News that the captured "political chief" of the Urabeños had been seeking a peace process with the Colombian government is the latest sign that Colombia's leading criminal network is planning a negotiated exit strategy. But with only the thinnest of political facades covering their criminal activities, will the government entertain such an idea?
Following the capture of Abimael Coneo Martinez on February 17, official sources leaked to the Colombian media that Coneo, alias "Torta," had been assigned the mission of building contacts with government officials to table a proposal: the Urabeños want the same benefits as those offered to the Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and they claim they will demobilize 8,000 fighters.
The FARC has been involved in a peace process with the government since late 2012 and negotiating the terms of their demobilization is looming in the talks. Although the rebel leadership's recent demands for zero prison time for leaders is unlikely to be met, they can expect to avoid the full weight of the law for their criminal activities and human rights violations as the government will need to incentivize their demobilization.
It has been apparent for some time that the Urabeños, a criminalized remnant of Colombia's paramilitary counter-insurgency, have been hoping to capitalize on this arrangement and over the last two years, they have been waging a sporadic public relations campaign attempting to portray themselves as a political organization.
In June 2013, the Urabeños issued a communiqué in which they called themselves the "third actor" in Colombia's conflict. Using their preferred name of the Colombian Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia) -- named for the murdered Colombian populist politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan -- the Urabeños praised the talks with guerrilla groups, but insisted that "while we are not part of the negotiation process, peace will continue to be a deferred aspiration in the collective imagination."
"[We are] seven thousand men in arms with a presence across the national territory," they wrote, before adding ominously, "We cannot be ignored."
According to conflict monitoring group Verdad Abierta, three months later the Urabeños command met for a conference where they laid out their political strategy and drew up a new charter for the organization -- a document Verdad Abierta reported it had seen.
In the charter, the Urabeños say they are a "political-military organization of civilians in armed resistance, of a social character, and transiently illegal."
They add that they rearmed after the demobilization of the paramilitary army that spawned them -- the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) -- as the government had broken the promises made to the AUC leadership, and "persecuted and exterminated" the paramilitaries. The document adds that they also returned to arms due to communities "clamoring for us to not leave them in the hands of groups that generate violence."
The new charter also defined the Urabeños' "political objectives" and how they were to achieve them, according to Verdad Abierta. Among these are their commitment to "political and military opposition" to "groups that generate violence," and "representing and defending" those whose "rights have been denied, threatened or violated by the state or other armed groups."
The document calls for a "political and negotiated exit" for the Urabeños, which should be achieved through a negotiated settlement and political project involving all actors in Colombia's armed conflict.
In May 2014, the Urabeños command took the next step in their public relations campaign -- taking their message to the public by publishing a magazine, "Gaitanista" and distributing it in strongholds such as Cordoba, parts of Medellin and their homeland, Uraba. Calling the magazine a "long held desire to have a medium of communication for a permanent dialogue with communities and our men," the Urabeños command used the platform to again back the peace process with the FARC.
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If the reports that Coneo was actively seeking contacts for negotiations -- which officials say included lobbying in Venezuela, which has acted as the guarantor for the FARC talks -- prove accurate then this suggests the Urabeños are now stepping up from PR campaign to working on an actual exit strategy.
While the continued aggression and military operations of the Urabeños in various territories around the country suggests they are far from banking on this strategy for their future, from the point of view of the Urabeños command, now is the time to at least explore these options. Not only do the FARC talks offer the Urabeños the opportunity to piggyback on any agreement struck between the guerrillas and the government, but also, crucially, the authorities seem to be edging ever closer to the Urabeños leaders and the man identified as their principal commander, Dario Antonio Usuga, alias "Otoniel."
Over the last few years, the Urabeños have lost several members of Otoniel's inner circle and the process appears to be accelerating. In recent weeks he has seen his romantic partner arrested as well as his political advisor Coneo, and is now the subject of a mass manhunt, with the Colombian minister of defense announcing the deployment of a thousand strong task force to Uraba to track him down.
However, while the benefits of a negotiated exit for Otoniel and the Urabeños leadership are clear, it will be a hard sell to convince the government, the public, or anyone else that the Urabeños are a political movement with an ideology and social objectives.
After emerging out of an AUC splinter group that refused to demobilize, the Urabeños quickly shed any political, social or counter-insurgent leanings and became an aggressively expansionist criminal army involved in drug trafficking, illegal mining, extortion and any other criminal activities it can stake a claim to.
Although they have continued to be linked to murders and threats of political activists, unionists, and journalists, there is likely an economic motive, such as preventing land restitution or protecting corrupt contacts, behind each case.
The Urabeños claim to be confronting "groups that generate violence," presumably the guerrillas they battled under the counter insurgent banner of the AUC. However, in reality, confrontation with the guerrillas is rare, localized, and takes place in zones where domination of criminal interests is at stake. In many parts of the country, far from confronting the guerrillas, they have become their business partners, relying on their former foes for a steady supply of coca for cocaine trafficking.
Even their own self-promotion betrays their apolitical nature. For all their fine rhetoric, their stated objectives are few and vague. Whereas the FARC have a long list of very specific political and social demands spanning from rural reforms to political participation, it is clear from the Urabeños short list of "political objectives" that all they are really interested in is a way out.
However, although the Urabeños' claims to be a political and social organization will fool only the most naive, it does not mean the government would not at least consider a demobilization agreement with them. The Urabeños are the only criminal organization left in Colombia with a coordinated national reach, and the opportunity to break that network up would prove tempting.
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Such a deal is also not without precedent. Last year, it was revealed that a consortium of Colombia's top drug lords had submitted a proposal to the government in 2011 offering to turn themselves in and demobilize their men, as well as providing information on drug routes and territories, corrupt contacts and illegal business interests.
The remarkable document, obtained by El Espectator, promised a comprehensive dismantling of the drug trade, and far eclipsed past negotiations with drug traffickers -- such as the infamous deal cut with Pablo Escobar, which the drug lord shamelessly exploited by directing his operations from the luxury prison he built for himself -- and all with no political façade. However, according to the leader of the Urabeños' rivals the Rastrojos, the now imprisoned Javier Calle Serna, alias "Comba," the government stalled on the plan while it continued to round up the drug lords and target their operations.
Most of the drug lords behind the plan are now in prison, and the Colombian underworld is more fragmented than ever. While the Urabeños retain a national presence and considerable firepower, their decentralized network structure means they are unlikely to be able to keep any promises to completely dismantle their criminal operations, or their promise to demobilize 8,000 fighters.
Although the Urabeños can almost certainly call on more guns than the 2,600 the police say are in their ranks, many of these operate as franchise members made up of allied street gangs, common criminals and cells of ex-paramilitaries. If the Urabeños were to turn themselves in, these groups are more likely to sense an opportunity to take over the criminal interests left behind than an opportunity to give up crime.
As the very existence of the Urabeños proves, negotiations with any armed group, criminal or ideological, is difficult, complex and can lead to unforeseen complications. With the security forces seemingly closing in on Otoniel and his inner circle, it seems far more likely Colombian authorities will continue their hunt rather than risk another messy negotiation.