Today the Urabeños are the only BACRIM with a national reach. They are also arguably the only real BACRIM still standing. While the government recognizes the existence of three BACRIM -- the Urabeños, the Rastrojos and the ERPAC dissidents -- the truth is that the Rastrojos are now fragmented into different factions, with no united leadership, while the most powerful of the ERPAC dissident groups, "Heroes of Vichada," is working with the Urabeños.
The Urabeños are now organized into eight different blocs, across the entire nation. However, this does not mean that Dario Antonio Usuga David, alias "Otoniel," exerts direct control over all the elements within these blocs. Otoniel is simply the head of the Urabeños' "Estado Mayor," or board of directors. The other members of the board, many regional chiefs, are financially self-sufficient. They run all manner of criminal activities in their criminal fiefdoms. Otoniel has neither the strength nor power to dictate terms to these regional chiefs. They have their own protection teams, but in many areas rely on local oficinas de cobro, either rural or urban, to carry out specific criminal tasks. Many of the oficinas de cobro are also financially self-sufficient, and the regional chiefs may not have the ability to dictate terms to some of the stronger oficinas.
This, again, is a major difference between the Urabeños as a third-generation drug trafficking organization, and earlier structures such as that run by Pablo Escobar. Escobar was able to direct all those who formed part of the Medellin cartel. The AUC's Estado Mayor was also able, for the most part, to keep its members in line. Those who refused to toe the line, for example the Metro Bloc, led by Carlos Mauricio Garcia, alias "00," were wiped out by other AUC elements.
Otoniel and the Urabeños central command have also declared war on elements that have refused to obey orders, including the Oficina del Caribe in the Sierra Nevada and Santa Marta. However, this war has not yet been totally won, and taking this kind of military action is very much a last resort. The Urabeños today largely rely on cooperation and consensus. The different nodes in the criminal network cooperate in the interests of illegal businesses, and will work for the highest bidder. The glue that keeps the network together is profit. This is the free market at its most unregulated.
The key to the Urabeños' expansion has been making agreements and alliances with other BACRIM (for the Spanish "bandas criminales" - criminal bands) and oficinas de cobro. Some of these still have their separate identity, while others have been absorbed into the wider Urabeños franchise. Following is a list of many of the groups that have become part of, or affiliated with, the Urabeños to date:
- Vencedores de San Jorge and Heroes de Castaño (Antioquia and Cordoba)
- Aguilas Negras (Antioquia, Cordoba, Bolívar, Cesar and Norte de Santander)
- Los Traquetos (Cordoba)
- Los Nevados (Atlantico and La Guajira)
- Paisas (Antioquia)
- BACRIM del Alta Guajira (Guajira)
- Oficina del Caribe (Atlantico and La Guajira)
- La Cordillera (Caldas, Risaralda, Quindio)
- Los Machos (Valle del Cauca)
- Renacer (Choco)
- Oficina de Envigado (Medellin, Antioquia)
- Heroes de Vichada (Vichada, Guaviare, Meta)
Perhaps the best example of this type of criminal cooperation is the truce that was negotiated in Medellin. After the extradition of Don Berna in 2008, Medellin became a battleground, as rival factions of the Oficina de Envigado, each claiming the loyalty of combos and oficinas de cobro in their areas of influence, sought to claim Don Berna's throne. After the November 2011 capture of Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias "Valenciano" -- one of the pretenders to the Medellin criminal throne -- the Urabeños also threw their hats into the ring, seeking to establish their own hegemony in the Antioquia capital. However, the fighting became drawn out, attracting the attention of law enforcement, and interrupting illegal activities. For this reason, many top level Medellin drug traffickers reached out to elements of the Oficina de Envigado and the Urabeños to broker a peace deal.
On July 13, 2013, members of different factions of the Oficina de Envigado met with Urabeños leaders at an estate in San Jeronimo, about an hour's drive from Medellin. Negotiating on behalf of the Oficina were leaders representing at least 17 of the most powerful oficinas de cobro or, as the police refer to them, "ODINs" (Criminal Organizations Integrated With Drug Trafficking - Organizacion Delincuencial Integrada al Narcotrafico), and up to 120 different "combos." The Urabeños had four of their Medellin bosses, headed by alias "Don Daniel," a former AUC middle ranking commander. The meeting resulted in the signing of a truce and cooperation agreement, which has been respected to date. Indeed, in October 2013 the murder rate in Medellin reached the lowest levels seen in three decades.
SEE ALSO: Oficina de Envigado Profile
The Oficina de Envigado is now affiliated with the Urabeños, and Medellin narco-traffickers use elements of both groups for their business. The relationship between the two BACRIM is mutually beneficial. The Oficina de Envigado controls much of the money laundering and contacts within Medellin, as well as drug distribution and extortion within the city. The rural-based Urabeños have access to drug crops, can protect laboratories, and can move drugs to departure points. Everybody in the criminal network wins.
Then there is the case of the Heroes of Vichada, one of the ERPAC dissident groups that the government still recognizes as a BACRIM. Intelligence sources told InSight Crime that the Urabeños' Estado Mayor sent 150 men to support Martin Farfan Diaz, alias "Pija Arvey," who heads the Vichada BACRIM, in his fight against another ERPAC dissident group, the Meta Bloc, led by Dario Andres Leon, alias "Jonathan." The Heroes of Vichada are still a real BACRIM, in the sense that they have a presence in more than one Colombian department, and run their own drug routes into neighboring Venezuela. However, they are now part of the Urabeños' criminal network, although Otoniel has no direct control over the group.
Who are the identified members of the Urabeños' Estado Mayor or Board of Directors?
Dario Antonio Usuga David, alias "Otoniel," currently the "president" of the board.
Roberto Vargas Gutierrez, alias "Gavilan"
Carlos Antonio Moreno Tuberquia, alias "Nicolas" (a former AUC paramilitary who is now a major drug trafficker)
Marcos de Jesus Figueroa Garcia, alias "Marquitos" (runs operations in La Guajira)
Arley Usuga Torres, alias "07" (captured). Following his arrest, his second-in-command, Luis Orlando Padierna, alias "Inglaterra," may have gotten a seat on the board.
Rafael Alvarez Piñeda, alias "Chepe" (captured). Chepe was the leader of a Paisas faction in Antioquia who joined the Urabeños.
Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias "Don Mario" (captured, but still believed to have contact with the group)
Alias "JJ" (believed to be a brother of Don Mario)
Alias "El Señor de la M" (a Medellin narco-trafficker with roots going back to the Medellin cartel, one of the so-called "Invisibles").
Heads of allied BACRIM and powerful oficinas de cobro may also have a place on the Urabeños board. It is possible, for example, that Greylin Fernando Varon Cadena, alias "Martin Bala," captured in May 2013 in Bogota, was a member of the Urabeños' Estado Mayor. From Cali, he was instrumental in the Urabeños' entry into the Valle del Cauca capital, and helped the Urabeños secure the loyalty of several oficinas de cobro in this Rastrojos heartland.
There are certainly others on the Urabeños board, and it will continue getting harder to identify Colombia's senior drug traffickers. The enforcers, such as the military wing of the Urabeños, will however have to raise their heads above the parapet, as part of their job is to establish enough of a reputation to ensure their credibility and effectiveness in maintaining order in the underworld.
Areas still under dispute or outside the Urabeños franchise
While the Urabeños are far and away the principal criminal network in Colombia, they do not have total hegemony over drug trafficking in the country, even in the areas that are not under guerrilla control.
The war for control of Buenaventura, one of the two drug trafficking prizes on the Pacific Coast, is far from over. At one point last year, it seemed the most powerful oficina de cobro in the city, the Rastrojos-affiliated "La Empresa," had been beaten by the Urabeños and their local allies. However, that was not the case, as demonstrated by continued fighting and high levels of violence in the area.
The other prize on the Pacific Coast is the port of Tumaco in Nariño. Nariño is not only crucial as a departure point for drug shipments; it is also home to some of the most extensive coca plantations in the country. It is key drug trafficking real estate in part because it shares a long border with Ecuador, an important transshipment point for Colombian cocaine consignments. The Urabeños have made excursions into Nariño, but so far the group has been unable to establish a permanent presence there.
The department of Putumayo, also on the border with Ecuador, is another important location for the drug trade. Here, however, the FARC's mighty Southern Bloc holds sway, working with an oficina de cobro known as "La Constru," which is made up of former paramilitaries and local criminals acting out of the towns of Puerto Asis and La Hormiga. The Urabeños have sent emissaries to the department, but will likely be unable to establish a permanent presence without the blessing of the FARC.
Another drug trafficking hotspot is the department of Norte de Santander, where elements of the Rastrojos still wield considerable influence. Here, both the Urabeños and the Rastrojos have begun operating across the Venezuelan border, as well as on the Colombian side. The Urabeños, seeking to win over important oficinas de cobro in the city of Cucuta, are hoping to establish hegemony over this crucial crossing point.
The Urabeños war against the Oficina del Caribe saw Santa Marta emerge as one of the most dangerous cities in the country in 2012. Both sides have suffered heavy losses and seen key regional leaders arrested, including the Urabeños commander Belisario. The national reach of the Urabeños means they are better equipped for a long battle, as the much smaller and localized Oficina del Caribe cannot take sustained losses. This makes an eventual Urabeños victory the most likely outcome.
Holdout factions of the Rastrojos have also been battling the Urabeños in southern Choco, causing mass displacements. However, the region is increasingly falling under the control of the Urabeños-Renacer alliance.
The International Element
The Urabeños are a transnational organized crime syndicate. InSight Crime has traced Urabeños emissaries, if not a permanent presence, in: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Honduras, Panama, Peru, Venezuela and Spain. Facing security force pressures at home, Colombian organized crime will continue to migrate, in what is known as the "cockroach effect." When the lights are turned on in a room, the cockroaches scurry for the dark corners. The same is true of organized crime and the lights are now on in Colombia.
It is not a coincidence that many of the recent arrests of Urabeños leaders, or affiliated drug traffickers, have taken place outside of Colombia:
- Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias "Valenciano," an Urabeños ally who was a leader of the Oficina de Envigado and a faction of the Paisas, was captured in Venezuela in November 2011.
- Alexander Montoya Usuga, alias "El Flaco," was arrested in La Ceiba, Honduras in July 2012.
- Henry De Jesús Lopez Londoño, alias "Mi Sangre," was arrested in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in October 2012.
- Jacinto Nicolas Fuentes German, alias "Don Leo," was arrested in Lima, Peru, while allegedly seeking to set up an arms smuggling pipeline, in February 2013.
- John Fredy Manco Torres, alias "El Indio," an Urabeños-affiliated drug trafficker was arrested in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in, June 2013.
- Carlos Andres Palencia Gonzalez, alias "Visaje," accused of setting up an Urabeños oficina de cobro in Spain, was arrested in Madrid in November 2013.
Corruption and BACRIM-politica
The Urabeños do not have the same institutional links to the military as their paramilitary predecessors, nor the nationwide power to be able to consistently corrupt elements of the security forces at the highest national levels. However, the Urabeños and their allies certainly can, and do, corrupt policemen, soldiers and members of the judiciary at the local, and perhaps even regional, level. There are some examples that stand this up:
In June 2013, ten officials from the special investigations police (SIJIN), the military, the Technical Investigations Unit (CTI) and the police were convicted of working with Renacer in Choco. The officials were found to have provided intelligence on the movements of the security forces; sold munitions and provided arms to the group; staged false raids and captures; and informed the gang when arrest warrants were issued.
In July 2013, eight police were arrested in Medellin and accused of working with a criminal network connected to the Oficina de Envigado. The officers, who were all patrolmen, were accused of giving advance warning to micro-trafficking networks ahead of raids on drug sales points. A local councilor was also arrested.
In September 2013, a former prosecutor from Huila was charged with providing services to the Urabeños, along with corrupt politicians and businessmen. She stands accused of modifying, "disappearing," and throwing away documents related to criminal cases.
The same is true in the world of politics. While the AUC were able to boast control of over 30 percent of Colombia's Congress (and to date 60 congressmen have been charged in connection with the resulting para-politics scandal), the Urabeños do not have the strength, the ideological facade, nor probably even the intention of creating a nationwide political movement. However they are certainly interested in ensuring friendly candidates win posts at the municipal, departmental and even the national level in their areas of influence.
Perhaps the best example of this is in La Guajira. The governor of this department, Juan Francisco "Kiko" Gomez Cerchar, was arrested in October 2013 for numerous crimes, including ordering the murder of a town mayor and an indigenous leader in the region. Gomez's alleged criminal ties also long predate the era of the BACRIM, and according to a classified government report seen by Semana, he was long suspected of ties to contraband, gasoline and drug trafficking, and had contacts with the AUC's Northern Bloc. After the demobilization of the AUC and the rise of the BACRIM, Gomez continued to seek out the backing of armed groups, according to numerous sources, and struck up an alliance with Marcos Figueroa, alias "Marquitos," a major player in the La Guajira underworld, who is now part of the Urabeños network.
 Semana, " La otra paz que vive en Medellín," November 30, 2013. https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/pacto-de-paz-en-medellin/366521-3
 Jeremy McDermott, "New Fighting for Colombia's Lucrative Eastern Plains," InSight Crime, February 12, 2013. /news/analysis/new-round-war-colombia-eastern-plains
 Miriam Wells, "Urabeños Capture May Shakeup Turf War in South West Colombia," InSight Crime, May 30, 2013. /news/briefs/urabenos-capture-may-shake-up-turf-war-in-southwest-colombia
 James Bargent, "War for Cocaine Corridors Consumes Colombia's Busiest Port," InSight Crime, February 14, 2014. /news/analysis/war-for-cocaine-corridors-consumes-colombias-busiest-port
 James Bargent, "Assault against Urabeños Reveals Groups Move into Venezuela," InSight Crime, September 5, 2013. /news/briefs/assault-against-urabenos-reveals-groups-move-into-venezuela
 James Bargent, "Arrests May Shake Up Urabeños War in Colombia's Caribbean," InSight Crime, February 13, 2013, /news/analysis/urabenos-conflict-colombia-caribbean-los-giraldos
 El Espectador, "Guerra entre 'Rastrojos' y 'Urabeños' deja pueblo fantasma en Choco," January 16, 2013, https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/judicial/articulo-396941-guerra-entre-urabenos-y-rastrojos-deja-pueblo-fantasma-choco
 James Bargent, "Urabeños Absorb Local Crime Group in Colombia's Pacific," InSight Crime, March 25, 2013, /news/briefs/urabenos-absorb-local-crime-group-in-colombias-pacific
 James Bargent, "Will Urabeños Bring Peace Among Ecuador's Crime Groups?" November 08, 2013. /news/briefs/will-urabenos-break-peace-among-ecuadors-crime-groups
 Miriam Wells, "Are Urabeños Looking to Control Routes through Spain?" November 11, 2013. /news/briefs/top-urabenos-capture-in-spain-points-to-groups-expansion
 Territorio Chocano, "A la carcel miembros de la Fuerza Pública y el Ejercito por nexos con bacrim," June 13, 2013, https://www.territoriochocoano.com/secciones/orden-publico/2382-a-la-carcel-miembros-de-la-fuerza-publica-y-el-ejercito-por-nexos-con-bacrim.html
 ADN, "Detienen un concejal y 8 policías por nexos con Bacrim," July 12, 2013, https://diarioadn.co/medell%C3%ADn/mi-ciudad/detienen-a-concejal-de-envigado-y-8-polic%C3%ADas-por-nexos-con-bacrim-1.67838
 La Nacion, "A juicio ex fiscal de Nieva por nexos con las bacrim," September 24, 2013, https://www.lanacion.com.co/index.php/noticias-judicial/item/223008-a-juicio-ex-fiscal-de-neiva-por-nexos-con-las-bacrim
 Miriam Wells, "Colombia Governor Arrested for Multiple Murders, Crime Links," InSight Crime, October 14, 2013, /news/briefs/colombia-governor-arrested-for-multiple-murders-crime-links
 Semana, "Un gobernador de miedo un La Guajira," May 4, 2013, https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/un-gobernador-miedo-la-guajira/342196-3
 Semana, "La Guajira: sin dio ni ley," May 2, 2013, https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/la-guajira-dios-ni-ley/344339-3
The research presented in this article is, in part, the result of a project funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.