The arrest in Peru of a boss of Colombia’s biggest criminal network, the Urabeños, not only has transnational implications, but may affect the battle for control of Medellin, the jewel in Colombia's criminal crown.
Don Leo has had a long and diverse career in the Colombian underworld, starting out in the Maoist rebel group, the People’s Liberation Army (EPL), before joining the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), fighting under the command of Carlos Mario Jimenez Naranjo, alias “Macaco.” Later, he worked for trafficker Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias "Don Mario,” whose drug network would become known as the "Urabeños."
Don Leo rose to become a powerful figure in the Urabeños, leading the group’s operations in the strategic region of Bajo Cauca, in Antioquia province. It lies between the economic hub of Medellin and the Caribbean coast, making it a crucial spot to control for gangs transporting drugs from where they are grown in the Andes Mountains, to the departure points along the coast.
(See InSight Crime's profile of the Urabeños)
Once released from a spell in prison in 2011, Don Leo was sent to oversee the Urabeños’ take-over in Bajo Cauca. Under his command, the group pounded the rival Rastrojos until they were forced to make a deal and withdraw from much of the area.
On a 2012 trip to Bajo Cauca, InSight Crime investigated Don Leo's criminal fiefdom. Here the Urabeños levy “taxes” on even the most humble residents in the areas under their power, demanding a few dollars a week from people who sell chewing gum on the street, up to $5,000 per mechanical digger operated by illegal gold miners.
After consolidating his power in Bajo Cauca, it was time to turn to the prize of Medellin. In late 2012, there were reports that Don Leo had been put in charge of taking the city, a project that the Urabeños have been working on for some time. The group is battling to take Medellin from the long-established Oficina de Envigado, a mafia group that grew out of Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel.
The two powerful criminal networks are currently engaged in a war without quarter for control of Medellin’s street gangs, or “combos,” the city’s lucrative drug markets and its crucial drug shipment routes. Don Leo’s role became even more important after the Urabeños lead representative in Medellin, Henry de Jesus Lopez, alias “Mi Sangre,” was captured in October 2012.
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According to Colombia’s national police chief, Jose Roberto Leon Riaño, it was this battle for Medellin that brought Don Leo to Peru, as Caracol Radio reported. He left Colombia for Ecuador in October 2012, before arriving in Peru on January 21, using his brother’s passport. The aim of the trip was to make contacts with weapons traffickers, in order to arm the Urabeños for gang war with the powerful Oficina de Envigado, said the police chief. A supply of heavy weapons is a vital part of the Urabeños’ plan to take control of Medellin -- the group has reportedly been working to buy the loyalty of local combos by giving them military-grade weapons.
Don Leo is the latest of a string of high-ranking Urabeños to be captured or killed. The group lost one of its top leaders, Juan de Dios Usuga, alias "Giovanni," when he died in a security forces raid in January 2012. Two of his brothers were arrested in Colombia in May that year, followed by the arrest of another brother, Alexander Montoya Usuga, alias "El Flaco," in Honduras. Mi Sangre, who had headed the Medellin operations, was captured in Argentina in October.
The international nature of these recent arrests points both to the Colombian authorities’ ability to exert so much pressure on these figures that they find it safer to be abroad, and to the authorities’ capacity to cooperate with other countries in the region. The Lima arrest, for example, was carried out by Peruvian police working with Colombian intelligence. The broad geographic scope also gives an indication of the international reach of the Urabeños.
Don Leo’s capture will be a blow for the Urabeños, and particularly for their prospects of taking control of Medellin, though, like Mi Sangre, he clearly was not personally overseeing operations in the city. The Colombian police describe Don Leo as a top leader of the Urabeños. However, a remaining Usuga brother, Dario Antonio, alias "Otoniel," is thought to be the group's overall leader. If Don Leo is extradited to the United States, as has been requested, it would likely end his communication with his forces in Colombia, forcing the rise of a new leader from within the Urabeños.