Colombian police have captured one of the country’s biggest criminal bosses, the Oficina de Envigado’s Erick Vargas Cardenas, alias "Sebastian."
El Tiempo reports that the Oficina leader was captured at 6:00 a.m. on the morning of August 8, in an operation in the municipality of Copacabana, just outside of Medellin. One of his bodyguards was reportedly killed in a confrontation with police.
The arrest was confirmed by President Juan Manuel Santos, who on his Twitter feed described the arrest as a “super blow” to the Medellin mafia group. In a subsequent announcement, the president said that Sebastian would be extradited to the United States.
Sebastian’s arrest certainly puts the future of the Oficina into question, and could herald a major shift for organized crime in Medellin. Sebastian’s rival for power, Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias "Valenciano," was arrested in Venezuela in November 2011. With Valenciano out of the picture, Sebastian became the unopposed leader of the Oficina, and attempted to consolidate the group’s control over the city.
This has been hampered, however, by the growing influence of another criminal organization in the city: the neo-paramilitary group the Urabeños. Led by Henry de Jesus Lopez, alias "Mi Sangre," and bolstered by some former members of Valenciano’s faction who joined after Valenciano's arrest, the Urabeños have been moving in on the Oficina’s control of criminal activity in Medellin.
With Sebastian out of the picture and no clear successor in sight, the Urabeños may be poised to become the dominant criminal organization in the city. The epicenter of much of the conflict between the two has been Medelliin’s turbulent Comuna 8. Rival “combos” (street gangs), each working for one of the two larger players, have turned the eastern neighborhood into a battleground. While the Oficina was thought to have the upper hand in this battle, Sebastian’s arrest may cost his organization the allegiance of the combos.
If the Urabeños wrest control from the Oficina, it will mean the end of an era for the city’s criminal underworld. The Oficina was set up in the 1980s as part of Pablo Escobar’s empire, and has dominated crime in Medellin ever since.
The rise of the Urabeños could also have an impact on the nature of crime in the city. As one police intelligence source told InSight Crime earlier this year, Mi Sangre has many more international drug trafficking connections than Sebastian, which means he has more resources. Sebastian relied on Medellin’s internal drug market, extortion, and control of local lotteries for funds, much of which had to be shared with local combos tasked with collecting it.
Mi Sangre, on the other hand, has access to the Urabeño-controlled Caribbean coast and drug trafficking networks in Central America and Mexico, which pull in far greater revenue. Of course, greater revenue means greater influence, as Mi Sangre can afford to include far more people on his pay roll.
While the Oficina is still not completely out of the equation and Mi Sangre is far from the unchallenged leader of Medellin, if he does climb to the top, his international connections could see the city return to its status as the hub of the country’s drug trafficking activity that it was 20 years ago.