An “invisible” Colombian drug lord whose criminal history dates to the country’s former paramilitary army has been revealed to have set up drug routes with dissident guerrilla fighters, showing how the erstwhile enemies are finding new opportunities to advance mutual trafficking interests.
Mario Élber Garzón Escobar, alias “Mario Bros,” had managed to evade authorities for years until his arrest February 8 at a luxurious estate in the Quindío department, El Tiempo reported. Accused of drug trafficking, Garzón is alleged to be the main representative for the Urabeños – also known as the Gulf Clan – and to be responsible for coordinating cocaine shipments to Honduras and Mexico, as well as to Africa and Europe.
Additionally, Garzón was in charge of establishing contact with other criminal groups. Among these was the Second Marquetalia, one of the dissident factions of the extinct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), under the command of Luciano Marín Arango, alias “Iván Márquez,” according to El Tiempo.
Since 2008, the Urabeños have disputed control of transnational drug trafficking operations with various criminal groups, including the FARC, which demobilized in 2016. The Urabeños, under the leadership of Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel” – who was arrested in October of last year – continued to engage in turf wars with ex-fighters who made up disparate ex-FARC mafia cells.
As part of the evidence collected in the investigation against Mario Bros, the Attorney General’s Office indicated that Garzón met with Second Marquetalia leader Henry Castellanos, alias “Romaña,” who was recently killed. The meeting, which took place in July 2019 in the Venezuelan state of Apure, was to negotiate trafficking routes for the movement of cocaine to the north, according to prosecutors.
The strategic alliance forged by Garzón was meant to guarantee the Urabeños’ drug shipments through areas where the Second Marquetalia maintains a presence. With the agreement, the Urabeños quashed the need to dispute the territory, not only with this faction of the extinct FARC, but also with other criminal groups with greater influence on the Colombia-Venezuela border.
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The meeting of the two former enemies suggests that the Urabeños and the Second Marquetalia have put aside bitter differences for mutual benefit when it comes to trafficking opportunities, and that Garzón was critical to forging these new ties.
Garzón’s criminal history dates back to the Central Bolivar Bloc (BCB), a powerful paramilitary faction of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), a coalition of right-wing death squads that committed some of the worst atrocities during the country’s 50-year conflict.
According to a source contacted by InSight Crime within the Oficina de Envigado, a mafia based in Medellín, the head of the paramilitary structure in 2006, Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias “Macaco,” contacted the drug lord Guillermo León Valencia, alias “Memo Fantasma,” to finance the AUC’s expansion to the Llanos Orientales region in eastern Colombia. As a result, an intermediary sent by Memo delivered 4,000 million pesos ($1,773,851.65 dollars) for the purchase of 1,000 kilograms of cocaine. The person designated as the messenger was Mario Bros.
Little was known of Garzón before 2014, when a criminal court in Medellín convicted him of charges of criminal conspiracy. He was released in 2017. Two years later, his low profile and strategic contacts made him the ideal person to manage the Urabeños’ relations with other criminal groups.
The Urabeños didn’t only establish an alliance with the Second Marquetalia on the border with Venezuela. In mid-2021, the Urabeños consolidated a fighting force called the “Cordillera Sur” in Nariño and Cauca. There, the force and the Second Marquetalia battled with rebel fighters of the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberación Nacional – ELN) to control cocaine production.
While the alliance between the Urabeños and the Second Marquetalia appears to be beneficial for both groups, it is uncertain whether it will hold. For example, in Antioquia, the relationship between the groups has been anything but peaceful. During the second half of 2021, violent confrontations broke out between the Urabeños and the 18th Front of the FARC dissidents, an ally of the Second Marquetalia. The clashes in the muicipality of Ituango were over control of the Nudo de Paramillo, one of the main drug trafficking corridors to northwestern Colombia.
*Juliana Manjarrés contributed to the analysis of this article