Having become one of the more visible criminal actors in Colombia due to their war with the Urabeños, the Caparrapos have been heavily targeted by authorities in 2019 so far. However, this versatile criminal group has continued to thrive by forging alliances with the ELN and ex-Farc Mafia to secure crucial territory.
On January 23, the Colombian army seized an illegal mining site in the rural area of El Bagre, from which the group had been extracting over 20 kilos of gold a month, representing monthly earnings of over $725,000.
Just two days later, an operation in and around the rural municipality of Tarazá led to the arrest of 14 gang members, including six from the Caparrapos, as well as the freeing of a number of minors who had been forcefully recruited.
That same raid saw the seizure of a number of weapons, including rifles, handguns, hand grenades, over 1,200 rounds of ammunition, and communications equipment.
These actions by both the military and police came in response to an escalation of violence linked to the Caparrapos in Bajo Cauca. The violence has displaced at least 200 people. On January 17, clashes between the criminal group and the Urabeños, also known as the Clan del Golfo, forced 48 families to flee from a village in Tarazá.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile
In response, the Colombian army’s Seventh Division has sent a military presence to the area.
Despite these complications, the Caparrapos have continued to stengthen, mainly through strategic alliances with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberacíon Nacional – ELN) and ex-FARC Mafia, dissidents who have refused to join the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia – FARC).
The Caparrapos also have forged a pact with the former FARC 18th Front allowing the criminal group to further secure coca production and other illicit economies.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Caparrapos’ strength grew exponentially in 2018 as they took the upper hand in Bajo Cauca against the Urabeños, the group from which they broke off.
The group has proven to be agile in its shifting alliances with the ELN and FARC dissidents, which were made as violence has flared up and drawn a heavier military response, providing extra protection for the group at the right moment.
A source from Colombia’s Ombudsman’s office in the department of Córdoba, who wished to remain anonymous, told InSight Crime that “the Caparrapos are likely to expand strongly in 2019 and establish themselves firmly as a major player in the organized crime landscape.”
According to them, the alliance with the ELN first became clear in late 2018, when Caparrapos gang members were reported to be fighting alongside men wearing ELN armbands.
“These alliances are very volatile. It is likely to be temporary and based on claiming land. They will have delineated which areas each group can take,” said the source.
Around 30 years ago, the contested region of Bajo Cauca was a hotspot for the ELN and the FARC before pressure from right-wing paramilitary groups weakened their hold.
Now, it has become the site of an attractive land grab for groups such as the ELN, again due to the fragmentation of the Urabeños. Partnerships with the Caparrapos are being drawn up in order to best capitalize on this power vacuum.
This also ramps up the pressure on the Urabeños, who are increasingly at risk of fragmentation, as splinter groups begin to move drugs on their own. The trouble within the group has been evident with the loss of power of Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," its top leader who is currently on the run from authorities. Otoniel has offered in the past to turn himself in, along with a number of followers, but this has not taken place.
The Caparrapos are likely to continue rising in power in 2019 due to their combination of operational savvy and ruthlessness. Some 4,000 troops have been deployed to Antioquia and Córdoba to prevent the group’s further spread. But, according to the Ombudsman’s office source, “a lack of intelligence gathering ability and not knowing who the enemy is means the soldiers may only have a slight dissuasive effect.”