An armed blockade by the Urabeños drug clan that left much of northern Colombia reeling has signaled that the group – which the government claims to have weakened – still maintains the ability to coalesce and terrorize the country.
The Urabeños, also known as the Gulf Clan, shuttered businesses, closed down schools, torched vehicles and imposed curfews during a so-called armed strike that affected about a third of the country, the Investigation and Prosecution Unit of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP) reported.
The JEP's investigative unit linked two dozen killings to the armed strike, as well as 15 attempted assassinations. Residents of 138 communities were confined to homes, the JEP reported. More than 100 vehicles were burned, and access to several towns was cut off by the clan's roadblocks.
The armed strike, which took place May 4 to May 10, was ostensibly in response to the extradition of longtime leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” who faces US federal drug charges. The group declared the lockdown in 11 departments through bulletins that circulated via Whatsapp messages and other media.
Reacting to the sudden show of force, Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano announced the creation of a special unit to attack the group, while President Iván Duque offered a 5 billion peso ($1 million) reward for the capture of Otoniel’s two alleged successors: Jobanis de Jesús Ávila, alias “Chiquito Malo,” and Wilmer Antonio Giraldo, alias “Siopas."
On May 7, police patrols were increased to restore security.
The Urabeños last implemented an armed stoppage in September 2017, after the killing of Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez, alias “Gavilán,” by security forces. The second in command of the Urabeños at that time, Gavilán was in charge of the group’s trafficking routes. That armed strike paralyzed the subregion of Bajo Cauca, in the Antioquia department.
However, the recent armed strike appeared to be the most extensive manifestation of power that the group has made since its creation in 2007.
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While there are indications the Urabeños may fracture in Otoniel's absence, his extradition appears to have spurred the two main factions to unite, resulting in the terrifying assault.
Chiquito Malo and Siopas, two of Otoniel's top lieutenants, are said to be vying for power in the vacuum left since Otoniel's arrest last October. Long structured under the banner of the Urabeños, the mid-ranking commanders of these cells were using the upheaval to obtain more control.
Otoniel’s sudden extradition, however, may have created a scenario where these mid-ranking commanders united to make clear that the Urabeños retained significant power and territorial control, and that the group was still a threat and political actor in Colombia's conflict.
Sergio Guzmán, the director of the consultancy Colombia Risk Analysis, said the armed strike demonstrates that not only is the group in charge but that civil society remains subject to its actions.
“What has notably changed here is the direction of the violence. Before, they committed acts to terrorize, but they were focused on the authorities. There you see a parallel with what the ELN (National Liberation Army) has done in other territories,” Guzmán explained in an interview with InSight Crime.
While the strike was a demonstration of the group’s sophisticated organization, internal disputes are likely to continue to emerge and worsen over time, Guzmán added.
As InSight Crime recently reported, the group has exerted greater influence in some areas in the northern part of the country, where the strike had the greatest impact, and where criminal economies are disputed with other illegal armed groups. Nevertheless, it is not clear if the cells in the north are aligned with the backbone of the Urabeños, led by Otoniel's criminal heir, Chiquito Malo, or if their actions were taken independently.
The destabilizing six-day strike may be the last collective action by Colombia's main drug trafficking group, as it experiences a process of internal fragmentation. But it also opens up the possibility that the Urabeños resurface as a united front.
Guzmán said that the Urabeños are sending a strong message to the Colombian government.
The group is "threatening the integrity of the State and its monopoly on the use of force, because the State does not have it,” Guzmán said.