A series of violent acts in Colombia’s southwestern has made authorities fear that two powerful drug trafficking organizations are waging a war for control over the strategically important southwestern Valle del Cauca department.
“Antichrist,” allegedly one of the leading assassins in Colombia’s third largest city, Cali, on Monday was killed by police. Authorities suspected that the assassin was carrying out orders handed down from the Cali-based drug trafficking organization, “Los Rastrojos,” who have been targeting their main rival, the neo-paramilitary group “Los Urabeños.”
The Cali police report indicated that Los Urabeños, hailing from the Uraba region in northwestern Colombia, had finally come to challenge Los Rastrojos in their home territory.
Gustavo Rivera at the Valle del Cauca Governor’s Office told Colombia Reports the fighting between the two groups had led to increased violence in the department at large.
“The presence of these two groups are due to a dispute over territory and large-scale illegal activities. The war between the gangs has [led to] an increase in violence and with the arrival of the Urabeños the amount of conflicts have increased. Also, mining has become another source of wealth for these groups and therefore the drug traffickers want to control these resources. In this way, the peasants want to flee the countryside to escape the conflicts, but the government is trying to improve conditions and search for solutions,” said Rivera.
According to newspaper El Pais, recent displacements and violence in the southwestern cities of Buenaventura, Tulua and Cartago could be attributed to fighting between the Urabeños and Los Rastrojos.
Reports of fighting between the two criminal groups in Los Rastrojos’ heartland first surfaced in late 2010, when a series of deadly showdowns in the city of Tulua, the birthplace of the Norte del Valle Cartel — considered the predecessor of Los Rastrojos — led to a sharp increase in homicides. Tulua is a major transport hub for legal and illegal goods to the rest of Colombia and has therefore been under siege by various illegal groups.
According to Camilo Gonzalez, the president of the conflict-monitoring NGO Indepaz, it was too early to talk of an Urabeños takeover of Rastrojos territories.
“We have identified that Los Urabeños are taking lots of terrain in the Choco, Cordoba and Uraba [regions], configuring their areas of control and disseminating what the Rastrojos had [accumulated] in 2011,” Gonzalez told Colombia Reports.
In 2012, several events diminished the fighting power of Los Rastrojos. The gang’s main leaders, Javier Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” and Luis Enrique Calle Serna, were either captured or surrendered to US authorities. These apprehensions left the group fractured and without a clear leader.
Meanwhile, Los Urabeños, with a clear, military hierarchy inherited from the paramilitary group the AUC, purportedly have taken advantage of the Rastrojos lack of leadership. During 2012, reports indicated that the neo-paramilitaries from northern Colombia had started to pressure the Cali drug-traffickers in places like the port city of Buenaventura, which had previously been considered Rastrojos territory.
Gonzalez said that Los Urabeños are making inroads towards Buenaventura and certain zones that “are key to these groups.”
So far this year, fighting between the two groups displaced some 800 people from the western Choco department’s Pacific coast, while the massacre of 10 members of the Urabeños-linked “Los Diablos” on the behalf of the Rastrojos-linked “La Empresa” in Buenaventura seemed to indicate an escalating proxy war between the two groups.
However, according to Gonzalez, Los Rastrojos should not be considered a fading force.
“They have received blows to their leadership, but I think they are maintaining in their key parts and traditional zones…last year they lost some terrain, although it remains to be seen what has been lost,” said the NGO president.
Part of the reason for Los Urabeños’ interest in the region lies in the geography of Colombia’s southwest. Not only is the area a major coca and gold producing region, but it also connects the central Andean region and the Pacific with northern Colombia.
“The Valle department is, for its geographic position, a piece of gold for the armed groups on the fringes of the law, for its access to the Pacific, for the corridors that run to the forested areas of Cauca [and] Choco. The department connects the north with the coffee region and to the east with Tolima,” Rivera explained to Colombia Reports.