Colombia's dense jungle on the Caribbean coast is the heartland of the Urabeños, one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the Americas. This is where its top leaders are hiding, and it is also where the government is rebooting its largest-ever police operation to try, once again, to force them out. But so far the massive effort has failed to achieve its main objective: capturing Colombia's most wanted criminal suspect.
Flanked by the Panamanian border and the Caribbean Sea, the towering trees and remote cays of Colombia's Urabá region are the perfect natural fortress for the most wanted man in the country, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," head of Colombia's most powerful crime group, the Urabeños.
More than two years ago, the Colombian government launched what was to become a prolonged hunt for Otoniel and his inner circle: "Operation Agamemnon," led by the police's infamous Search Bloc (Bloque de Búsqueda), which was formed in the early 1990s to hunt down Medellín Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar.
Escobar was gunned down on a Medellín rooftop in December 1993, although there are conflicting reports about whether it was actually a police officer who pulled the trigger. But while Operation Agamemnon has far greater numbers of officers, resources and funding than the Medellín Search Bloc, its agents have blundered through the Urabeños heartland without netting any of the group's top leaders, despite hundreds of lower-level arrests.
Now, Colombia is calling in the army for "Agamemnon II."
The essential characteristics of the first iteration of Agamemnon will not change, but will be "reengineered" in this just-inaugurated second phase, according to a justice official directly involved in the operation who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
However, the most significant change in strategy -- the direct involvement of the army -- may be a largely political move.
Politics at Play?
According to the government source, there had been a lot of "jealousy" within the military regarding the well-funded police operation. Agamemnon initially deployed around 1,200 police agents, supported by Black Hawk helicopters, with occasional collaboration from the army. However, the military argued that the police-led operation would be much stronger if the armed forces could bring their expertise in rural terrain to the table, which they will now do, the source explained.
But bringing the army more fully on board is unlikely to break down bureaucratic jockeying within the government's security apparatus. The institutions involved in Agamemnon -- the attorney general's office, the army and different police units -- each have separate investigations into Otoniel and his inner circle. And all of them apparently are in competition, fiercely guarding their intelligence in order to be the first to capture the most wanted man in Colombia.
SEE ALSO: Otoniel News and Profile
While full collaboration would most likely bring the government closer to pinning down Urabeños leaders like Otoniel, this is a key opportunity for the military to prove that it is indispensable to citizen security. As Colombia moves forward with implementing a peace deal with country's main guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), the army is seeking to carve out a role for itself in this new scenario, including propping up the police's fight against organized crime.
As well as these political stumbling blocks, Agamemnon has faced extreme physical and strategic challenges. The geography of Otoniel's hideout is a huge obstacle. The barely navigable jungle of Urabá is home turf to the Urabeños' leaders, some of whom have an insurgent background and are equipped to handle the rough conditions. For the police, this is more difficult. Just six months into the operation, a helicopter crashed due to bad weather in pursuit of Urabeños boss Luis Orlando Padierna Peña, alias "Inglaterra," killing 17 agents.
In some areas, access by air is almost impossible given the tall rainforest canopy, and other locations can only be reached by sea.
The Urabeños use these factors to their advantage, but they also have another key asset: the local community. Many residents allegedly protect the criminal bosses, acting as lookouts and informants that assist their permanent protection rings. Collaborators apparently include local indigenous people, whose reserves cannot be bombed nor freely accessed by security forces. Apparently, the police have not even attempted requesting entry to indigenous reserves -- which must be done through the reserve's governor -- as they know that this would immediately tip off their target.
Two years of Agamemnon have achieved the following results:
Source: Colombia National Police
The police have therefore sought to get these same communities on their own side. Their outreach and engagement in social programs has been difficult, but it has paid off; civilian informants have helped them get within meters of their objectives. In one case a few months ago, a police sniper narrowly missed Urabeños number-two Roberto Vargas Gutierrez, alias "Gavilán," 500 meters away from them in the municipality of Necoclí.
Under such pressure, the Urabeños leaders have become increasingly paranoid about security and have given up their lavish lifestyles. They kill any associates that raise their suspicions, they move around constantly, and have started using human couriers rather than phones.
How to Win
Agamemnon is now twice as old as the Search Bloc was when it took down Pablo Escobar. The hunt for Escobar ate up around 50 million Colombian pesos a month ($17,000 at current value) for a year and two months, while Agamemnon -- now more than two years old -- is rumored to cost almost 90 times that ($1.4 million a month).
However, the operation to get Escobar's had something Agamemnon does not and likely will never have: the collaboration of its target's most vicious enemies, which in Escobar's case included the powerful Cali Cartel. That operation also unfolded in the streets of Medellín, Colombia's second-largest city, in stark contrast to Urabá's harsh jungle terrain.
Ultimately, though, one key moment facilitated Escobar's downfall: He made a call to his family, which was promptly intercepted. And this lesson has held fast -- the best way to hasten the hunt is to keep a close watch on family members, the judicial official told InSight Crime.
The official argued that a successful Operation Agamemnon would "destroy" everything around the Urabeños leaders, which includes intercepting and infiltrating people close to them. So far, authorities appear to have followed that strategy, capturing Otoniel's wife and other relatives.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile
But authorities also have to cripple these bosses financially, which does not only mean seizing cocaine but also sweeping up laundered assets, the source said. A new section of the Attorney General's Office created by the recent peace accords will apparently have a specific unit for this purpose.
On the ground, the army may prove to be a valuable asset to anti-Urabeños operations. But even so, their deepened involvement may increase the likelihood of human rights abuses.
Agamemnon has admittedly put pressure on the crime group, which according to intelligence officials has been forced to shift its trafficking operations further towards the Pacific, altering international drug routes in the process. Should the government be successful in bringing down the Urabeños' top bosses, they would take down decades worth of drug trafficking know-how with important international connections.
Despite this, there are few signs that the Urabeños organization is buckling. Since 2009, thousands of its members have been captured by authorities, yet it seems that at least as many have been recruited. Indeed, the organization appears to be in expansion mode, seeking to take over territory once controlled by the now demobilizing FARC, which signed a peace agreement with the government last year.