The strategic Colombian peninsula of La Guajira, a sought after departure point for drugs heading across the Caribbean, may be up for grabs once more with the arrest of the gang leader who controlled this arid and remote corner of the country.
According to El Colombiano, on Saturday police arrested alias "Cobra," allegedly responsible for the storage and transport of drugs smuggled from La Guajira to the U.S. via Caribbean islands, especially the Dominican Republic. His partner, alias "Pantera," was also detained. These arrests leave a power void once again in La Guajira, Colombia's northernmost point, about 21,000 square kilometers of barren desert and plains. According to one estimate, about 30 percent of Colombia's total cocaine and heroin exports depart from northern Guajira alone.
The province's long coastline and countless number of natural ports allows drug traffickers in go-fast boats to quickly move drug shipments to either Venezuela or Caribbean islands like Aruba or Curacao. The maritime routes are cheaper and easier than land routes. The desert terrain attracts tourists and supports industries like coal mining, but the lack of agriculture and job opportunities has long nourished a thriving contraband industry. Gas, food, weapons and drugs are all smuggled from La Guajira's sea ports to other contraband hubs like the neighboring Venezuelan state Zulia.
In contrast to the other major coastal export points for drugs in Colombia – the Pacific coast, the Gulf of Uraba – in La Guajira, leftist guerrilla groups have little presence. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) have three Fronts present on the Venezuelan border, numbering around 250 fighters, including the 59th Front which is still capable of carrying out some attacks against infrastructure.
As a result, the most lucrative criminal activities like drug trafficking, the contraband gasoline trade and extortion are controlled by the successors of the right-wing paramilitaries, groups which the government calls "criminal bands" (bandas criminales - BACRIMS). "Cobra" led one such group known as the BACRIM of Upper Guajira, made up of former paramilitaries who once fought for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC).
The estimated 100 combatants who form part of the Upper Guajira BACRIM will now have to defend their highly valuable territory -- the northernmost municipalities, which offer the most direct route to Venezuela and the Caribbean islands -- from incoming rivals like the Urabeños or the Paisas. The Urabeños, whose stronghold is along the Caribbean coast, already have a foot in southern Guajira. When InSight Crime visited the area last year, sources said there were about 120 members of the Urabeños deployed in urban areas, and about another 90 in the countryside, operating in cells of five or six men. They are highly organized and pay their recruits well; sources told InSight Crime a typical salary is about $670 a month. As a result rival gang, the Paisas, have been forced into a truce with the Urabeños in La Guajira.
But even though the Urabeños are well disciplined and flush with cash, the Upper Guajira BACRIM have one key advantage: a tolerant relationship with the indigenous tribe, the Wayuu, who live in the region and for whom much of the Guajira peninsula is an indigenous reservation. The relationship dates back to the days of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC) who first entered La Guajira in 1998, carrying out a series of brutal masscares against the indigenous people. One Wayuu man, Jose Maria Barros Ipuano, alias "Chema Bala," forged a close relationship with another paramilitary leader, Arnulfo Sanchez Gonzalez, alias "Pablo," hoping to use the AUC to protect his contraband business.
Through Ipuano, Gonzalez was able to establish connections with Wayuu people, and set up his drug trafficking operations in Upper Guajira where there is scarce military or police presence. He began taxing other drug traffickers for using La Guajira smuggling routes, as much as 500,000 pesos (about US$275) per kilo, and soon earned himself the nickname "Lord of the Desert." After Ipuano's arrest in 2004, Gonzalez remained in the department, having won the trust of some factions of the Wayuu. This grassroots support proved key to the survival of Gonzalez's business: he found refuge from the authorities when needed, gained access to key supplies, and used local guides to find natural habours for his drug exports and eliminate his indigenous rivals.
After Gonzalez was arrested in November 2011, "Cobra" assumed command of the group. His arrest, just nine months later, may be one indication that he was not capable of sustaining the same close relationship with the Wayuu allies who protected Gonzalez. With both "Pablo" and "Cobra" gone, the Upper Guajira BACRIM will have a hard time fending off the advance of the Urabeños or the Paisas, should they choose to enter more deeply into Guajira's northern deserts.
The Urabeños once were able to rely on the support on a Wayuu intermediary, Norberto Javier Henriquez Iguaran, alias "Chueco," who was able to offer the group sanctuary in areas where he had influence, but he was arrested in June. Without finding some factions of the Wayuu who are willing to tolerate the presence of drug gangs in indigenous territory, the Urabeños may not prove so capable of finally seizing La Guajira for themselves.