The BACRIM in places like the region of Bajo Cauca are a typical manifestation of Colombia's underworld today: a semi-autonomous local cell that is part of a powerful national network.
The BACRIM's roots lie in the demobilized paramilitary umbrella group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC). The AUC swept across Colombia in the late 1990s and early 2000s in a blood-soaked campaign to drive out guerrilla groups and their alleged sympathizers, to seize land and to grab control of criminal economies. As happened throughout the country after the AUC disbanded, many of Bajo Cauca's paramilitaries did not rejoin civilian life but instead criminalized. They have since evolved into paramilitary-criminal hybrid networks with new structures, modus operandi and relations with other armed actors.
The Bajo Cauca Franchise
Bajo Cauca -- a region in the northern part of the department of Antioquia consisting of six municipalities -- is territory held by the Urabeños, the last remaining BACRIM with a truly national reach. The Urabeños are quite simply the most powerful criminal organization in Colombia today. However, as is often the case in the Urabeños partially decentralized network, the relationship between the Urabeños' national leadership and the local BACRIM is complex. Some cells are closely controlled by the central command, but others operate autonomously.
The BACRIM cells that control the east of Bajo Cauca are "pure" Urabeños. They are directed by the Urabeños national command, who provide them with leaders and manpower from outside the region. According to military sources, the standard structure for such cells is a commander, or "Primero," who is supported by his finance chief, or "Segundo," and military chief, the "Tercero." Below them are five more chiefs, responsible for logistics, recruitment, intelligence and assassin networks, ideology, and community relations.
However, the rest of the region is the domain of a different network with a long history in Bajo Cauca, and which, for the moment, maintains a level of autonomy from the Urabeños commanders. For the network's older members at least, they are not true Urabeños but the "Chepes."
Rafael Alvarez Piñeda, alias "Chepe," is a former mid-level AUC commander and founding member of the Paisas, the first BACRIM to take form in Bajo Cauca. In the war for Bajo Cauca that raged between 2008 and 2012, the Paisas split into rival factions. Chepe's faction formed an alliance with the Urabeños while a rival faction joined with the Urabeños' chief rival, the Rastrojos.
In 2012, the Rastrojos ceded Bajo Cauca to the Urabeños as part of a deal cut by the national leaders of both sides. The lower levels of the Rastrojos-Paisas were assimilated into the Urabeños backed Chepes, while the upper levels fled or were exterminated. Chepe himself was captured in 2013, but the network he formed continues to hold the territory on behalf of the Urabeños.
The coopting of local BACRIM cells such as the Chepes into the Urabeños' franchise has helped the Urabeños spread their influence into key criminal territories across Colombia. It is a model that is mutually beneficial, with money and power flowing in both directions.
The Chepes offer the Urabeños an armed presence along the drug routes and production zones of Bajo Cauca, and in return they receive the power and protection that comes with having a powerful national backer that can provide arms and reinforcements. The Chepes are paid for escorting drugs through the region and can run local criminal economies as a monopoly, but in return they route a monthly tax to the Urabeños through banks and businesses in the city of Medellín.
A lineup of those captured in a December 2016 anti-BACRIM police raid
However, there are signs of growing tensions between the Chepes and the Urabeños after recent police operations have left the cell in disarray and a spate of murders has been blamed on a new turf war. Before his arrest in Medellin in March, Chepes commander, José Horacio Osorio Bello, alias 6-7, sold part of the Bajo Cauca franchise to the Medellín-based criminal group Los Triana without the permission or knowledge of the Urabeños, accorrding to sources from within both the BACRIM and the security forces.
In urban centers such as Bajo Cauca's de facto capital Caucasia, the BACRIM are a shadowy presence visible only to those who know. Their hitmen ride as motorcycle passengers. Their extortionists look like customers. Their lookouts are neighbourhood kids and their finance networks are local businesses.
However, in the lawless backwaters they have inherited from their paramilitary predecessors as territorial strongholds, the BACRIM wield power far more openly, and it is from these rural communities that they direct their criminal networks. With no state presence, the hundreds of residents living in these villages instead abide by the rules of the BACRIM.
In Bajo Cauca, the BACRIM's strength lies above all in two sprawling rural districts in the municipality of Caceres that were once fiefdoms of some of the most powerful paramilitary warlords in Bajo Cauca: Piamonte and Guarumo.
Piamonte was once a bastion of one of the AUC's most feared warlords, Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias "Macaco," and is now the Bajo Cauca BACRIM's strategic base. Piamonte's populated area is divided into sectors: one for the general population and one for BACRIM members. The population is at the mercy of the BACRIM, but there is little difference in the standards of living, with the BACRIM inhabiting the same basic rudimentary houses, only with more security features.
Many of the BACRIM living in Piamonte do so as it is one of the safest places to avoid arrest warrants. Access to their sector is only by ferry and the short river crossing is heavily guarded with several armed "campaneros" -- lookouts -- monitoring those who come and go.
Motorbikes board the ferry departing Piamonte
The only routes the police can take if they want to raid Piamonte are also closely guarded, with campaneros monitoring the road leaving Caucasia to the south and BACRIM sentries lining the banks of the river on either side of the town.
Beyond the urban center, there is Piamonte's rural area, which is patrolled by units that guard the BACRIM's coca crops, cocaine processing labs, illegal gold mines, and hidden caches of heavy weaponry.
Not far from Piamonte is Guarumo, another district that has become where the region's major local commanders live or use as a refuge.
The commanders in Guarumo are attended by squads of bodyguards who keep a close watch on all movement into and out of the area, and maintain a permanent presence along the one road into town. As one of the most secure locations in the region, Guarumo is also used as the site for top level meetings, and for the weekly BACRIM parties and cockfights.
The isolated islands of La Amargua and La Plantera, which are a short ferry ride from both Piamonte and Guarumo, are where the cell's top commanders reportedly live. These islands also provide cover for the BACRIM's torture camps. According to both locals and BACRIM sources, the islands have become mass graves.
Both Piamonte and Guarumo are considered more prestigious turf for commanders than any others in the cell's zone of influence, as they are usually handed to those close to the commander. For the residents, each of which must personally pay the BACRIM their "tax," these commanders are the law.
Armed Power Dynamics
The BACRIM are not the only armed actors with a stake in Bajo Cauca. They must also deal with rivals and partners from both the legal world and the underworld in the form of the police and Marxist guerrilla groups, balancing relationships with both by maneuvering power and money. This delicate dynamic is now set to be disrupted by the ongoing demobilization of the most powerful guerrilla group in Bajo Cauca and Colombia as a whole -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).
Corruption of the security forces, in particular the police, plays a key role in the BACRIM’s operations. The BACRIM say corrupt officers receive monthly payments in return for information. Tip-offs enable them to prepare for police or military operations and ensure drug shipments move through the zone unhindered.
The BACRIM's intelligence networks penetrate every level of command from the street level patrolmen to, they claim, the regional police commanders. A senior army source, who preferred to remain anonymous, admitted that corruption stifles military operations in Bajo Cauca.
"We know there are people on the inside who work for them. They warn them we're coming. It happens every time," the source said.
Still, he did not give any specific examples.
Tension between the police and the military is common in Bajo Cauca. They share responsibility for the region's security under the multi-agency network known as "Operación Corazón Colombia," or "Operation Colombian Heart."
"Let's just say there are those who are driven by their own interests and not the interests of peace," said the army source.
Corrupt officials not only ensure the safe passage of contraband, but also allegedly supply the BACRIM with weapons.
In the AUC years, the paramilitaries of Bajo Cauca waged a bitter and brutal war against the FARC and the smaller guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). However, old hatreds have given way to new business relationships, and until recently the FARC and the Urabeños had an agreement.
Under the terms the agreement between the BACRIM and the FARC, each side would stick to their territories and the economic interests within. The guerrillas, whose territory covered most of the lands used for coca cultivation, would buy coca paste -- the precursor gummy paste that is the first part of transforming the plant into cocaine -- from the farmers and sell it to the BACRIM. If they wanted to move their own paste through BACRIM territory to another zone, they would pay a transport fee.
However, with the FARC as a national organization now handing in its arms and preparing to rejoin civilian life, the Bajo Cauca underworld is reorganizing, and the new conflicts and cycles of violence are already taking shape. (See coverage of FARC-government peace process here)
Violence linked to the peace process was already a reality before the signing of the final agreement in late 2016. During the last years of the negotiations between the government and the FARC, the Urabeños confronted an alliance of FARC and ELN guerrillas in the municipalities of Zaragoza and El Bagre, and the ELN in Cáceres. Since the FARC demobilization began, splinter elements are believed to be working with the new BACRIM alliance between a faction of los Chepes and Los Triana in Tarazá and Cáceres.
The demobilization is also affecting the drug trade. To the north in Nechí, coca growers report that the FARC have already disappeared and the BACRIM have begun purchasing the paste directly from the coca farmers themselves.
"The guy who usually comes turned up with someone new and said we had to pay him from now on," said one farmer. "It was as simple as that. Nothing else has changed. The price has not changed. Just someone new is buying what we make."
In El Bagre, a mysterious new figure has emerged, known simply as "Misael." Locals say Misael is employing scores of people to harvest coca leaves on land near Puerto Claver. They say they are paid 12,000 pesos (roughly $4) per "arroba" (about 25 pounds) of coca leaves they pick. This is more than the usual 5,000 pesos (roughly $1.75) paid by other coca farmers.
*Reported by James Bargent and Mat Charles. Filmed and edited by Mat Charles. Additional filming by Sven Wolters