The “Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia,” a.k.a. “Los Urabeños” or “Clan Golfo,” are a paramilitary successor group that took control of criminal enterprises left by the formally demobilized paramilitary AUC.
The organization got their initial nickname “Los Urabeños” in the late 1990s and early 2000s when its commanders were still members of the AUC and the paramilitaries started an offensive from the region of Uraba towards Colombia’s eastern plains.
President Juan Manuel Santos in 2014 changed the group’s name to “Clan Usuga,” referring to its current boss, Dario Antonio Usuga, a.k.a. “Otoniel.”
When the AUC officially demobilized between 2003 and 2006, mid-level commanders and fighters from the paramilitary groups ACCU, the “Bloque Centauros” and the “Bloque Elmer Cardenas” took over the paramilitary structure in the north of Colombia and began operating under the name of Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC).
They have been called “Urabeños,” “Clan Usuga” and Clan del Golfo” by authorities.
From AUC to Urabeños to AGC
Urabeños areas of influence
The founder of the AGC is Daniel Rendon, alias “Don Mario,” a former mid-level AUC commander and brother of Fredy Rendon, alias “El Aleman,” who demobilized as commander of the Bloque Elmer Cardenas in 2006. Mario has demobilized the year before, but like most other paramilitary fighters and mid-level commanders was able to evade justice.
The AGC announced itself for the first time in 2008, the year they claim they were “betrayed” by former President Alvaro Uribe, who — against the agreements in the AUC peace deal — extradited the group’s leadership.
Using his home Uraba region as base, Mario and his group of reportedly 250 men retook stashed AUC arms and local AUC rackets and expanded the group’s territory into the department of Antioquia and along the Caribbean coast, funded with drug trafficking, extortion and contract killings.
While expanding, the group clashed with the “Paisas” and the “Oficina de Envigado” — two Medellin-based groups that had also formed from the demobilized AUC. From Cali, former Norte del Valle branch “Los Rastrojos” opposed them.
Tensions intensified after the extradition of the former AUC leaders in May 2008. Thousands were killed in the departments of Antioquia and Cordoba in 2008 and 2009 alone.
Don Mario was arrested in April 2009 which forced the group to reorganize and retreat from areas where their expansion was resisted most by rival groups.
The brothers Dario Antonio and Juan de Dios Usuga, known respectively as “Otoniel” and “Giovanni” took over the supreme command of the group and focused the AGC’ growing military power on consolidating their Uraba stronghold and expanding along the Caribbean coast while forming alliances with commanders of rival group the Paisas and the Rastrojos.
While authorities in 2010 claimed Don Mario’s group had been dismantled, the Urabeños continued their territorial expansion all the way to the Venezuelan border. Colombian media reports throughout 2012 estimated the groups grew to have between 1,300 and 2,000 fighters.
The group’s most visible show of force came in January 2012, days after police killed Giovanni in Uraba; Spreading pamphlets across the north of Colombia, the Urabeños virtually shut down all economic activity and public transport in the region.
Following the death of Giovanni, another former AUC member, “Mi Sangre,” rose to the top of the organization, initially leading the Urabeños’ contacts in Medellin and later running the group’s international drug contacts. He was arrested in Argentina in October 2012.
Otoniel continued to run the organization after his brother’s death and began a territorial offensive down the Pacific coast to usurp territory in control by the Rastrojos that by 2013 had been weakened following the arrest and surrender of all its three founders.
In central Colombia, the group increased control, presumably in collusion with the local AUC successor group Bloque Meta. By that year they had become the country’s top drug trafficking organization with ties to the government as high as governors’ offices and district prosecution offices.
In September 2013, Otoniel and his fellow commanders reportedly decided to play a more political role, beginning a website and newspaper and calling themselves a “military-political organization.”
In February 2015, Colombia’s security forces began “Operacion Agamenon,” the biggest manhunt since Pablo Escobar.
More than 2,000 policemen and soldiers searched the Uraba region for “Otoniel,” but until today without significant result. The group and its power continued to grow.
While peace talks were ongoing with the FARC, the AUC-s former arch enemy and a rival of the group of the AGC, Otoniel grew his troops even further and by the end of 2016, when the FARC signed peace with the government, the Colombian police estimated the AGC to have 3000 members, effectively becoming the country’s largest illegal armed group.
By then, spokesmen “Raul Jaramillo” claimed to have 8000 men “including intelligence,” presumably among civilians and members of the military alike.
During the FARC peace talks, the AGC also began to profile itself more politically, trying to be included in the peace talks with the guerrillas.
According to its website, the group formed “in principle as the result of a failed peace process with the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia” and wanted a second chance to demobilize under the same conditions as the guerrillas.
Clashes between the AGC and the ELN, the last-active guerrilla group, have taken place and have forced mass displacement in 2016 in the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia and along the Pacific coast as far south as the Ecuadorean border.
In the rural areas under their control, particularly in Uraba, the paramilitaries began assassinating policemen and around the turn of 2017 the group also took to attacking and burning vehicle owned by private companies.
Meanwhile, the group is ruling Uraba and regions along both coasts and do not fear applying terror tactics, forcing farmers to grow coca and miners to dig up gold. The group has been accused of applying terrorist tactics like random assassinations and increases in street crime and extortion to coerce locals into submission to their authorities.