The shaky situation as to who controls drug flows in Colombia’s southern enclave of Nariño may become further unstable after the death of an important drug lord.
On May 26, Juan Larinson Castro Estupiñán, alias “Matamba,” was killed during a raid by security forces in the eastern state of Santander, as confirmed by President Iván Duque on Twitter.
Matamba had been the head of Cordillera Sur, an important criminal outfit based in Nariño, which until recently was of the larger Urabeños drug trafficking group. Matamba made headlines last March when he escaped from a maximum-security prison in Bogotá. Seemingly assisted by corrupt officials inside the jail, he walked out of the main gate dressed as a prison guard and disappeared.
His death weakens several ongoing court cases against allegedly corrupt members of Colombia’s security forces, who are suspected of handing over intelligence information to Matamba.
As the head of Cordillera Sur, Matamba had been a close ally of the now-extradited chief of the Urabeños, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel.” A former member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), some Colombian reports named him as a significant lieutenant within the Urabeños.
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Matamba’s death could not come at a worst time for the Urabeños. The group is already fighting fragmentation after the capture and extradition of Otoniel. It can ill-afford to stumble in the hotly contested drug trafficking hotspot of Nariño.
Nariño has long been one of the most violent parts of Colombia, due to offering a criminal triple threat: coca plantations, drug routes and a strategic location along the Pacific Coast. The Cordillera Sur does control coca plantations in Nariño, in the municipalities of Tumaco, Roberto Payán and Olaya Herrera. However, this department has seen the presence of the ELN and a range of ex-FARC Mafia groups, who may sense an opportunity to seize these areas.
It was already looking unlikely the Urabeños would be able to hold onto key drug trafficking areas so far away from their stronghold of Urabá in northern Colombia. Fights between the ELN and ex-FARC Mafia groups have raged in Nariño since 2020 while the Urabeños have not appeared to try and claim further territory.
Now, the main connection between Cordillera Sur and the Urabeños, namely the Matamba-Otoniel partnership has been severed. This may well mean the Cordillera Sur becomes yet another former Urabeños affiliate to cut loose, whether intentionally or if forcibly absorbed by another criminal threat.