The name of Henry de Jesus Lopez, alias "Mi Sangre” or "My Blood," is increasingly being whispered on the streets of Medellin as he pushes into this city, seeking to unite different factions of the Colombian underworld and become the most powerful trafficker in the country.
According to Jay Bergman, Andean regional director for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), "Mi Sangre (Henry de Jesus Lopez) is now one of the Colombia's top drug traffickers and a DEA target."
Lopez has a double criminal pedigree, one that may allow him to unite two of the most dangerous mafia networks in Colombia. The first is in Medellin, where Lopez cut his criminal teeth running local rackets in a street gang. He started in the lower ranks of the Oficina de Envigado under Diego Murillo, alias "Don Berna," who imposed order on the city's criminal underworld through this organization first established by Pablo Escobar. Lopez worked for perhaps the most deadly street gang or "combo" in Medellin, that of La Terraza, which provided assassins for high profile killings across Colombia. Lopez was a known associate of not only Murillo, but of his key lieutenant Carlos Mario Aguilar, alias "Rogelio" as well. This means that today, with Murillo extradited and Aguilar surrendered to the DEA, that Lopez is seen as part of Medellin's criminal nobility.
Sophisticated and smart, Lopez moved swiftly up the ranks of the Oficina. By 1999 he was acting as a drug broker for the Medellin mafia, travelling around the country, buying drugs and preparing them for shipment. Then he was sent to Bogota, to collect debts and act as an Oficina enforcer in the capital. During this time he worked closely with different elements of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), in which Murillo was a senior figure.
One of the AUC factions that Lopez spent a great deal of time with was that of Miguel Arroyave, alias "Arcangel," who headed both the Capital Bloc (based in Bogota) and Centauros Bloc (based on the eastern plains). During his time working alongside Centauros Bloc he met Arroyave's finance man, Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias "Don Mario."
In 2007 Lopez made a play within the Oficina to step up the pace of his meteoric rise in the organization. It backfired and he had to disappear, fleeing to the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, a favorite retreat of Colombian narcos. A year later Murillo, still the undisputed leader of the Oficina de Envigado and master of Medellin, was extradited to the US. That was swiftly followed by the defection of Aguilar ("Rogelio") to the DEA. Fighting broke out between different factions of the Oficina for control of the city's criminal underworld.
By 2009 the war in Medellin had left two men standing: Ericson Vargas, alias "Sebastian," and an old friend of Lopez's, Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias "Valenciano." Vargas was the stronger of the two in terms of how many combos he controlled in Medellin and the respect which he commanded within the criminal elements of the city. But Bonilla had control of international drug export routes and presence along much of Colombia's Caribbean Coast where he dispatched cocaine to his business partners, Mexico's brutal Zetas cartel.
However from his stronghold near the Panamanian border, Daniel Rendon Herrera was also eying the prize of Medellin, sending in his heavily armed fighters, recruited in Uraba and Choco, to take over some of the city's neighborhoods. Rendon had refused to turn himself in as part of the government's peace process with the AUC (which lasted from 2003 to 2006). Instead he had set up a criminal fiefdom in the northwest of the country and set up what he called the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, seeking to carry on the AUC trademark. They later become known as the Urabeños, due to the region where the group hailed from.
Rendon was looking for competent players to help with drug trafficking operations and financing for his expansion across the country and his push into Medellin. He reached out to Lopez in Argentina and at the end of 2008 invited him back to Colombia to become part of his organization. He introduced Lopez to his two trusted lieutenants, Juan de Dios Usuga, alias "Giovanni," and his brother Dario, alias "Otoniel." Then just a few months later, in April 2009, Rendon was captured. Lopez immediately stepped up into the Urabeños inner circle.
Up until 2009, Urabeños attempts to take Medellin by storm had ended in abject failure. Lopez reached out to his friend Bonilla, who needed support in his war in Medellin against Vargas. 2009 became a bloody year to the city, with the murder rate hitting 94 per 100,000 of the population, double the 2008 statistics. The Urabeños supported the combos loyal to Bonilla, and it seems this faction of the Oficina was destined for victory. However in 2010 Bonilla decided to reduce his involvement in Medellin, as the war was costing him too much, concentrating instead on his drug trafficking operations along the Caribbean coast. Lopez then began to develop ties with the combos loyal to Bonilla.
However, in July 2011, Lopez suffered a major setback when 26 members of one of his principal smuggling networks were arrested. This was the first major security force action against any of Lopez's operations.
"This criminal structure dedicated to drug trafficking was a veritable mafia enterprise, which sent aircraft from Colombia to Central America, and onwards to Mexico and the United States," said the Colombian police chief, General Oscar Naranjo.
This network, with representatives in Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela was moving two tons of cocaine a month, worth an estimated $24 million. The arrests were a severe blow to Lopez and his ambitions, and prompted a cash flow crisis. This allowed other leaders within the Urabeños, foremost among them Roberto Vargas Gutierrez, alias "Gavilan," and the Usuga brothers, to recover some of the power they had lost to Lopez.
However, two events allowed Lopez to recover and move himself right to the top of Colombia's criminal underworld. The first event was the capture, in Venezuela, of Bonilla. Lopez was perfectly positioned to take over his networks in Medellin and along the Caribbean coast, along with the smuggling routes to Mexico and the Zetas' insatiable appetite for cocaine. Lopez did not need to send in heavily armed Urabeños to try to take control of key neighborhoods in Medellin. He is now winning over key combos in the city, offering them not only money and weaponry, and access to international drug trafficking routes.
"This is where Mi Sangre (Lopez) has the advantage over Vargas (alias 'Sebastian' of the Oficina)," said a police intelligence source in Medellin. "Vargas does not have the international drug trafficking connections of Mi Sangre, and that is what the combos want, something which will allow these supercharged street gangs to turn themselves into sophisticated transnational criminal organizations."
When it comes to resources, Lopez also has the upper hand. Vargas relies on the money he can earn within Medellin, principally the local drug market (worth an estimated $5 million a month), extortion (worth $2 million a month) and control of local lotteries (worth up to $1 million a month). And Vargas can only access a percentage of this money, the rest of which he has to share with the combos which collect it. Lopez can make 10 times that with just one aircraft flying cocaine to Central America or Mexico.
The second boost to Lopez came in January 2012, when the military head of the Urabeños, Juan de Dios Usuga, alias "Giovanni," was killed in a shootout with security forces. This moved Lopez to the top of the organization. And just how powerful that organization has become was seen when the Urabeños declared a period of mourning for the dead Usuga brother, paralyzing movement and economic activity in five provinces in the north-east of Colombia for several days in early January, issuing a direct challenge to the Colombian government. While the display of strength ended after a few days, the government proved unable or unwilling to significantly respond to it militarily.
Urabeños expansion is continuing at an alarming rate. There are now cells of Urabeños operatives registered in at least 181 of Colombia's 1080 municipalities. They will soon outstrip the power of their rivals, the Rastrojos, if they have not already done so. And Lopez does not have to fear the Rastrojos, having negotiated a ceasefire with them between November and December last year. As part of the agreement, the Rastrojos agreed to withdraw from the area of Bajo Cauca in the north west of the country, allowing the Urabeños to establish hegemony over the whole region. In return the Urabeños promised to withdraw support to elements challenging Rastrojos dominance along the Pacific seaboard, particularly in the province of Valle del Cauca.
The Urabeños are moving further afield, and taking advantage of the collapse of the Popular Revolutionary Antiterrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC), an illegal paramilitary group that dominated the eastern plains (in the provinces of Meta, Casanare, Guaviare and Vichada). The Urabeños have set up shop in both Meta and Guaviare, challenging the power of Daniel Barrera, alias "El Loco" (The Madman), who worked with the ERPAC and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) moving cocaine into Venezuela and then onto the US and Europe.
Barrera has been severely weakened by the collapse of the ERPAC, a weakness that Lopez and his Urabeños partners are taking full advantage of. Even the Rastrojos appear to be in trouble, with persistent rumors that their leader, Javier Calle Serna, alias "Comba," is negotiating his surrender with the DEA. There may already be a power play within the Rastrojos, as another top leader, Diego Perez Henao, alias "Diego Rastrojo," seeks to assume control of the entire organization.
While other leaders of the Urabeños like Roberto Vargas Gutierrez ("Gavilan") and Dario Usuga ("Otoniel") have arrest warrants pending and rewards offered by Colombian authorities for their capture, the attorney general's office is still preparing its case against Lopez. The DEA, which has already issued an extradition order for Lopez, is taking a leading role in the hunt for the man who can unite the Urabeños and the Oficina De Envigado, and perhaps become the most powerful drug trafficker in Colombia.