“The Urabeños” have become Colombia’s “last standing” neo-paramilitary organization, a report released by InSight Crime revealed on Monday.
Describing the Urabeños as the “perfect amalgamation of Colombian organized crime,” the report states that the group has become the only group of its kind with national reach, and arguably the “last standing” neo-paramilitary criminal organization currently operating in Colombia.
The Urabeños are among more than 30 criminal groups, also known as “Bacrim,” that emerged following the 2006 demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s main right-wing paramilitary organization.
Not to be confused with other criminal organizations operating in the country, “The term BACRIM is used to describe a vast array of different criminal groups and enterprises — essentially any criminal structure not linked to the Marxist rebels,” the InSight Crime website explains.
Since their emergence, these groups have been fighting each other to fill the vacuum left by the AUC, and vying for control over the demobilized paramilitary organization’s territory and illicit activities — such as drug trafficking.
Included among the Urabeños former rivals were the “Rastrojos,” the “Oficina de Envigado,” and the “Paisas,” but as the report’s author, Jeremy McDermott, explained to Colombia Reports, these groups have either been defeated or incorporated into the Urabeños network.
“The Rastrojos used to be the dominant group, but when their leader turned themselves in they kind of imploded, and the Urabeños were not slow to take advantage of this,” McDermott told Colombia Reports.
“The Urabeños are the only bacrim left, according to our definition of bacrim…the Heroes of Vichada are also a bacrim, but they work with the Urabeños and are essentially part of their network, so really the Urabeños are the last bacrim standing,” McDermott explained.
According to Insight Crime, an organization that investigates organized crime in Latin America, the group’s military background as well as its ability to incorporate rival groups into its decentralized national network have allowed the Urabeños to emerge as Colombia’s most dominant neo-paramilitary criminal organization.
Under constant pressure from the Colombian military, the Urabeños have found away to operate as a decentralized network of eight different “blocs” across Colombia, while still dominating the country’s criminal underworld. Each of these “blocs” is under independent leadership and financially self-sufficient.
“It is a criminal network, built around a series of units, or “nodes.”…If one node of the structure is taken out, the network simply shifts, with new nodes taking over the roles of their dismantled predecessors,” the report stated.
Ironically, many of the Urabeños’ members come from one of the country’s three major guerilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) or the People’s Liberation Army (EPL). All three groups were once considered enemies of the AUC.
Former members of the notorious Medellin Cartel also make up a large portion of the Urabeños’ membership, primarily controlling the drug trafficking aspects of the organization.
It is this membership comprised of various armed groups, and the network’s decentralized structure, that makes the organization so militarily effective and difficult to eradicate.
“Extremely hard to destroy”
“The issue with these networks,” the report’s author explained, “is that they don’t have the same discipline as their predecessors, because they are not structured the same, they are criminal franchises, and that means that they are extremely hard to destroy.”
“Should the head of the Urabeños be killed…this network will continue but it might not be under the same franchise name…depending on which is the predominant faction in the network, the network could change their axis,” McDermott said.
As the report described, “The Urabeños encompass three generations of criminal expertise, melded into a hybrid structure forged by the current situation in Colombia.”
Adding to the organization’s dominance is the fact that the Urabeños not only control a large portion of the country’s cocaine trade, but have also added gold mining, extortion, human trafficking, gambling and prostitution to their list of criminal activities.
“Cocaine is no longer the sole, or perhaps even the primary element of the Urabeños’ criminal portfolio. Gold mining, extortion, human trafficking, gambling and prostitution all provide criminal revenue. ”
Colombia’s security forces are struggling to keep up due to the diversity of the group’s criminal portfolio, particularly in areas such as illegal gold mining and extortion.
Ultimately, the underlying motive for the various ‘blocs’ operating under the Urabeños franchise is profit.
As InSight Crime explains, “The different nodes in the criminal network cooperate in the interests of illegal businesses, and will work for the highest bidder. The glue that keeps the network together is profit. This is the free market at its most unregulated.”
The “Urabeños,” also known as the “Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia,” are a neo-paramilitary group from the north of Colombia that has violently taken control of the country’s Caribbean coast following the demobilization of the paramilitary AUC.
The organization received their name in the late 1990s and early 2000s when its commanders were still members of the AUC and the paramilitaries started an offensive from the region of Uraba towards Colombia’s eastern plains.
When the AUC officially demobilized between 2003 and 2006, mid-level commanders and fighters from the paramilitary groups ACCU, the “Bloque Centauros” and the “Bloque Elmer Cardenas” took over the paramilitary structure in the north of Colombia and began operating under the name of Autodefensas Gaitanistas.
- Interview with Jeremy McDermott
- The Urabeños – The Criminal Hybrid (InSight Crime)