Colombian police say criminal group the Urabeños have been allocating land to local communities in order to build up support, which arguably has helped leader "Otoniel" escape the massive manhunt meant to capture him.
Police sources have told El Tiempo that the Urabeños have built up a system of safe houses and a community-based intelligence network in the northwestern region of Uraba by distributing land to peasant farmer families.
According to the report, the families are given two hectares which they may farm. However, in return, they must reserve a room in their house for the use of Urabeños leader Dairo Antonio Usuga David, alias "Otoniel." The families are also expected to pass on information about the movement of security forces.
According to El Tiempo's sources, the policy has helped the Urabeños create strategic movement corridors that have allowed Otoniel to escape the thousands of police and soldiers that have been hunting him since the launch of Operation Agamemnon in February 2015.
Although the families are permitted to live and work the lands, they are still controlled by the Urabeños, who may move them on at any moment, the report states. In addition, the sources said, the lands are often first stolen from their original inhabitants, who are displaced in order to make way for families considered loyal to the Urabeños.
This displacement and land theft is facilitated by a network of corrupt notaries and other officials, according to an intelligence document obtained by El Tiempo.
InSight Crime Analysis
True to their roots in Colombia's paramilitary counter-insurgency movement, which was involved in mass displacements and the theft of thousands of hectares of land, the Urabeños have frequently killed and displaced to gain or keep control of lands, especially in Uraba, their traditional base of operations.
If the Urabeños have indeed been about to repopulate areas with sympathetic collaborators, this explains how Otoniel has managed to escape Colombia's biggest manhunt since the times of Pablo Escobar for nearly a year.
InSight Crime's recent field work in Uraba suggests another possible reason Otoniel and his leading lieutenants have managed to continue to evade security forces. Several sources confirmed a top level meeting between a senior Urabeños leader and the head of the 58th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Joverman Sanchez Arroyave, alias "Manteco." While the primary reason for the meeting was to strike a deal over drug trafficking, such an alliance could well extend to granting Urabeños leaders safe passage through FARC territory, which would greatly aid their attempts to elude security forces.