The Urabeños, one of Colombia's dominant drug groups, are seemingly ramping up operations along the Colombia-Venezuela border – a gambit likely to foment more violence in an already dangerous region.
The Urabeños, also known as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo), have reportedly struck an alliance with the Rastrojos, which control much of the drugs, weapons and people moving along trochas, remote trails that criss-cross the border. This partnership seemingly aims to fend off the inexorable advance of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) at the border. However, it also gave the Urabeños a foothold inside Venezuela to shelter and hide from Colombian operations against them.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños Profile
The group's incursion, though, has sparked fighting with the ELN along these border trails and around the Colombian city of Cúcuta. On August 30, the Urabeños were blamed for killing three men in Puerto León, the 68th multiple-homicide in 2021 near Cúcuta.
But their Venezuelan backstop has not allowed them to escape consequences. Colombian forces have continued to target the group with consistent military operations, as they had in recent years. Now, they are specifically going after Urabeños members trying to control the cross-border trails. In July, five gang members were arrested and several others killed along the border after being linked to weapons trafficking and extortion.
In April, four more members of the Urabeños were arrested, La Opinión reported, following extortion allegations in a town located near Colombia's border with Venezuela.
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While the Urabeños' presence along the border is not wholly new, its attempt to increase its control of criminal economies there throughout 2021 was a long shot.
While the group's franchise model allows it to expand by recruiting smaller gangs into its ranks rapidly, the Venezuela-Colombia border is arguably the most hotly contested criminal real estate in Latin America.
Since 2018, when the ELN began to expand into Venezuela, the Urabeños have been on a gradual decline. While the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has welcomed Colombian criminal groups, this has been more focused on the ELN and certain elements of the ex-FARC Mafia, splinter groups from the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). There has been no similar welcome of the Urabeños, and their allies, the Rastrojos, are sworn enemies of the Maduro regime.
Control of the trochas could bring significant payoff to the Urabeños but getting there is harder said than done. The Rastrojos are experienced allies in this area, but the group has also been on the back foot, fighting off Venezuelan government forces, the ELN and parts of the ex-FARC Mafia. Whether this alliance can pay dividends in the future for the Urabeños is in serious doubt.