Colombia's largest cocaine seizure in over a decade is a blow to the Urabeños criminal group and illustrates the impact of the government's crackdown on the group, which is being carried out in the Urabeños' traditional stronghold and could have ripple effects throughout Colombia's criminal landscape.
A total of 400 men, including 40 from an elite airborne police unit, were deployed in four simultaneous raids carried out on November 8 in banana plantations in Urabá, a Caribbean subregion of Colombia's Antioquia department, Colombia's police announced in a press release.
More than 12 metric tons of cocaine, worth up to $360 million in the United States according to President Juan Manuel Santos, were dug up from buried stashes.
In September, authorities seized seven metric tons of cocaine in another banana plantation in Urabá. The latest sting brings Colombia's total cocaine seizures to 362 metric tons this year, surpassing last year's 317 metric tons -- itself a record figure in the country's history.
Authorities said the latest drugs seized were owned by at least ten different groups that contracted Colombia's most powerful criminal group, the Urabeños, to stock and eventually ship the drugs. These were to be smuggled out of the country in banana shipments, El Tiempo reported.
The raids were carried out as part of Operation Agamemnon. Launched in 2015, the operation is being conducted by police and military forces and is seeking to target the Urabeños in their historical stronghold and traditional cocaine launchpad of Urabá.
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President Santos also announced the arrest of dozens of Urabeños members in the department of Meta, located in Colombia's Eastern Plains region, which borders Venezuela and Brazil. Earlier this week, Colombia's Attorney General's Office said a joint police-military operation had dismantled an Urabeños network in Meta that was was under direct orders from Urabeños leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," to expand the group's operations in the area.
These ongoing efforts against the Urabeños are carried out on the backdrop of negotiations between the group and the government. In a video released early September, Otoniel announced he was ready to discuss the group's surrender. Authorities revealed last month their offer for the terms of surrender, suggesting they are taking the offer seriously.
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Although Operation Agamemnon has so far failed to bring down Otoniel, the considerable firepower and manpower deployed for the initiative is strongly disturbing the Urabeños' drug operations. This is sending ripples throughout Colombia's underworld, and should continue to visibly shake up the country's drug dynamics in the long term.
Authorities claimed in May that the operation had led to the capture of more than 1,000 members and 44 metric tons of cocaine from the group. The operation also led to the death of the group's second-in-command in late August, as well as the seizure of another 20 metric tons of cocaine over the past two months, according to the above-mentioned police communique.
Simultaneously, since the launch of Agamemnon in February 2015, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) have demobilized, leaving the Urabeños -- who often offer use of their trafficking routes to other groups that own the drugs -- as the top player of Colombia's drug trade.
Meanwhile, the country's cocaine production has exploded to historic levels. Essentially, the Urabeños have never had so much cocaine to move, nor have they had such difficulties in shipping it from their Urabá stronghold. Colombian intelligence sources told InSight Crime that the group simply cannot move product out of the Caribbean gulf fast enough to keep pace with incoming flows from cocaine-producing regions. As the latest seizures show, it is forced to sit on huge amounts of cocaine, which partly explains why authorities are able to seize multi-ton loads stocked away.
As a direct consequence of the Urabeños' decreased operational capacity in Uraba, the group has looked for drug routes leaving Colombia from other parts of the country. The strategic department of Chocó, which neighbors Urabá and spreads from the Colombia-Panama border along half of Colombia's Pacific coast, has been one of these areas. The group's expansion in Chocó was made particularly visible during the first half of 2017, as thousands were displaced by violent clashes between the Urabeños and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), both vying for control of the region's smuggling routes.
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Now, it seems the group's sights are set on Colombia's Eastern Plains, which have long been home to various drug corridors. The area possesses extensive and unguarded borders with Venezuela, whose current chaotic situation has rendered it a perfect cocaine highway, and Brazil, another important transit nation and Latin America's top cocaine consumption market.
Santos' announcement concerning the dozens of Urabeños members arrested in Meta, the Attorney General's Office statement on direct orders from Otoniel to expand in the department, and earlier warnings by security officials suggest that this shift may have already started. The question is whether this phenomenon will play out quietly, given the Urabeños' capacity to negotiate and find common ground even with rival criminal groups, or whether the area is set to become the scene of violent clashes involving groups already established there.
Amid evolving criminal dynamics across Colombia, negotiations between the Urabeños and authorities could prove tricky. Otoniel's decision to negotiate a surrender -- which will involve offering authorities information on the criminal network and its operations -- promises to stir internal unease, which could be enhanced by continued large drug seizures and mass arrests.