The department of Valle del Cauca has become Colombia's bloodiest drug war battleground as the country's most powerful criminal organization, the Urabeños, push to secure trafficking routes in the heartland of their enemies. However, with the war burning money and manpower for three years and no end to the violence in sight, the drug trafficking prize of the south Pacific could prove the end of the line for the Urabeños' advance.
In 2013, Valle del Cauca was the most violent department in Colombia for the fourth year running as illegal armed groups fought bitter and bloody territorial wars on several fronts. The fighting has cost thousands of lives, and seen an explosion in criminal activities such as extortion and microtrafficking.
The conflict has made the state capital Cali the most dangerous place in Colombia, and, with a homicide rate in excess of 85 per 100,000 residents, one of the most murderous cities in the world. It has also earned the country's principal port, Buenaventura, a macabre reputation for sadistic brutality, death and displacement.
The violence is chaotic, perpetrated by a maelstrom of criminal groups, from narco-paramilitaries down to teenage street gangs. But behind it are tectonic shifts in the Colombian underworld as the once dominant Rastrojos have crumbled, while their main rivals, the criminalized paramilitary successor group known as the Urabeños, look to extend their reach across Colombia.
Valle del Cauca was the Rastrojos' birthplace and stronghold. The organization emerged as the armed wing of a faction of the region's Norte Del Valle Cartel (NDVC), and its leading figures all began their criminal careers working for the cartel's networks.
After emerging from the shadow of the NDVC to become an organization in their own right, the Rastrojos seized territory across the country, becoming Colombia's dominant criminal organization. However, they have been in disarray since the loss of their command structure in 2012, when their principal leader Javier Calle Serna, alias "Comba," surrendered and founding member Diego Perez Henao, alias "Diego Rastrojo," was arrested.
Since the demise of Comba, Diego Rastrojo and other top-level Rastrojos leaders, several mid-level commanders appear to have unified some of the remaining networks and buillt alliances with other major players in the Valle drug trade. However, no one commander has been able to unite the factions under a single leadership. Instead they have turned on each other to fight over the remains of the Rastrojos' empire.
SEE ALSO: Rastrojos Profile
Divided and vulnerable, the remnants of the Rastrojos have also faced off against an old enemy with a new name -- the Machos, who are now part of the Urabeños network.
The Rastrojos and the Machos have a long and bitter history dating back to the fratricidal war that tore apart the NDVC. The war and the efforts of the security forces left the Machos decimated, so in 2011 they turned to the Urabeños, selling access to drug routes and criminal networks in exchange for arms, financial backing and soldiers to take the war to the Rastrojos.
The alliance that has directed the war for Valle del Cauca on behalf of the Urabeños has brought together a coalition of drug traffickers with family ties to the NDVC who hold a grudge against the Rastrojos stemming from the conflict with the Machos. This new generation of narcos has been backed by an elder statesman of the Colombian drug trade thirsty for revenge -- former Cali Cartel and NDVC trafficker Victor Patiño Fomeque, alias "El Quimico" (the chemist).
The focal point of the violence has been Cali, where nearly 2,000 people were murdered in 2013. The city is living through what one police source told InSight Crime is "criminal chaos," as an estimated 30 criminal networks battle for supremacy. According to the Cali Ombudsman's Office, these mid-sized criminal organizations, known as "collection offices" or "oficinas de cobro" maintain links with 66 of the city's 134 street gangs, which they contract out to murder rivals and control criminal activities from car theft to microtrafficking and extortion.
Many of these oficinas are the fragmented remains of the Rastrojos, which continue to provide services to Valle del Cauca narcos as well as profiting from the criminal opportunities available in the city. These now independent organizations and their street gang proxies are confronting other oficinas that take orders from the Machos-Urabeños alliance.
Also staking a claim to the Cali underworld is a mysterious figure known as "El Señor de la R." According to police "El Señor del la R" is a former Cali Cartel trafficker and family member of cartel leader Helmer "Pacho" Herrera. He returned to Colombia after serving a lengthy prison sentence in the United States and established his own oficina with the intention of reclaiming a slice of the Cali Cartel's lost domain.
In this new, turbulent underworld, loyalties are tenuous and the criminal landscape is in constant flux, as gangs switch sides according to who is winning and who can pay. In December, it was reported that the principal leaders of the Urabeños coalition had struck a deal with one of the most powerful remaing Rastrojos, but so far there has been little evidence of the pact on the streets.
Outside of Cali, the war has also torn through the smaller towns of Palmira and Tulua, where violence has been driven by Urabeños incursions and Rastrojos infighting; and in particular through the port of Buenaventura, which lies at the heart of regional trafficking routes.
As InSight Crime has reported, Buenaventura has become a hotbed of extreme violence and displacement as the Urabeños invasion has been resisted by a former Rastrojos oficina known as La Empresa. After invading in 2012, the port looked to be securely in the hands of the Urabeños, but La Empresa, having reportedly sourced outside funding to continue their fight, launched a counterattack, and violence has again been on the increase in 2014.
On all the Valle del Cauca fronts the war has not only cost the Rastrojos and the Urabeños blood and money, it has cost the freedom of many of the narco-generals directing the fighting on both sides. El Quimico, the great survivor of Colombian drug trafficking, remains free, but underworld sources have told InSight Crime they believe he has once again disappeared, content to have wrought his revenge on the Rastrojos and reclaimed his lost assets.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños Profile
The Urabeños invasion of Valle has followed a battle plan successfully deployed elsewhere; seeking out alliances with local criminal groups who are familiar with the terrain, then boosting their operations with arms, cash and battle hardened troops. These groups are soon absorbed by the Urabeños, becoming another member of their criminal franchise.
However, while these tactics have helped the Urabeños establish a presence in strategic regions such as La Guajira in the northeast, the city of Medellin and the Venezuelan border, in Valle del Cauca they have been unable to overcome the stubborn resistance from the remaining Rastrojos.
As more and more Urabeños soldiers are captured and killed, the more they rely on the volatile youths they contract in Cali and Buenaventura. Not only does this weaken them tactically, it also means a less disciplined force that is harder to control. In Buenaventura, police told InSight Crime these youths were already running amok, using the Urabeños' name and the arms they provide to terrorize the city for their own gain.
The financial cost of such a war will also be a massive drain on resources, and may prove unsustainable in the long run. Already in Buenaventura they are not paying many of their footsoldiers, causing them to go rogue or to defect to their rivals. If they lose the allegiance of the Cali oficinas and gangs -- which are only as loyal as their last paycheck -- then they will be fighting a losing battle.
In December, there were reports of the local Machos-Urabeños commander striking a deal with the Urabeños top command, paying $500,000 in return for 90 reinforcements from around the country. In Buenaventura too, the local command reportedly received outside reinforcements around the same time, with an estimated 38 troops boosting their ranks.
If these reports are true, then it may be the start of a renewed push to seize Valle del Cauca once and for all. However, to succeed the Urabeños alliance will have to overcome an opposition that has fought them to a stalemate for three years. They will also be severely limited by having to operate in increasingly militarized territory as the authorities have responded to the security crisis by sending in their own reinforcements.
Given these obstacles, it seems likely the Urabeños advances will fall short of victory once again. This will leave the national leadership facing a difficult choice -- abandon one of Colombia's most prized drug trafficking territories to their enemies in the Valle del Cauca criminal class, or risk getting sucked further into a quagmire of a conflict that has the potential to gravely weaken them financially and militarily and drain their strength on a national level.