A spike of killings in Cali is raising concern that the city is descending into a new spiral of mafia-related violence. There are signs that the most powerful criminal empire in the region, the Rastrojos, is fighting a rival group receiving backing from the Urabeños, who rule Colombia's northern coast.
So far this year, the southwestern Valle del Cauca department has registered 80 homicides, 20 more than the same period last year, reports Cali newspaper El Pais. And there are rumors that behind the violence is a new war between the Rastrojos and some of the old guard from the Norte del Valle Cartel, once the main drug-trafficking organization (DTO) in this area.
If Valle del Cauca descends into another intra-cartel war, like the kind that rocked the region during the late 1990s, during the disintegration of the Cali Cartel, it could have huge implications for security in the region. Even more concerning are reports that the Urabeños, whose powerbase is along the Caribbean coast, are now bold enough to venture into the Rastrojos' territory in the southwest.
The Rastrojos are descendants of an armed group once that served as the Norte del Valle Cartel's military wing, under the command of Wilber Varela, alias 'Jabon.' Between 2003 and 2008, the cartel saw a brutal internal war which later inspired the infamous Colombian crime show, "The Cartel of Snitches" (Cartel de los Sapos). Varela and his team viciously battled a rival faction led by Diego Montoya, alias 'Don Diego,' who led his own army of hitmen known as the Machos.
The "snitches" war only came to an end after Diego Montoya was arrested in 2007 and later extradited to the United States. Meanwhile, the current leader of the Rastrojos, Luis Enrique Calle Serna, alias 'Comba,' had Varela killed in Venezuela in January 2008, and took over the organization alongside his brother, Javier Antonio Calle Serna, alias 'El Doctor,' and another accomplice, Diego Perez Henao, alias 'Diego Rastrojo.' Calle Serna managed to recruit many former members of the Machos, and emerge as the new dominant power on the Pacific coast.
Now, El Pais reports, 2011 is seeing a wave of violence that could be caused by a new standoff between the Rastrojos and Diego Montoya's old crew, possibly receiving armed support from the Urabeños.
According to El Pais, behind the killings is 'Martin Bala,' an old associate of Montoya's, who may have a vendetta against the Calle Serna brothers after they allegedly tried to have him killed in 2005. Also involved is Montoya's son-in-law, nephew of another key player in the Cali Cartel, as well as a dissident from the Rastrojos, identified as 'El Negro Orlando,' allegedly based in the key port city of Buenaventura.
The Urabeños may have entered the scene on behalf of Víctor Patiño Fomeque, once a top capo of the Cali Cartel who was arrested in 1995 and extradited to the U.S. in 2002. El Pais reports that the inheritors of Patiño's criminal network may have met with Juan de Dios Usuga or Dario Antonio Usuga, leaders of the Urabeños, to ask for help in getting back their territory.
As previously noted by InSight, police in Cali have questioned claims that the Urabeños are now in Valle del Cauca, even as regional officials have insisted that the group is indeed present.
If the Urabeños have in fact begun to penetrate Valle del Cauca, it would make sense for them to do so at the invitation of old associates from the Norte del Valle Cartel, perhaps still resentful of Calle Serna's successful grab for power. The Urabeños are among the most disciplined of Colombia's current generation of DTOs, and this has allowed them to make serious advances in departments like La Guajira and northern Antioquia, including Medellin. If the Urabeños now making a bid for power in Cali, their incentive could be a strategic alliance with these old cells of the Machos and the Norte del Valle Cartel, who never fully incorporated into the Rastrojos.
The Rastrojos still have homefield advantage, so long as they control key coca-producing areas in the south of Choco and in Valle's Cañon de Garrapatas, a coca-rich region long disputed by rival DTOs. But a challenge from the Urabeños could seriously disrupt their business and, more importantly, put a halt to their expansion in central Colombia, including the crucial department of Antioquia. The Urabeño challenge could also inspire other low or mid-level Rastrojo commanders to seize the chance and switch sides in the war, defecting to the old Norte del Valle Cartel guard.
Either way, the entrance of the Urabeños would mark a major shift in the dynamics of Cali's mafia wars. The question is how capable the Calle Serna brothers are of holding their ground.