Colombia's criminal networks consolidate around two forces

Two major criminal networks have been extending their reach throughout Colombia. In Mexico. pressure from security forces has had the opposite effect, causing the criminal underworld to fragment.

By , Guest blogger

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    Police officers place seized weapons on a table during a media conference in Cali July 29. About 47 weapons were seized from gangs during a raid, police said.
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As Mexico's criminal underworld fragments under pressure from the security forces, that of Colombia appears to be consolidating around two opposing criminal networks.

New criminal syndicates are continually forming in Mexico, as the bigger cartels are decapitated and middle ranking leaders step up to form their own organizations. In Colombia, however, the reverse seems to be the case, as the number of major league criminal gangs shrinks. However, the two names that are left standing in Colombia represent not integrated structures, but loose networks.

These two structures, called BACRIMs (criminal bands - "bandas criminales") by the government, are the Rastrojos and the Urabeños. While there are other major players on the drug trafficking criminal scene, they are all in one way or another linked to the Rastrojos or their bitter enemies the Urabeños.

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The Rastrojos have their roots in the Norte del Valle Cartel, born in the province of the same name on Colombia's Pacific coast. They are now the biggest players on Colombia's criminal scene, with a presence in at least 12 of the country’s 32 provinces or departments. Led by two brothers, Javier and Luis Enrique Calle Serna, known collectively as the "Comba," they are the dominant organization along the Pacific coast, and have locked down a significant part of the border with Venezuela, the latter now being one of the principal transit nations for Colombian cocaine.

The Calle Serna brothers work with some of the heaviest hitters in the Colombian cocaine industry. The first is Daniel "El Loco" Barrera, one of the U.S.’s most wanted traffickers. Barrera is believed to base himself out of Venezuela, occasionally slipping into Colombia to check on his interests in the Eastern Plains and the capital Bogota, where it is alleged he has high-level penetration into the police force.

The Rastrojos, while they have unchallenged domination of the city of Cali, have long eyed the prize of Medellin. While they have heavy presence in the Antioquia department, of which Medellin is the capital, they had been unable to put down roots in the city. However, they are now supporting one of the two local factions of the Medellin mafia, known as the Oficina de Envigado. Intelligence sources told Insight Crime that the Rastrojos were supplying arms and munitions to the faction of the Oficina led by Erick Vargas Cardenas, alias "Sebastian."

While the Rastrojos have been unable to negotiate a nationwide alliance with Colombia's Marxist guerrillas, who control access to much of the coca crops, which are the raw material for cocaine, they have managed to secure local agreements. In what was the prototype BACRIM-rebel agreement, in 2007, the Rastrojos made an agreement with the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional - ELN), which at the time was engaged in a fratricidal war with the country's biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). While the ELN sold coca base to the BACRIM, protected their drug laboratories, and escorted shipments down to the Pacific coast, the Rastrojos paid with cash, new weapons, munitions, uniforms and state-of-the-art communications equipment. This allowed the ELN not only to beat back the FARC, but to even take some of their territory.

Now the Rastrojos and the ELN have agreements, in the interests of the drug trade, in the departments of Antioquia, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Choco, Norte de Santander and Nariño. The Rastrojos have also managed to secure local agreements with the FARC in Antioquia, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Putumayo, Nariño and Norte de Santander.

Pitted against the Calle Serna brothers and their Rastrojos are the Usuga brothers, Juan de Dios and Dario Antonio, of the Urabeños. This group has its roots in the now demobilized paramilitary army of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC). They are based in the region of Uraba, in the northern department of Antioquia, on the Caribbean coast. The Urabeños have presence in at least nine of Colombia's departments.

The Urabeños also have some powerful friends, not least among them the second faction of the Oficina de Envigado, headed by Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias "Valenciano." Bonilla has presence not only in the city of Medellin, but along the Caribbean coast, where he helps the Urabeños move cocaine from the ports of Cartagena and Barranquilla.

The Rastrojos and Urabeños have different routes and structures. The Rastrojos are a loose affiliation of drug traffickers, organized crime syndicates and common criminals. They act as a franchise, and the Calle Serna brothers do not pretend to have control over all those that call themselves Rastrojos. Indeed many of the elements that make up the Rastrojos are partners to the Calle Serna brothers, and require persuasion, not threats, to cooperate. The Urabeños, thanks to their paramilitary heritage, are slightly more organized and disciplined, but they are also allied to many different drug traffickers, and in the case of Medellin, to "combos" or street gangs. They have also negotiated local deals with the rebels, particularly the FARC, in Choco, Cordoba and Antioquia.

Both groups have been expanding their operations across the country, gobbling up smaller criminal syndicates as they go. In 2008 there was a relatively clear divide between the two, with the Rastrojos dominant along the Pacific coast, and the Urabeños on the Caribbean coast. Since then the lines have been blurred, with the Rastrojos moving into the Urabeños' stronghold in Antioquia, and the latter seeking to establish a foothold in Valle del Cauca, Cauca and most recently Nariño. The Urabeños have been trying to set up agreements along the Pacific coast with groups opposed to the Rastrojos, like the remnants of the Machos, a rival faction of the now-defunct Norte del Valle cartel.

In Colombia, the fully integrated and hierarchical drug cartel died with Pablo Escobar of the Medellin Cartel, and the dismantling of the rival Cali Cartel. The successor Norte del Valle Cartel was more of a federation, which worked alongside the other powerful drug trafficking federation of the paramilitary AUC. Today there are no longer even federations, but rather networks, whose members sometimes work together, sometimes independently and sometimes against each other. The two most powerful Colombian networks now center around the Rastrojos and Urabeños. The security forces may well kill or capture the Calle Serna and Usuga brothers, but the networks will continue to shift and adapt.

--- Jeremy McDermott is a director at Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.

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