Neo-paramilitary group “Los Urabeños” has taken the majority stake in Colombia’s drug trafficking business because their contacts were of a better quality than rival group “Los Rastrojos”, resulting in a better support structure, while “Los Rastrojos” top leaders either surrendered or were captured, exposing their weak internal structure.
While the origins of both drug trafficking organisations differ, the expansionist tendencies of the two led them into a bloody conflict over strategic drug trafficking real estate from 2008 onwards. Five years later, the Urabeños have virtually won this war by consolidating territory along Colombia’s Caribbean coast while taking control of drug routes to the Pacific previously run by their rivals.
There were three key factors responsible for the Urabeños seeming victory in this conflict, according to an expert who asked not to be named.
“The factors that led to the downfall of the Rastrojos were the quality of their contacts, the structure of the group and their political support base,” said the expert.
According to the source, it was the nature of the Urabeños’ contacts that helped them gain control in numerous departments throughout the conflict.
“When working with these groups, they forced them to commit to the Urabeños and their structure.”
The Rastrojos however, adopted a different approach.
“Los Rastrojos used a franchise model, exercising far less control than the Urabeños,” the expert said, adding that “they focused on allying themselves with urban forces, who do not have the military capacity needed during a conflict.”
Jeremy McDermott, Director of organized crime website Insight Crime, explained how these tactics can be traced to the origins of the group.
“Los Rastrojos, because of the nature of the Norte del Valle cartel from which they were born, are more invested in forging multiple agreements.”
“The Urabeños however, prefer to exercise greater control as a result of their paramilitary roots,” reasoned the expert.
Consequently, the Urabeños had a greater support base to call on during the conflict between the two groups.
“The Urabeños were better at utilizing their support network. Although Los Rastrojos had a support base in certain areas, the nature of the groups they had aligned with were unable to provide the necessary support,” according to McDermott.
“They were unable to arrange logistics or provide the intelligence necessary in order to win some of these conflicts,” explained our unnamed source.
An example of this is the Rastrojos alliance with neo-paramilitary group Los Paisas, a faction which arose from the demobilized AUC in the Bajo Cauca region around the same time as the Urabeños did along the Caribbean coast.
Whilst the Urabeños had taken control of the majority of the Cordoba department, the Rastrojos’ alliance with the Paisas was intended to defeat the Urabeños and take control of this strategically important department.
According to our unnamed source however, this partnership was fruitless, because “the Paisas never really had a support base in Cordoba. They didn’t have many contacts in the region.”
“Los Rastrojos really depended on the Paisas in this region, as most of the the group were from the southwest. The reliance on the Paisas was somewhat of a weakness for the Rastrojos” explained our source.
McDermott however, stressed the fracturing of Los Rastrojos as a second key reason for their defeat in this conflict.
“Comba (Head of Los Rastrojos) turned himself in to US authorities in 2012, and then the military head of Los Rastrojos, Diego Rastrojo was caught in Venezuela.”
“It seems that in his surrender deal, Comba acts as an informant for the DEA, resulting in a wave of arrests throughout the group. The Urabeños were not shy in taking advantage of this” explained the expert.
The consequential lack of leadership within the organisation led to infighting, which McDermott believes is a result of the structure of Los Rastrojos.
“The Norte del Valle cartel (from which Los Rastrojos were born) were a federation of different groups, and federations break up quicker than more vertically integrated groups,” said the InSight Crime director.
“Historically, the Urabeños were more of a fundamentally cohesive organisation” explained McDermott.
According to our unnamed source, the Urabeños took advantage of the Rastrojos’ fragmentation by moving into the departments of Valle de Cauca and Putumayo.
The source agreed with McDermott, stating that the structure of the group was a key reason for their downfall.
“When you have a hierachy, you take out the leadership and someone resumes that role. When you have a network however, you take out the right people and no one knows who should step up, major contacts are lost and many of the group will not actually know each other.”
It appears a combination of factors led to the success of the Urabeños. Their contacts were of a higher quality than that of the Rastrojos, resulting in a better support structure, while the hierarchal structure of the group also led to less infighting than their rivals, who fragmented when top leaders were lost.
According to McDermott, the result of this is that “the Urabeños are today the most powerful single drug trafficking syndicate in Colombia.”