BOGOTÁ — As peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia remain on hold in Havana, Colombia’s National Police are already strategizing for a post-conflict era — with the task of combating new and streamlined organized criminal groups throughout Colombia’s cities.
Col. Esteban Arias Melo, deputy director of the Colombian National Police’s anti-narcotics force, said his 7,600 officers “focus on both drug trafficking as well as fighting the restructured Bacrim [organized crime groups], as it’s now impossible to separate these two factors.”
The National Police broke the back of one of these groups, the Rastrojos, capturing two of its main leaders last year. Since then, analysts say this Pacific-based crime group has been weakened through internal fighting — opening the door for its main rival, the Urabeños, to expand its territory in the southwestern province of Valle del Cauca.
“Up until 2012, the Rastrojos were the strongest Bacrim in the country, and their stronghold was along the Pacific coast in the departments of Valle del Cauca, Cauca and Nariño,” Melo said.
One of the Rastrojo’s leaders, Javier Antonio Calle Serna (alias “Comba”) turned himself in to U.S. authorities in Aruba in May 2012. The next month, Diego Pérez Henano (alias “Diego Rastrojo”) was captured in western Venezuela, and on Oct. 4, Comba’s brother, Luís Calle Serna (alias “El Combatiente”) surrendered to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Jeremy McDermott, director of Insight Crime — an independent research outfit based in Medellín, Colombia — told Diálogo that the fall of the Rastrojos “was due to the surrender of Javier Calle Serna and all the intelligence he gave to the DEA, which led to a wave of arrests of Rastrojo commanders across the country.”
Rise of the Urabeños franchise
“With the implosion of the Rastrojos, the Urabeños were able to capitalize on their contacts in Valle de Cauca and invade the extraordinarily important strategic real estate that is Buenaventura on the Pacific coast,” McDermott said.
“Together with [Greylin Fernando Varón Cadena Alias] Martin Bala [Urabeños leader captured by pólice in May 2013] they even set up “oficinas de cobro” [mafia enforcers] in the Rastrojos capital of Cali.” McDermott said the Urabeños also managed to bribe several senior Rastrojos commanders to come over to their side, adding: “This is not a hierarchical structure [like the] Medellin cartel. This is a franchise.”
Estimating the strength of this franchise — as well as the size of Colombia’s organized crime business in general — is quite difficult.
“If you lump together all the different organizations the Urabeños have absorbed, allied themselves with or forged agreements with, then you can inflate the numbers significantly,” Melo said.
Ariel Avila, senior investigator for the Bogota-based online media outlet Las2orillas, explained that the paramilitary demobilization process in 2006 left 101 organized crime groups operating throughout Colombia. By 2008, there were seven — which eventually morphed into four groups: Los Urabeños, Los Rastrojos, the Bloque Libertador de Vichada and the Bloque Meta.
“This fall in numbers happened through a series of internal wars, but didn’t coincide with a reduction in territorial control,” Avila told Diálogo.
Urabeños on the rise across Colombia
Over the past two years, he said, these organized crime groups have increased their presence from 284 to 316 municipalities, with the Urabeños expanding east from Uraba towards Norte de Santander on Colombia’s border with Venezuela.
This expansion has led Colombian organized crime groups to diversify their income-generating activities.
“Drug trafficking is still the number one source of income for the Bacrim, followed by gold mining in the Urabeños heartland in Antioquía, Cordoba and Chocó. So while people use the Urabeños name in Valle de Cauca and Cauca, they are not part of the Urabeños core,” McDermott said. “The command nodule of the Urabeños criminal network is in Urabá and Córdoba.”
Melo said his agency’s main targets at the moment are Urabeños leaders Otoniel and Gavilan, the new Rastrojos leader Alias César, and Martin Farfan Diaz (alias “Pijarvey”), former leader of the right-wing Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia [Ejército Revolucionario Popular Antiterrorista Colombiano, or ERPAC]. He added that the territorial focus is on Nariño, Cauca, Norte de Santander and Antioquia, where there’s a strategic overlap between the FARC and the Bacrim.
Internal three-tier Bacrim structure
Avila said the Urabeños still derive most of their income from drug trafficking, but increasingly depend on revenue from illegal mining, arms trafficking and micro-extortion in the cities. “They also pull in big money buying and selling high-caliber weaponry such as AK-47s through the Pacific coast, as well as pulling in explosives from Peru on the Atlantic coast,” he added.
“The police are beginning to look at post-conflict now, and the concentration seems to be more on the community policing side,” McDermott explained. “There’s a three-tier structure with the big capos like Otoniel [at the top], then the regional lieutenants or Oficinas de Cobro. In the third tier are common criminals who get subcontracted work thrown at them every now and again.”
Organized crime groups operating in Colombia now encompass nearly 3,800 members, Melo said, noting that in 2012, his men captured 2,422 members and this year they’ve captured 1,744. During the same period, 17 top military commanders were also nabbed, as well as 37 second- and third-tier local leaders.
“One of the challenges with the Bacrim today is that they’re not an easy identifiable structure,” McDermott said. “If you knock out elements of the franchise, other local elements come up. That is the versatility of a criminal network as opposed to a hierarchical structure. This has been the result of a evolution and learning process since the time when Pablo Escobar was killed on a Medellín rooftop in 1993.”
Changing drug routes across South, Central America
At this stage, said Avila, “the police need to prop up both their counter-intelligence operations as well as deal with the Bacrim’s incursions into money laundering.”
Melo said that in 2013, as part of the annulment of ownership and administrative expropriation of illicitly acquired land, Colombia’s Judicial Police (DIJIN) already had opened investigations into nearly 500 properties illegally owned by organized crime groups. The state expropriated close to 200 of these properties.
Melo added that the money-making strategies of the Urabeños as well as the Rastrojos have pushed both rivals to change drug routes. This includes pushing into Venezuela to gain more access to the lucrative markets of South and Central America.
According to Insight Crime research, the Rastrojos were the major suppliers of cocaine to Mexico’s most powerful transnational criminal organization, the Sinaloa cartel. With the group’s implosion, Mexican buyers have been seeking new suppliers in Colombia — with indications that they have established direct ties with the FARC.
“The principle transnational operations of the Rastrojos were in Venezuela and Ecuador, and the Urabeños have links in Panama on their back door,” McDermott said. “The Urabeños have been muscling in on Venezuelan action and there were suggestions that a recent four-ton [cocaine] seizure in Guayaquil [Ecuador] was an Urabeños load.”