Firefight between police and neo-paramilitaries leaves 7 dead in northeast Colombia

A firefight in northeast Colombia between the police and the country’s most feared drug traffickers, the Urabeños, has left seven dead, according to authorities.

The firefight occurred on Tuesday morning 50 minutes outside of Cucuta, the capital of Norte de Santander department, which borders Venezuela. The police were searching for “Visaje”, a regional leader of the Urabeños. During the firefight six alleged Urabeños fighters were killed, among them “Macario”, who was wanted for extortion, drug-running and murder. Police captain Carlos Gonzalez Buitrago also lost his life, and another police officer was wounded.

The presence of the Urabeños in this department suggests that the neo-paramilitary group, which is estimated to possess more than 2300 fighters, more than Colombia’s second-largest rebel group ELN, is trying to move into the lucrative drug-trafficking routes in Venezuela partly controlled by their rivals, the Rastrojos.

According to a police statement, those Urabeños fighters killed in the firefight, part of the so-called “Operation Frontier”, had just come from a camp on the other side of the border. They were travelling in a grey Toyota Fortuner – with a Venezuelan number plate – accompanied by a motorbike, when they were intercepted by anti-narcotics police. Newspaper Semana reports that the subsequent firefight lasted for over an hour.

“I was alone in my house. Everyone had left,” a local resident told news website Vanguardia. “Suddenly there was the sound of bursts of gunfire and even explosions. I didn’t know what to do.”

After the firefight the police seized 5 assault rifles, M-16’s, 2 pistols – known as “police-killers” – and hand-grenades. They also captured a woman, wounded in the battle, who made up part of Macario’s escort. Macario was a “self-proclaimed leader of the Urabeños in Norte de Santander”, according to news website CM&.

The main target of Operation Frontier, Carlos Andres Palencia, or “Visaje”, who controlled operations in the area, escaped from custody in 2010 and made his hiding place the border region between Venezuela and Norte de Santander. There is a $500 bounty on his head.

The Urabeños’ presence in Norte de Santander is second only to the Rastrojos, a drug trafficking gang that grew out of the now-defunct Norte del Valle Cartel. But since the June 2012 capture of “Diego Rastrojo” – one of the founders of the group who was extradited to the US last week – followed in quick succession by the surrendering of his successors, the Serna brothers, the Rastrojos have been in disarray and have lost much of their territory to the Urabeños.

MORE: Colombia extradites Rastrojos founder to US

MORE: How the Urabeños beat the Rastrojos to become Colombia’s #1 drug cartel

The growing Urabeños presence on the Venezuelan border was made evident in June, when security forces captured 3 Venezuelans who were allegedly members of the Urabeños, suggesting that the organization were both recruiting from Venezuela and establishing bases there, not just using the country as a drug-trafficking route, or a place to hide.

Among those who have tried to escape the heat by fleeing to Venezuela are Diego Rastrojo himself, his former boss and leader of the Norte del Valle cartel, “Jabon”, who was assassinated in January 2008, and drug kingpin Daniel “El Loco” Barrera, who was arrested there in September 2012. In May of this year, “Escalante”, the reported head of the Urabeños’ drug trafficking operations along the Caribbean coast, was also captured in Venezuela.

MORE: How ‘El Loco Barrera,’ Colombia’s biggest drug lord, was arrested

MORE: Top ‘Urabeños’ commander surrenders in Venezuela

Police say that the death of Macario brings to a close a series of operations that have led to the capture of various leaders of criminal gangs over the past three weeks. On August 20th police captured “Palustre”, alleged Rastrojos leader in Colombia’s third-largest city Cali. They also captured an apparent leader of operations in Buenaventura department, on the Pacific coast.

The police claim to have captured 1738 members of criminal gangs in 2013.


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