|This article needs additional citations for verification. (July 2012)|
|Participant in Colombian Armed Conflict|
|Leaders||Daniel Rendón Herrera|
Los Urabeños (English: 'The ones from Urabá') is a Colombian, drug trafficking neo-paramilitary group involved in the Colombian armed conflict. It is considered the most powerful neo-paramilitary group in Colombia with some 1,200 members in the inner circle of the organization. Their main source of income is drug trafficking. In late 2011 Los Urabeños declared war on Los Rastrojos over the control of the drug trade in Medellín. Los Urabeños is one of the organizations that appeared after the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
One of the many groups made up of former mid-level paramilitary leaders, the Urabeños have caused homicide rates to skyrocket in Colombia’s northern departments. The Urabeños, also known as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, is currently one of the more ambitious and ruthless of Colombia’s drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). The group’s power base is in the Antioquia, Chocó and Córdoba departments, and they also have presence in La Guajira, Cesar, Santander and in major cities including Medellin and Bogotá.
The Urabeños bring a military discipline to all their operations, and are well consolidated on the Caribbean coast, contracting local street gangs to act as informants, hit men or drug distributors. By avoiding infighting and paying their recruits well, the group has at times been able to steal territory from the Rastrojos, their most hated rival.
The Urabeños take their name from Urabá, a northwestern region near the Panamanian border highly prized by drug traffickers as it offers access to the Caribbean and Pacific coast, from the departments of Antioquia and Chocó. However, the origins of the group can be traced elsewhere, in Colombia’s Eastern Plains, where Daniel Rendón Herrera, better known as ‘Don Mario,’ once handled finances for the paramilitary group Bloque Centauros.
Cocaine traffickers had long competed with the FARC for territory and influence in the Eastern Plains. In 1997, top paramilitary commanders Carlos and Vicente Castaño began sending troops to the area in order to co-opt the drug business from the guerrillas. In 2001, the Castaños sold one of their armed groups, later known as Bloque Centauros, to another warlord, Miguel Arroyave, allegedly for US$7 million. It was Arroyave who convinced Rendón Herrera to come work for him. Under Rendón’s supervision, the Centauros became one of the wealthiest factions within the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombian (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). The Centauros trafficked cocaine, propped up local politicians, extorted ranchers and farmers, and collected security taxes for products ranging from alcohol to petroleum.
But the Centauros soon began clashing with a rival paramilitary group, the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Casanare (Autodefensas Campesinas del Casanare – ACC). The ACC is one of the oldest vigilante groups in Colombia, headed by Héctor Germán Buitrago Parada, alias ‘Martín Llanos.’ It was allegedly ACC fighters who first began calling the Centauros “those from Urabá,” “Paisas,” or “Urabeños,” all references to the Antioquia region where many of the paramilitaries hailed from.
By 2004, the fierce war between the ACC and the Centauros had left an estimated 3,000 people dead. Rendón fled the Eastern Plains in June after a falling out with Arroyave. Rendón then found refuge in the Urabá region, where his brother Freddy, alias ‘El Aleman,’ headed his own paramilitary group, the Bloque Elmer Cardenas. Shortly afterwards, Arroyave was ambushed and killed by his former allies, including Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias ‘Cuchillo.’
When Freddy Rendón chose to demobilize in 2006, his brother ‘Don Mario’ seized the opportunity to expand his drug trafficking operations in the Urabá gulf. He recruited many of the fighters once under Freddy’s command, as well as ex-members from the defunct Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) guerrilla group. From Urabá, the DTO deployed go-fast boats loaded with cocaine to Central America or the Caribbean, with some estimates putting it at 10 to 20 boats per week. By 2008, Rendón Herrera was one of the richest and most-wanted traffickers in Colombia.
Rendón attempted to expand his empire, moving into southern Córdoba, the Lower Cauca region in northern Antioquia and even venturing into Medellin, long controlled by the feared Oficina de Envigado. Rendón’s men soon began clashing with the Paisas, then a rural, armed wing of the Oficina. Police blamed Rendón’s organization for at least 3,000 homicides between 2007 and 2009. On April 15, 2009, a team of 200 police commandos captured Rendón on a farm in rural Urabá.
Since Rendón’s capture, the remnants of his organization have fallen under control of the Usuga brothers, Juan de Dios and Dario Antonio, two former mid-ranking paramilitaries believed to have worked with Rendón since the 1990s. The two started out with an estimated 250 men following Rendón’s arrest, and have since managed to grow exponentially.
On January 1, 2011, Juan de Dios was killed in a police raid on a ranch in Choco department. In a surprising display of strength, the Urabeños organized a series of coordinated strikes protesting his deaths in northern Antioquia, handing out fliers which referred to the group's former name, the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces. The Urabeños also signalled their intention to respond aggressively to their leader's death when they publicly offered a $1,000 reward for each police officer killed in Antioquia, a public relations strategy best associated with kingpin Pablo Escobar.
Organization and structure
The Urabeños rely on at least 1,200 members in their top level of command. Their base is near and around the Urabá gulf, including the Tierralta and Valencia municipalities in Cordoba and the eleven municipalities in the Urabá sub-region in Antioquia.
The top command deploys teams of trained, armed men to rural areas vital for drug-trafficking operations. These include zones with natural sea ports along the Caribbean coast, or areas where coca base must be bought, like Caucasia or Tarazá in Antioquia (InSight has also heard reports of an Urabeño cell in Medellin). These cells then attempt to recruit local informants, especially collaborators who can inform them of the actions of the security forces.
The Urabeños are also known to contract local street gangs who help with retail and mid-level distribution of cocaine, extortion and select assassination. By “sponsoring” other low-level gangs, the Urabeños have been able to maintain small, select cells of highly disciplined men in the field, responsible for ever larger swathes of territory. There are also indications that the group has been successful enough in terms of recruitment to move into other key territories like Barrancabermeja, Santander, one of Colombia’s oil towns long prized by the Rastrojos.
When it comes to drug trafficking, the Urabeños are similar to rival DTOS like the Rastrojos or the Paisas in that they are uninterested in controlling the entire chain of drug production. But they have not proved as adept as the Rastrojos when it comes to brokering key alliances with other major players in the drug trade. The Urabeños will buy coca base from the FARC, but the two groups will not collaborate much further than that. What is helping the Urabeños compete so far is their military discipline: so far they have proved immune to the kind of infighting tearing apart the Paisas or the Oficina. The Urabeños may yet prove themselves capable of expanding their operations beyond the Caribbean coast and northern Colombia, if they are not derailed by their war with the Rastrojos.
2012 armed strike
On January 5, 2012 the organization launched an armed strike in much of northern Colombia to protest the killing of their leader 'Giovanni'. The strike completely paralized several Colombian departments as shopkeepers and travellers were told to stay at home or face 'consequenses'.
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