Despite a string of recent attacks on Colombia's security forces, the Urabeños have sent a message to Colombia's incoming president that they are interested in negotiations. Should this be interpreted as a group desperate to avoid decline or confident in its strength?
In a letter dated July 19, several major Colombian criminal groups informed Colombia's president-elect, Gustavo Petro, of their interest in entering talks with the new government. The signatories included the Rastrojos and the Caparrapos, but the most noteworthy addition was that of the Urabeños, also known as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) by the government, or as they prefer to call themselves, the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia - AGC).
“We cannot be indifferent to the cry of the Colombian people and the thoughts of their democratically elected president, in order to achieve, among other things, long-awaited 'peace with social justice,'" read the letter.
"We propose to you, and to the Colombian people, to be an active part of this; we are willing to talk and reconcile, with the aim of stopping the cyclical violence that some of us control," it continued.
Additionally, the groups mentioned their willingness to establish a ceasefire and possible disarmament, provided that they are given “the same guarantees” that other groups have had in past negotiations.
The impact of this letter was soon called into doubt. Two days later, on July 21, a pamphlet circulated on social networks, signed by a faction of the Urabeños, which denied that the group had taken part in the proposal.
On the campaign trail, Petro expressed his willingness to dialog with criminal groups in Colombia. He suggested these would start with a bilateral ceasefire, ahead of negotiations.
The Urabeños are, by far and away, the most significant criminal group to sign the letter. While the group has lost strength in recent months, especially after the capture of its leader, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” it remains one of Colombia's foremost drug trafficking forces. Other groups, such as the Rastrojos and the Caparrapos, are in real decline.
InSight Crime Analysis
Much like their criminal rivals, the Urabeños are getting their strategy in order for the incoming government. Whether through letters or bullets, the group seems determined to work its way into a negotiation.
After the arrest and US extradition of Otoniel, it was believed the group would take time to recover. But despite real challenges, the Urabeños have clearly maintained the ability to coordinate well-planned shows of force, under the leadership of Jobanis de Jesús Ávila Villadiego, alias “Chiquito Malo."
Last May, in response to Otoniel's extradition, the group announced an armed strike that paralyzed extensive parts of Colombia for four days.
However, a split within the group has become increasingly apparent, including in the response to the pamphlet.
A Colombia security and defense expert, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, confirmed to InSight Crime that disputes over territory and criminal income have led to internal differences among Urabeños leadership.
According to intelligence sources cited by El Tiempo, two of the Urabeños' top three leaders are open to talks with the new government. Chiquito Malo and a top lieutenant, Wílmer Antonio Giraldo, alias "Siopas," allegedly approved last week's pamphlet but they were opposed by José Gonzalo Sánchez, alias "Gonzalito."
However, if the Urabeños can present a united front to Petro, the overall message may be clear. While the group is willing to negotiate, it has the strength to ensure its conditions are met.