BOGOTA, Colombia -- Human Rights Watch on Thursday blamed the Urabeños criminal gang for helping cause one of Colombia’s worst humanitarian crises in years: the forced displacement last year of 19,000 people from the city of Buenaventura.
The displacements, representing 5% of the Pacific port city’s 370,000 population, were only part of the mayhem perpetrated by the Urabeños, who also engage in criminal activity such as targeting community leaders and rights activists for assassination, the rights group said.
Colombian officials consider the gang the nation’s biggest drug trafficker and say it is involved in extortion, as well as promoting a black market for stolen military weapons and carrying out killings.
The diversity and scope of Colombia’s most powerful outlaw gang illustrate the seriousness of the nation’s organized-crime problem, analysts say, even as the government claims to have dismantled dozens of similar gangs in the last several years.
“While authorities have captured many Urabeños members, they have not been able to curb the power of the group,” said Max Schoening, the rights group’s Colombia representative.
President Juan Manuel Santos ordered a “special intervention” by armed forces in Buenaventura this month after police found several houses where Urabeños and other gangs are thought have taken victims for torture, killings and dismemberment.
The Urabeños gang, which takes its name from the Uraba region of northwestern Colombia, controls a drug trafficking organization that handles from a third to half of the 300 tons of cocaine shipped to the United States last year, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The gang is causing mayhem in Buenaventura because it is fighting other gangs for control of the city, which is Colombia’s largest Pacific port and a gateway for cocaine shipments to the U.S. Cocaine is hidden in freight containers placed aboard cargo ships and sent northward aboard smaller craft launched from the city’s inlets and mangroves.
The Buenaventura situation is especially alarming because the Colombian and U.S. governments have poured millions of dollars in aid into the city during the last decade to try to develop the port and give the mostly impoverished Afro-Colombian residents economic alternatives to crime.
Maj. Gen. Ricardo Alberto Restrepo, commander of Colombia’s anti-narcotics police, said in an interview that in addition to drugs, the gang also traffics in black market gasoline along the Venezuelan border, an activity that also enables it to launder drug profits. Extortion, illegal gold mining, kidnapping and for-hire killings round out the group’s criminal portfolio, he said.
Jeremy McDermott, co-director of InSight Crime, a Medellin-based think tank that tracks organized crime in Colombia, said the Urabeños' ascendance comes as “criminality” -- robberies, micro-trafficking of drugs and extortion -- has been on the rise in Colombia in recent years, while killings and kidnappings have decreased.
“Whereas Pablo Escobar made 100% of his money trafficking drugs, the Urabeños may make only 50% of their money that way. They have a vastly more diverse criminal portfolio than their predecessors and what they are interested in is getting a cut, mafia-style, of all the action,” McDermott said.
The leaders of the Urabeños are former members of a powerful right-wing paramilitary gang called the Centaur Block that demobilized in 2006. Whereas other capos in the gang took the government’s offer to lay down their arms, brothers Dario and Giovanni Usuga opted to maintain the militia’s criminal businesses.
Giovanni Usuga was killed in a New Year’s Day 2012 shootout with police. Dario Usuga has a $6-million bounty on his head -- the U.S. State Department is offering $5 million and the Colombian government $1 million -- making him perhaps the hemisphere’s most wanted drug trafficker after Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s capture last month in Mexico.
U.S. and Colombian authorities said the Urabeños gang problem provides a preview of an even greater potential organized crime threat that could follow a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, if negotiations underway in Havana are successful. They fear that FARC guerrillas who don’t demobilize could form similar gangs.
The Urabeños' preeminence as a criminal organization is partly a result of Colombian law enforcement’s having taken down a score of competing gangs since 2006, said Jay Bergman, the DEA agent overseeing the Andean region in Bogota.
“They’re the victims of their own success. The Colombians have knocked out the other gangs but left the field wide open for the Urabeños,” said Bergman, adding that “dozens” of the gang’s members are under indictment in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. “They remain the DEA’s No. 1 investigative priority.”
Kraul is a special correspondent.