HomeNewsThe Urabeños After Otoniel - What Becomes of Colombia's Largest Criminal Threat?
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The Urabeños After Otoniel - What Becomes of Colombia's Largest Criminal Threat?

COLOMBIA / 1 NOV 2021 BY SARA GARCIA EN

The Urabeños are considered one of Colombia's principal criminal threats. Yet, after the arrest of their long-time leader, Otoniel, President Iván Duque said the drug gang's "days were numbered." Is that accurate?

The fall of Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” on October 23 had long been predicted. He had spent years on the run, moving constantly with a small group of close allies and guards around rural parts of the northern departments of Antioquia and Córdoba. His clandestine movements, though, meant the Urabeños – also referred to by the government as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) and by themselves as the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC) – had ample time without his physical presence.

Despite longstanding military operations against the group, the Urabeños continue to control vast areas of coca production and move tons of cocaine abroad. The group is also involved in human smuggling, extortion and illegal mining.

What's more, the Urabeños retain a unique structure, which has also allowed them to spread geographically, despite repeated arrests and deaths within the group. Therefore, Otoniel's arrest does not necessarily signal the group's death knell.

Here, InSight Crime presents a full overview of the Urabeños’ current status in Colombia, the group’s internal structure, main areas of control and criminal influence, as well as future prospects.

Blocs and Franchises

The Urabeños’ internal structure is designed to maximize territorial presence, participation in criminal economies and adaptability. This has led the group to use different armed networks, mainly blocs or franchises, in order to expand.

The blocs are part of the Urabeños’ central organization. They receive direct orders from the leadership, they retain specific territories and have internal lines of command. Some of these are also in command of smaller substructures or franchises with a more localized focus.

These blocs are usually located in the Urabeños' most important coca, drug trafficking and illegal mining areas.

SEE ALSO: Profile of Urabeños - Gulf Clan

Franchises also work semi-independently from the organization’s leadership. They are generally local gangs that were formed with no ties to the Urabeños until they were subcontracted to act in their name.

For the larger group, this represents access to criminal income, hitmen and a greater territorial presence, even if indirectly. For smaller gangs, the Urabeños represent an important ally to help them establish local dominance and to overcome rivals.

Areas of Control

These areas are the core zones of control for the Urabeños, where they control vast amounts of coca crops, cocaine production facilities, areas from which to send drugs abroad, illegal mining and human smuggling.

Antioquia and Córdoba

The group inherited key territories in the northern departments of Antioquia and Córdoba from previous paramilitary structures, where they established their strongest presence. This remains the case today, as evidenced by Otoniel's capture there.

The Urabá region – made up of municipalities in Antioquia as well as in neighboring northern Chocó – is where the group's roots lie. Several of its leaders were born in this area and began their lives of crime there, joining guerrilla or paramilitary groups present in the 1990s or earlier.

Urabá, on Colombia's Caribbean coast, is a key drug trafficking territory. From the gulf, the Urabeños control large quantities of drugs shipped north to Central America. Multi-ton shipments of cocaine are regularly found leaving the Gulf of Urabá, such as in July, when 5.4 tons of cocaine destined for Costa Rica were seized.

The group has established the southern part of Córdoba as a strategic corridor that connects drug dispatch points in Urabá with coca crops and cocaine production facilities in Bajo Cauca, Antioquia. The Paramillo Massif, a mountain range located between Antioquia and Córdoba, is key for criminal dynamics in the area.

The Urabeños have three main blocs present in this region, known as the Central Urabá, Carlos Vásquez and Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez blocs. However, the blocs do not rule uncontested, as this drug trafficking crossroads is also home to the Caparros, as well as the 18th and 36th dissident fronts of the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).

The Caparros were formerly part of the Urabeños structure until 2017, when they split from the group. The two gangs have frequently clashed but the Caparros never managed to become a permanent rival. The death in May 2021 of the main Caparros leader, Robinson Gil Tapias, alias “Flechas,” has weakened the group further and confirmed the Urabeños' advantage in the region.

Finally, through associated franchises, the Urabeños have a presence in the city of Medellín and its surrounding municipalities, where the group is involved in microtrafficking.

In this part of northern Colombia, the Urabeños have not hesitated to resort to violence. They have been involved in several armed strikes against security forces. In February 2021, after the killing of the Urabeños' alleged second-in-command, Nelson Darío Hurtado Simanca, alias "Marihuano," three police officers were killed in response.

And most recently, after Otoniel was captured, the Urabeños have reportedly killed four soldiers in two separate attacks in Antioquia.

Caribbean Coast

The Urabeños are gaining ground in the Caribbean, particularly this past year in Montes de María, located between the departments of Bolívar and Sucre. The group has sought to strengthen its presence in this territory, which serves as a strategic corridor for drugs destined for the Gulf of Morrosquillo.

In the Atlantic, the group has also strengthened its presence in the critical port city of Barranquilla and surrounding municipalities. In this region, the group profits from extortion and the shipment of drugs from the Atlántico department’s beaches. They also dispute for control of microtrafficking in the city.

Further north, in the Magdalena department, the Urabeños have struck a blow to their former allies, the Pachenca, seizing control over drug trafficking out of the port of Santa Marta in July 2021.

Areas of Influence

In these areas, the Urabeños maintain a varying level of control, contesting hard-fought criminal economies with FARC dissidents, the ELN, the Pachenca and smaller, local criminal structures.

Chocó

The Urabeños have maintained an important presence in the northern department of Chocó, along the Panamanian border, where it controls much of the migrant smuggling through the Darién Gap.

However, due to ongoing clashes with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN). the Urabeños have not managed to establish itself as a dominant actor in the department.

It has three main blocs in the department. The Pablo José Montalvo Cuítiva and Jairo de Jesús Durango structures maintain a presence there, especially in the south. To the north, the Efrén Vargas Gutiérrez bloc controls the outflow of drugs via the department’s beaches.

Chocó is of great importance to the organization’s criminal economies, and the leaders working in the area are of high value to security forces. Two high-ranking members of the group have been killed by public security forces there: the second-in-command, Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez, alias "Gavilán," in 2017, and his replacement, “Marihuano,” in 2021. Both men had been sent from Urabá to coordinate drug trafficking and illegal mining activities in Chocó.

Since 2018, the Urabeños have clashed with the ELN over control of coca cultivation and drug processing, as well as mining areas. The result has had a devastating effect on locals who have suffered violence and forced displacement.

In recent months, the tension seems to have been concentrated in the areas surrounding the San Juan River, to the south of the department, where the Urabeños broke a non-aggression pact with the ELN in August 2021 by raiding the Dipurdú village of Istmina, which was controlled by the guerrilla group. More than 1,000 people were displaced.

Norte de Santander

The Urabeños made their first foray into Norte de Santander in 2011. However, shortly after blows by public forces, the group's presence was nearly obliterated.

At the end of 2020, the Urabeños decided to try again to move on this key territory for drug trafficking, contraband and human trafficking. This time, they allied with the Rastrojos, one of the main criminal groups in the area, to confront the ELN and secure a part of the criminal economies in the border region and even into Venezuela.

The Urabeños have sent men from Urabá to strengthen their presence in Norte de Santander but have suffered repeated setbacks amid key arrests and killings throughout 2021.

Nevertheless, the Urabeños remain firm in their goal: to solidify their presence in Norte de Santander and secure a profitable income from criminal activities along the border with Venezuela.

Cauca and Nariño

Multiple armed actors are in a constant battle to control the territory and criminal economies in the Cauca and Nariño departments. There, the ELN, FARC dissidents and the Urabeños all have a piece of the criminal pie, which consists of colossal amounts of coca crops.

In Nariño, the Urabeños have had an influence in the mountain range area, through their Heroes of the Cordillera bloc, since 2019. They are primarily focused on the municipalities of Leiva, El Rosario and Policarpa. From there, the Urabeños have also expanded into areas of the Cauca department, with a strong presence in the Balboa municipality.  

Both in Nariño and Cauca, the Urabeños have been battered by FARC dissident groups that seek to regain control of the municipalities where they traditionally had a presence. Armed clashes have occurred with the reconstituted Estiven González Front and the Western Coordinating Command.

While the group's presence in the region is not overwhelming, they have maintained control of strategic municipalities that guarantee income from their role in drug trafficking.

Prospects

Taking into account the Urabeños’ flexible structure and territorial clout, which allows for control of the entire cocaine production and trafficking chain, it is hard to believe Otoniel's arrest spells the end for the group.

While some of his lieutenants have been taken out, there are at least three known commanders, with the knowledge and influence needed to take over. With record amounts of cocaine leaving Colombia and control of lucrative criminal economies, the Urabeños should keep their coffers full. And if their franchises maintain their loyalty, their criminal network will remain formidable.

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