A major manhunt in the northwest of Colombia to catch Urabeños leader “Otoniel” has not led to the arrest of Colombia’s most prominent narco, but has resulted in the arrest if 72 alleged members of his neo-paramilitary group, authorities said Thursday.
Regarding the concern of whether alleged Ubreños leader, known only as his alias, Otoniel, has taken refuge in other countries, the Prosecutor General’s office has offered a $5 million USD reward to his capture in the United States. The same reward has been offered by the FARC, reported Medellin newspaper El Colombiano.
In reference to the capture of Otoniel, Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón said, “Sooner or later, he will fall. Sooner or later, his hour will come, and every blow gets us closer to that possibility,” according to Colombiano.
The 72 arrests are the result of an offensive launched in February by the National Police, by which they approved up to 100 arrest warrants and tripled the amount of police on the ground in search of Ubreño members.
Among the captured are aliases Rafa, Paula, Negro, Tito, Mandungo, and Napoleon, who were found in the municipalities of Antioquian Urabá, and Cordoba, reported Colombian newspaper El Espectador. Some 60 raids have taken place throughout the country since the offensive first launched.
The hunt for Ontoniel, reportedly the largest manhunt since Pablo Escobar. The Colombian government has been hunting for the rebels in “The Siege of Uraba” since the middle of February, with soldiers and policemen combing through the jungles and villages of northeastern Colombia weeks after authorities nearly nabbed the drug lord by accident.
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The group is “a high value target and we will not stop until we have fully dismantled it,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in a speech given at the opening of the Regional Centre for Victims in Apartado, Antioquia, one of the Urabeños hotspots.
Initially, authorities said the operation would focus on the Chigorodo municipality located on the southern tip of the Gulf of Uraba.
According to El Colombiano, this operation then extended to half a dozen 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.
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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.