Now identified as the principal national security threat, two of Colombia's most powerful emerging criminal bands (BACRIMs), are gearing up for a major confrontation over access to the country’s Pacific coast.
As the Cali-based Colombian newspaper El Pais reports, the government of the western Valle del Cauca department has become increasingly concerned by reports that the criminal group known as the Urabeños has arrived there. The Urabeños, also called the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, are one of the most powerful of Colombia’s drug trafficking organizations, and are known for their high level of military discipline. Up until now they have been concetrated along the Caribbean Coast, but now seems to be strong enough to challenge their principal rivals, the Rastrojos, on their home turf.
At an official assembly earlier this week, Senator Cesar Tulio Delgado joined other regional officials in confirming this development, saying that his office had received information indicating that both the Urabeños and the smaller Paisas are operating in the north of the department.
The department’s police commander, Colonel Julian Gonzalez, questioned these claims. He said he had no reports of either of these two groups in the region, contradicting sources in the government's secret police, the DAS, which InSight consulted. Colonel Gonzalez attributed new outbreaks of violence in the region to infighting amongst members of the department’s main criminal organization, the Rastrojos. The Cauca region (consisting of both Valle del Cauca and neighboring Cauca departments) has long been a Rastrojos stronghold, ever since the group established itself there in 2002.
Still, these accounts of increasing Urabeños activity coincide with the death of one Pedro Julio Lobo Gil, alias ‘El Costeño,' who was shot to death on Wednesday in the municipality of Zarzal, which is also located in northern Valle del Cauca. According to a separate El Pais account, Lobo had previously been detained for links to the Urabeños, and although it has not been confirmed, some authorities regard his death as yet another indicator that the group is expanding its operations in the area.
The potential arrival of the Urabeños to the Pacific coast is especially worrisome not only because of their historic rivalry with the Rastrojos, but because the Cauca region is also a major operating center for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). As InSight has reported, the FARC and Rastrojos have repeatedly clashed there since February, despite the two groups' mutual alliance with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN). Cauca is also the scene of some of the most consistent and heavy fighting between the FARC and the army.
For all actors involved, the Cauca region has major strategic importance. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, there were nearly 7,500 hectares of coca in Valle del Cauca and Cauca departments combined in 2009. Most importantly, the area is also home to hundreds of drug laboratories, where coca paste is processed into cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) and sent to the Pacific coast departure points to be moved in submarines, go-fast launches, fishing boats, or containers on large shipping vessels. From there, the product is shipped northward to Central America and Mexico.
Ultimately, if reports of the Urabeños territorial ambitions in the area are correct, then the region could be a proverbial powder keg with the potential to ignite and spark a major shift in the country’s drug war.