An ingenious Italian-Colombian sting operation has arrested dozens of people on both continents and seized a huge quantity of cocaine, revealing how despite recent setbacks, Colombia’s Urabeños are still among Latin America’s biggest drug traffickers.
On June 7, Colombian and European authorities announced the arrests of 20 and 18 people respectively, as well as the interdiction in Italy of 4.3 metric tons of cocaine trafficked by the Urabeños crime group, bringing to an end a year-long investigation that also involved Spanish police and US Homeland Security.
“These drugs belonged to [Jesús Ávila Villadiego] Chiquito Malo, one of the heads of the atomized structures of the [Urabeños],” said Colombian Police Director Jorge Luis Vargas on social media. “[It is] the most important transnational operation against cocaine trafficking this year.”
According to Italian investigators, from May 2021 to May 2022, the Urabeños sent 19 separate shipments of cocaine to the Italian port of Trieste, each one weighing up to 500 kilograms, where they were picked up by Italy’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and their Balkan associates. The Urabeños are one of Colombia's most powerful drug trafficking groups. They are known as the Clan del Golfo (Gulf Clan) to authorities but refer to themselves as the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC.)
However, all was not as it seemed. A joint Italian-Colombian operation had detected the international drug deal and sent Italian undercover agents to infiltrate it. But in a movie-like twist, the drug traffickers hired the agents to smuggle the cocaine from Colombia into Italy.
In this way, authorities conducted 19 so-called “controlled deliveries.” Colombian police would secretly intercept every shipment before its departure and have it securely flown to Trieste by plane, where the undercover agents delivered the cocaine to unsuspecting buyers.
Spanish police have presented a similar version of events, though with certain key differences, including that the cocaine was also received by three other European crime groups.
InSight Crime Analysis
Putting aside the inventiveness by law enforcement, this case highlights two important strengths for the Urabeños: their undiminished connections to European organized crime and their resilience in the face of punishing state crackdowns.
The Urabeños have had strong ties to the ‘Ndrangheta dating back to the 1990s when the group’s future leaders were still part of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC). It was an alliance that would help both groups to dominate the trans-Atlantic cocaine trade.
However, the historic leaders who forged those links are almost all gone. The capture and recent extradition of Urabeños leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” has threatened to rip apart the Colombian group. Their hold on key drug trafficking territories is already slipping.
But regardless of its failure, the recent ‘Ndrangheta deal may be seen as a continuation of the partnership that created both criminal empires. In October 2021, ‘Ndrangheta emissaries even travelled to the Urabeños stronghold of Turbo in northern Colombia, where they brokered the purchase of nearly a ton of cocaine, according to an investigation by El Colombiano.
They were allegedly met there by the group’s new leader, Chiquito Malo. Despite being Otoniel’s successor, Chiquito Malo has faced reported internal opposition from both his mid-level lieutenants and a rival claimant to his throne.
His continued control of the Urabeños cocaine trafficking heartland of Urabá, a subregion of northern Colombia, is therefore extremely useful. As is the fact the “controlled deliveries” meant the ‘Ndrangheta had already paid the Urabeños by the time the cocaine was seized, according to Italian police, a detail conveniently ignored by their Colombian colleagues.