In spite of a month-long manhunt — reportedly the biggest since Pablo Escobar — Urabeños boss and Colombia’s most wanted drug lord, “Otoniel,” remains elusive for security forces, along with his four main bosses.
The Colombian government has been hunting for the rebels in “The Siege of Uraba” since the middle of February, with some 2,200 soldiers and policemen combing through the jungles and villages of northeastern Colombia weeks after authorities nearly nabbed the drug lord by accident.
However, after a month, the “Urabeños” group members continue to be on the loose. Without results, the authorities have been forced to up the stakes of the originally 60-day operation.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Friday announced the increase of rewards for information that could lead to the capture of the wanted criminals on Thursday.
Information about the Urabeños boss “Otoniel” is now worth $580,000, while his associates “El Galivan”, “Nicolas” and “Guagua” have a reward of almost $200,000 respectively.
The group is “a high value target and we will not stop until we have fully dismantled it,” Santos said in a speech given at the opening of the Regional Centre for Victims in Apartado, Antioquia, one of the Urabeños hotspots.
Success so far
“So far the operation has resulted in 75 captures. Amongst those are key people who are providing the government with valuable information,” the Colombian president assured.
“6 tons of cocaine, 9 narcotics laboratories, 21 confiscation operations, 41 assault operations and 12 identified training areas” are amongst the findings of Colombian authorities thus far, according to Santos.
However, the successful capture of the most dangerous criminals is yet to occur, and new tactics will have to be employed.
This certainly seems to be the case, as search-helicopters have continued to hover above the region, Uraba locals told Colombia Reports on Friday.
“Here they are increasingly surrounded, increasingly identified, we know who they are, with whom they identify, we know who surrounds them, we know how they operate, we know more or less where they are, and we are increasingly closing in on them,” Santos stated on Thursday.
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 then 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 “violent pressure on the community” and fragile non-aggression pacts with rebel group FARC.
How Otoniel got this far
Otoniel began his criminal career with the EPL guerrilla group in the 1980s. After his demobilization with the EPL in 1991, Otoniel joined the paramilitary umbrella organization AUC where he began working under “Don Mario,” who would later become the founder of the Urabeños.
It was in this period that the group of paramilitaries active across the country began being referred to as the Urabeños, meaning “the guys from Uraba” because of their Urabeño accent.
The guerrilla-turned-paramilitary demobilized again in 2005 when his Centauros Bloc took part in the peace process bartered by former President Alvaro Uribe.
However, like thousands of other members of the AUC, Otoniel did not surrender his weapons or reintegrate into society, but joined Don Mario who was founding the “Autodefensas Gaitanistas” to assume control of the drug trafficking routes left unattended by the paramilitaries.
Otoniel and his brother became the second line of command of the Urabeños until the arrest of Don Mario.
When Giovanny was killed in a 2012 police operation, Otoniel assumed control and immediately imposed a major economic shut-down along the Caribbean coast, all the way down to Medellin, to avenge his brother’s death and show the organization hasn’t weakened.
In fact, following Otoniel’s rise to become the supreme leader of the Urabeños, the group became even stronger by reducing rival neo-paramilitary faction Los Paisas to virtually nothing and taking over territory of drug cartel “Los Rastrojos” along the Pacific coast.
The group is presumed to have extensive ties to regional politicians and top judicial executives as was proven with the arrest of the brother of then-Justice Minister Fabio Valencia for attempting to remove Urabeños members from suspect lists.
2200 hombres le siguen el rastro a “Otoniel” (El Colombiano)
Santos inaugura centro de atención a víctimas en Urabá (El Colombiano)