After a manhunt that lasted for years, Colombian authorities caught their most-wanted man in October. A former guerrilla and paramilitary fighter, Otoniel was one of the country's most prolific drug traffickers, leading the powerful Urabeños.
But six months on, what has changed in Colombia's criminal landscape? Is Otoniel's drug trafficking empire crumbling or has a new leader arisen to hold it together?
As Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," is set to be extradited to the United States, InSight Crime looks at what has become of the Urabeños, also known as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) by the government, or as they prefer to call themselves, the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia - AGC).
The Urabeños of Today and Tomorrow
The Urabeños, much like their erstwhile commander, are a fusion of vastly different criminal legacies. They have their roots in paramilitary groups, but have also acted as guerrilla fighters. They are one of Colombia's foremost drug trafficking powers but also dabble in extortion, gold mining, human smuggling and more.
Arguably the group's most distinguishing feature in Colombia's criminal landscape is their use of franchises. Alongside the central fronts who form the core of the Urabeños, the group has often recruited smaller, localized gangs across Colombia, empowering them to operate under the Urabeños banner and to use the name to grow their criminal economies in exchange for a cut of their income.
After Otoniel's capture, one of the main questions was to what extent these franchises might decide to cut loose, if they judged the association with the Urabeños was no longer profitable or useful.
While there were a few contenders for the throne, the chosen successor seems to be Jobanis de Jesús Ávila Villadiego, alias “Chiquito Malo."
Ávila Villadiego has lengthy criminal experience to call on. A member of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC) from a young age, he took part in that group's demobilization in 2004 but continued his criminal lifestyle by joining the Urabeños. An expert in cocaine production and in brokering drug deals, he was placed in charge of the cocaine trade in the region of Urabá, the heartland from where the group drew its name. He became a trusted lieutenant and progressively climbed the ranks, replacing other senior commanders as they were captured or killed. Much like Otoniel, Ávila Villadiego is the subject of a US extradition request.
Despite this history, Ávila Villadiego may struggle to provide the same kind of unity and leadership Otoniel did.
According to one Colombian security and defense expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons, Chiquito Malo's real power lies in the Urabeños' traditional strongholds in Antioquia and Urabá. It is likely that those ties to the group's heartland helped Ávila Villadiego's ascend to the group's leadership.
However, the expert indicated that Ávila Villadiego will have difficulty in extending influence beyond this area and several specific franchises that are loyal to him.
Two other senior figures within the group who were seen as potential contenders for the top job already have differences with Ávila Villadiego, according to the expert. Wilmer Giraldo Quiroz, alias "Siopas," has long been in charge of the Urabeños' operations along Colombia's Pacific coast while José Gonzálo Sánchez, alias "Gonzalito," commands its Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez Bloc, based along the Caribbean coast and the northern interior of the country. Without their support for the new leadership, as well as that of other regional franchise commanders, the Urabeños are at risk of fracture.
This northern department is the home turf of the Urabeños, especially the region of Urabá from where they draw their name. In Urabá, the group rules virtually uncontested, allowing it easy access to Chocó and the Panamanian border. It is also where Ávila Villadiego maintains his power base. In north Antioquia, it has clashed with the a dissident Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) cell and National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) guerrilla fighters to control a strategic trafficking corridor from the Nudo del Paramillo mountain range to the coastal province of Córdoba.
Further south, the Urabeños are equally well entrenched in the lowland areas of Bajo Cauca and Magdalena Medio, giving the group easy access to the state of Bolívar to the south. These routes are used to move drugs and illegally mined gold but a rivalry with the ELN continues to lead to bloodshed.
In the department's urban centers, such as the capital Medellín, the group maintains some presence through brokers and relationships with microtrafficking gangs in certain neighborhoods and surrounding towns.
Since Otoniel was caught, security forces have piled on the pressure. In March 2022, one of the largest stings against the group arrested Alexánder Simanca, the leader of an Urabeños franchise group based along Colombia's Caribbean coast, along with 24 others.
Simanca was in an enviable position as he controlled the export of tons of cocaine every month through Colombia's northern ports, through the archipelago of San Andres, and onto Central America, according to police. Much of Simanca's operation was focused on the northern port city of Cartagena and sourcing cocaine from the central region of Magdalena Medio, according to media reports following his arrest.
However, during field work in northern Colombia, InSight Crime learned from security sources that, following Otoniel's arrest, Simanca had become open to working with other parties, including the ELN.
The weakening of the Urabeños' control over the port of Cartagena has led to soaring violence in the city as other associates of Simanca have sought to break away.
The Urabeños can move cocaine out via other cities along the Caribbean, including Santa Marta and Barranquilla but these two are being fought over, with the Pachenca fighting Otoniel's men in the former and a number of smaller groups challenging for control of the latter.
While the Urabeños still remain by far the largest drug trafficking player along Colombia's northern coast, its dominance may be slowly chipped away at due to this range of conflicts with a range of adversaries.
The Urabeños are holding strong in the northwestern department of Chocó, key for controlling land and sea drug trafficking and human smuggling routes to Panama.
One expert in criminal dynamics in the area told InSight Crime that Urabeños activities in the area are controlled by Wilmer Antonio Quiroz, alias “Siopas,” a heavyweight member of the group who was considered a frontrunner to replace Otoniel.
Far from relying on franchises, the Urabeños have three core blocs in Chocó, two along the Panamanian border and the Darién Gap, and one further south along the Pacific Coast in the region of Baudó.
Since 2018, the Urabeños have fought a regular war with the ELN for control of the department. But where a fragile status quo had been reached in certain areas, the Urabeños opened up hostilities again in 2021 by pushing into ELN territory. This has seen numerous communities displaced or confined to their homes for fear of the violence.
Since then the violence has focused on drug routes connecting Chocó to Antioquia to the east and to Colombia's major coca-producing areas through Valle del Cauca to the south.
From Chocó, the Urabeños are majorly involved in shipments of cocaine heading to Panama, as well as in profiting from migration north. In December 2021, a Panamanian police operation dismantled a drug trafficking group known as Humildad y Pureza (Humility and Purity - HP), which was connected to the Urabeños and may have been its first overseas franchise.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños Profile
Magdalena, La Guajira, Cesar and Atlántico
Meanwhile, in the departments of Magdalena and Atlántico, there is much greater cohesion among the Urabeños in the territory, but there is no clear leadership, leaving the franchises to operate independently. Given this region's diverse criminal history, the Urabeños face plenty of rivals.
In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a mountain range in northern Colombia, the group has had a longstanding fight with the Pachenca, a family clan with ties to paramilitaries going back to the 1980s. The Pachenca, while having suffered greatly from top leaders being captured of late, continue to ramp up the violence in the Sierra Nevada, and the departments of Magdalena and La Guajira.
A pact of non-aggression between the Urabeños and the Pachenca was broken in 2019 and the larger group was denied access to the Sierra Nevada and to routes leading to Colombia's northern ports. According to InSight Crime investigations in La Guajira, an attempt at dialogue failed in 2021 and violence soared. In 2022, hundreds of local residents have been forced to flee due to the fighting, especially in the municipality of Ciénaga, Magdalena.
In response to being denied control of the Sierra Nevada, the Urabeños have sought new routes going round the mountain range, especially through Cesar and La Guajira, a number of local observers told InSight Crime. As a result, violence has spread to these areas as well,
Finally in the large port city of Barranquilla, another major exit point for Colombian cocaine, the Urabeños have been entangled n urban gang warfare with the Costeños and the Papalópez. This has also provided one of the more flagrant examples of a gang changing sides: In 2018, the Urabeños and the Papalópez had reportedly fought together against the Costeños.
Control of this drug trafficking area, complete with the logistics and manpower to defend it, would prove the Urabeños had not weakened significantly. However, given the trouble it is having with smaller pretenders, achieving criminal governance is unlikely.
Norte de Santander
On the other side of the country, along the border with Venezuela, the Urabeños have lost ground to their principal rivals, the ex-FARC Mafia and the ELN.
In late 2020 and early 2021, after a strong campaign by the ELN pushed out the Urabeños from the Catatumbo, a major coca-producing region of Norte de Santander, Otoniel ordered significant reinforcements to the area, but they never regained much ground.
In October 2021, InSight Crime field work in the area found that a faction of the Urabeños remains present in rural areas around the departmental capital and criminal hotspot, Cúcuta, and the municipality of Puerto Santander. The group may be awaiting an opportunity to improve its chances of profiting from drug trafficking, human smuggling and contraband across the Venezuela border but, given how contested this area is, it is unlikely this will happen at scale.
The capture of Otoniel may also have weakened any alliances the Urabeños had struck with other smaller groups around Cúcuta such as the Rastrojos. There is currently no clear indication whether Urabeños forces along the border have remained loyal to Ávila Villadiego or not.
In March, Colombia saw one of its most daring prison escapes in recent memory. One of Otoniel's former partners, Juan Larinson Castro Estupiñán, alias “Matamba,” walked out of a maximum-security prison in Bogotá, dressed as a security guard.
Before being arrested in May 2021, Matamba was the leader of Cordillera Sur, a drug trafficking gang based in the southern department of Nariño, and yet another franchise of the larger Urabeños. Having that structure in place in Nariño, one of Colombia's pivotal coca-producing areas, was vital to the group's interests. The Urabeños did maintain a core presence in the department with the Heroes of the Cordillera Bloc (Héroes de la Cordillera) but the latter has been pummelled by repeated clashes with FARC dissident forces.
Matamba was able to move shipments to the Pacific Coast with ease, bribing military officials to let convoys of cocaine access the coast unmolested before being loaded onto go-fast boats and semi-submersibles. However, it appears that even prior to his arrest, the Cordillera Sur group had begun making deals with the Second Marquetalia (Segunda Marquetalia), a leading faction of the FARC dissidents.
With Matamba's whereabouts still unknown and with their connection to Otoniel now gone, the Cordillera Sur group may have little reason to stay loyal to the Urabeños.
And with at least three ELN fronts and a number of ex-FARC Mafia groups present in the department, the Urabeños may struggle to get back on their feet there.