It’s not that the authorities are not trying; For more than three weeks, some 2,200 soldiers and policemen have been combing through the jungles and villages of northeastern Colombia, hoping to find the drug lord.
“We are closer than ever to the capture of Otoniel. Surely the local community, which has been victimized, will be helping us,” said National Police commander General Rodolfo Palomino in February, at the beginning of “The Siege of Uraba.”
However, three weeks into the operation, Otoniel continues to be on the loose, forcing authorities to plan the extension of the 60-day operation that sought to take him down.
Initially, authorities said the operation would focus on the Chigorodo municipality located on the southern tip of the Gulf of Uraba.
According to Medellin newspaper El Colombiano, this operation has extended to half a dozen of other municipalities, all located around the gulf that’s been a key exit point for cocaine ever since the days of the Medellin Cartel in the 1980s and 90s.
Locals told Colombia Reports that the ground forces have received air support in Turbo, Chigorodo and Apartado.
Caribbean comfort zone
According to operational documents obtained by El Colombiano, “these zones have become the center of the … criminal outreach” of the Urabeños from where they run their “international drug trafficking, extortion, illegal mining [and] contract killing” operations.
Additionally, the tropical jungle area has become the “comfort zone and traditional refuge of the leaders” of the group that controls most drug trafficking operations along Colombia’s Pacific and Caribbean coastlines.
The Urabeños maintain such freedom in the area thanks to a “violent pressure on the community” and fragile non-aggression pacts with rebel group FARC.
Authorities have upped the reward for Otoniel’s capture to $400,000 in the hope this will break the communal silence about the whereabouts of the neo-paramilitary drug lord.
Hearts and minds
Following years of collusion between Urabeños predecessor AUC and the military, distrust among the locals towards the authorities is considerable.
In order to generate more confidence, members of the security forces have been handing out water in a number of townships, reported El Colombiano.
Additionally, 25,000 flyers have been distributed with the photos and names of Urabeños top leaders such as “Gavilan,” “Nicolas,” “El Indio” and “Guagua.”
These four alleged drug traffickers form the Urabeños’ executive board together with Otoniel, according to the authorities.
However, until either the hearts-and-minds campaign or the military offensive results in the arrest or death of “Otoniel,” anti-narcotics agents have been ordered to stay in Uraba.
2200 hombres le siguen el rastro a “Otoniel” (El Colombiano)