While there may be a few in Colombia who are trying to help the country shake off its coke-y reputation, there are still plenty of people who are happy to perpetuate the idea of it as a place where crazy people fight about drugs. Since a period of rural conflict known as La Violencia began in the 1940s, numerous factions from three different sides have fitfully done battle. "Guerillas" are the illegal, armed left-wing groups who fight against the state, while "paramilitaries" are illegal, armed right-wing groups that, while not being quite as ideologically opposed to the government as the guerillas, still aren't all that helpful to them, either. This is because they tend to go around terrifying the unarmed citizenry by fighting the guerillas with hand grenades and guns.
Throw all of these agendas together with a state that fights everyone under the banner of the United States-sponsored War on Drugs, and you have what remains one of the most complicated civil conflicts on the planet.
Things haven't got any easier to understand these past couple of decades. With Mexico and other nearby countries now playing host to drug-fuelled conflicts of their own, Colombia has been left to boil in the background, preparing to welcome the same insane levels of violence witnessed at the height of Pablo Escobar's power in the 1980s.
This time, however, it doesn't seem to be the country's infamous war with the left-wing FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] that is threatening to spark more outbreaks of massacring. Weirdly, that's one tension that seems to have dissipated in the last decade, though in the process it's made room for new groups of gun-toting lunatics to come through and show the world just how much havoc they can wreak.
One of these groups is the Urabenos, former right-wing paramilitaries, current major drug traffickers and the ones to blame for the rising homicide rates. But before you start hating, keep in mind these guys are also going through some major grief issues at the minute.
Juan Usuga, AKA Giovanni, slain ex-leader of the Urabenos
On New Year's Eve, their leader Juan Usuga (AKA 'Giovanni') was slain by anti-narcotics police while partying with friends and family at his ranch. And right after news of his death broke, the Urabenos let it be known that they'd pay $1,000-a-pop for the severed head of any Colombian policeman.
I got in touch with Jeremy McDermott – co-director of Insight Crime, a website that investigates organized crime across South America and the Caribbean – to find out what the fuck is going on.
VICE: Would you mind briefly introducing us to the Urabenos?
Jeremy McDermott: The Urabenos formed in 2006 in the province of Antioquia, which is on the border near Panama. They are a branch of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, a group of right-wing paramilitaries that were set up to defend rural communities against the left-wing rebels because in their view the state was hopeless at it.
But the real story goes back further, and is linked to drug trafficking. In the 80s, Pablo Escobar's Medellin cartel put a lot of money into the formation of the paramilitary groups. Escobar and his partner, the Mexican Jose Gacha, set up these groups and even got an Israeli colonel, Yair Klein, to train them. That guy is now in a prison somewhere in Russia.
Anyway, to make it even more complicated, Giovanni, his brother and several other top commanders of the group come from a left-wing group called the ELN [National Liberation Army], which disbanded in 1991. In the early 1990s the right-wing paramilitaries began to cross the ideological divide, and started recruiting from the left-wing ELN because of their members' warfare expertise. That's what gave the paramilitaries such a big boost to start with, and that's what made their reign of terror so successful from the get-go: They enlisted lots of trained guerillas.
The Urabenos' area of influence in Colombia
Alright, I think I've got that. So in what ways do the Urabenos flex their muscles in Colombia? How powerful are they, really?
After Giovanni was killed, the Urabenos imposed a 48-hour mourning strike. This surprised everyone, because while it was the sort of thing the guerilla groups do often, it was the first time any paramilitary group had tried it.
What's a mourning strike?
When a mourning strike is called in an area a group controls, all the businesses close down, no one moves and anyone that does not obey has their vehicles burned and grenades thrown into their shops. The Urabenos imposed the strike in six of the country's 32 states, which was a big shock because they basically paralyzed a large percentage of the country's commercial and transport industries. The huge tourist city of Santa Marta lost $5 million a day. Eleven vehicles that violated the transport ban were burned.
So, the army and police can't stop these strikes from happening?
Well, what do you do? Owners get told to open their shops and they say, "Are you fucking joking? You are going to place two soldiers at my doorstep for every day until I retire?" The Urabenos have eyes and ears in all six provinces, and they obviously have the reputation to back it up.
Are the Urabenos solely engaged in drug trafficking, or are they still trying to pass themselves off as a group that will protect communities from guerillas?
You see they call themselves the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia [Self-Defense Forces of Colombia's Gaitanistas]. Gaitan was a popular politician that was assassinated in 1948. His death unleashed a torrent of violence that still resonates today. So, they claim a political facade and that their roots are that of a paramilitary group. But, ultimately, they're drug dealers, extortionists, and arms dealers.
Who is arming these groups?
They arm themselves. In the old days, the paramilitaries were rich landowners, and they would bring in ships from Romania each carrying 10,000 rifles a go—they have huge weapon stores to draw from. They also supply arms to the Mexican cartels and vice versa, because the Mexicans have no problems getting weapons from the US.
So what happened on the day Giovanni was killed?
Giovanni was killed in the province of Choco and it was a police operation launched from the capital, Bogota. No local police were involved because the Urabenos have a lot of them on the pay roll. These were elite, anti-narcotics police and they claim they were using an informer that pointed them to the location of Giovanni, who was celebrating New Year’s with his friends and family.
Was this a kill mission or did they have orders to capture him?
I don't know. From what I know about Giovanni, he was never going to surrender anyway. They could have had orders to kill him, but he tried to shoot his way out anyway and was killed along with his bodyguards.
Were there immediate reprisal attacks?
No. I think it was on the 4th that the 48-hour mourning strike began, which is pretty impressive considering it only took three days for them to organize this. Escobar did the same thing. He put a bounty on the head of every policeman in Medellin and dozens were killed in a matter of days. These bounties have a special significance in Colombia.
How is Medellin now? Has it mellowed out since?
Medellin is in the midst of a mob war. If you look at the murder rates, it's in the top 20 of the most violent cities in the world.
Generally speaking, do you think Colombia is winning the war on drugs?
There are two things you have to differentiate. One thing is tactical victories and the other is the strategic war on drugs. Colombia has had an enormous amount of tactical victories ever since the fall of the Medellin cartel in 1993 and in 1995 with the fall of the Cali cartel, and so on up until the death of Giovanni. It's debatable that Peru has overtaken Colombia as the biggest cocaine producer. Ultimately, though, we're nowhere near a victory on the war on drugs, we're not even near a stalemate.
Have they had any success?
It has taken out what were some of the most sophisticated organized criminal cartels the world has ever seen—as head of the Medellin cartel, Escobar was seventh on Forbes' top 100 list. We'd never seen an organization built so quickly. They weren't like the Italian mafia with roots going back centuries. This was an organization built in a decade, able to take on the state and even force the state to abolish all its extradition treaties. Colombia took extradition off the books.
Is Colombia a unique case because of the way in which these groups operate?
I think what you have to be careful of is the myth that "Mexico is just another Colombia," because the drug trade is inextricably linked to the civil conflict that has been going on since 1964. You cannot divide them. Mexico does not have a civil conflict and I don't buy that it has "a criminal insurgency," which is the new catchphrase that some American commentators have been using. If you look at the definition of insurgency, that is "a revolt against the state to force political change." The Mexicans don't want to make a political change, they want the current political system to continue simply because it works in their favor.
What methods have the Colombian government implemented to crack down on the drugs trade and the civil conflict?
As a result of the strikes, the government has deployed more police assets and prosecutors and more political will. They are definitely going to take the Urabenos head on. But at the same time, the Urabenos are likely to just adapt and evolve. What we found since the Medellin cartel is that the more you squeeze an organization the more it changes according to the pressure. So the Colombian cartels are nothing like the Mexican cartels. The Mexican cartels are much more powerful now, because the Colombians have learned you don't take on the state and you don't spit in the face of the US because they're going to come after you. The Mexicans are learning that now.
What are the Colombian cartels like these days?
There aren’t too many Colombian cartels and those few that exist are hard to identify. And they're not really cartels, they're more like networks. Even if you take out one part of the network you don't actually interfere with the overall trade of narcotics, someone else just steps in. They're more like baby cartels; there are lots of guys doing different bits. Some guys will be responsible for buying cocoa base, other guys for turning that cocoa base into cocaine, and others for building the drug submarines.
Do those submarines still exist?
Oh god yeah, they're real submarines now. They're not just semi-submersible like the ones we were seeing from 2007 to 2009. Two have been captured so we know they exist and with these new subs, seizures along the Pacific coast have fallen dramatically. You just can't find them.
Who's building them?
Specialists. The DEA were targeting specialist engineers who were capable of building these things, in an attempt to knock out the industry. They see it as the most effective way, otherwise it's like looking for a needle in a haystack.
So what's next for the Urabenos?
Since the bounty was announced there has been a large increase in police presence across the six provinces the Urabenos control, which should slow their operations down somewhat. On top of that, the new leaders of the Urabenos, Mi Sangre and Otoniel, will be targeted in raids similar to the one that killed Giovanni. Basically, the Urabenos will feel the full wrath of the state.
Well I'm sure that that will bring matters to a neat and peaceful close.