the FARC’s 36th and 57th Fronts in Antioquia and Choco, the 29th and 30th Fronts in Nariño and Valle del Cauca, and the 48th Front in Putumayo. The guerrillas could set up a criminal network to rival that of the Urabeños — one with greater territorial control, a monopoly over drug crops, and a military machine that even the state has yet to defeat.

The BACRIM’s greatest opportunities for growth may lie abroad, and as criminal migration occurs, it is clear that elements of the Urabeños franchise are establishing access to coca and cocaine supplies in both Peru and Bolivia.

The growing internal drug markets of Brazil and Argentina offer enormous opportunities, and quick rewards. The process of sending drugs to the United States and Europe is complicated, involving shipments passing through many hands, entailing high risks of seizure and betrayal, and a need to repatriate money. Smuggling cocaine or even cocaine paste into other Latin American nations, on the other hand, involves far less risk and more immediate payment.

Additionally, the opportunities in Europe are about to greatly increase for Colombian organized crime, with the lifting of the Schengen visa restrictions on Colombian nationals. This will allow the Urabeños network, which already has oficinas de cobro in Spain, to burst across Europe. The Colombians will thus be able to move further down the drug trafficking chain and get involved in distribution, meaning that the margins on every kilo of cocaine smuggled could rise significantly. This might allow the BACRIM to recover similar levels of profits from cocaine to those enjoyed by the first and second generation drug trafficking organizations.

Criminal and law enforcement sources consulted in Bolivia gave accounts illustrative of the new tendencies for Colombian transnational organized crime. Some spoke of Santa Cruz as the “new Medellin.” Here Colombian criminal elements have set up shop, processing coca base flown in from Peru, as well as that gathered within Bolivia. They then deliver it either to Brazilian criminal groups, for distribution in Brazil, or move it to Colombian elements located in Argentina, for local distribution or for shipment to Europe and other destinations.

Currently, this business remains low profile. The members of Colombia’s transnational criminal networks do not strut around brandishing gold-plated Uzi machine guns. Instead, they are armed with iPhones and the latest generation encryption programs. They are, to all outward appearances, successful businessmen, buying and selling legal, as well is illegal, commodities. They are the drug traffickers of the present and the future. They still need access to criminal muscle like that provided by the Urabeños, but they prefer cooperation, persuasion and consensus to violence. This means they attract little attention, and have become very good at carrying out their business under the radar, beyond the prying eyes of national and international law enforcement.

Colombian organized crime, currently represented by the Urabeños, remains a pioneering force in the international illegal narcotics trade. However, it is becoming increasingly hard to spot it.


[1] Semana, ” Los 200 ‘paras’ que saldrán de la cárcel,” January 25, 2014. https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/paramilitares-que-saldran-cobijados-por-la-ley-de-justicia-paz/371920-3

[2] See the InSight Crime special investigation at /special-series/peace-with-farc

Jeremy McDermott is co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime. McDermott has more than two decades of experience reporting from around Latin America. He is a former British Army officer, who saw active...