(Insightcrime) The most wanted drug trafficker in Colombia and leader of the powerful Urabeños has offered to surrender himself and his organization to authorities just days after his number two was killed by security forces. However, it is unlikely that the dispersed, decentralized criminal group will be able to rally the rank and file away from their drug trafficking activities in exchange for a prison cell.
Referring to Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced on September 5 that the government had received a “clear declaration from the head of the Urabeños that he wishes to submit himself and all of his men to justice.”
The president emphasized that this is “not a political negotiation, [of which] there is no possibility.”
But he made it clear that there was room for leniency if the organization collaborated with authorities.
“If they submit [to justice], by law they can receive some benefits depending on … what they deliver,” the president said.
The Urabeños, or Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), as they call themselves, are Colombia’s largest organized crime threat. While they have been proposing negotiations with the government for at least two years to no avail, this is the first time they have offered to hand themselves in to authorities without a political dialogue, according to Attorney General’s Office sources consulted by InSight Crime.
On the day of Santos’ declaration, an apparent video of Úsuga was circulated online, in which he seemingly confirmed his desire to surrender.
“We’ve repeatedly expressed our intention of reaching a dignified and voluntary exit for all of our fighters, turning to Colombia’s justice system with guarantees that lead to national reconciliation,” Otoniel states in the video, which he dates August 2017.
“Once the conditions are in place, we are willing to suspend all the organization’s illegal activities,” Otoniel adds. He also claims that the General Staff is “as united as ever” and respects the Colombian government’s ongoing peace process, which recently saw the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) guerrillas.
The Urabeños boss ends his message asking for the support of Pope Francis, who traveled to Colombia this week and is a supporter of the peace process between the FARC and the government.
The news comes only days after security forces killed the Urabeños’ Second-in-command Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez, alias “Gavilán,” as part of “Operation Agamemnon” — a two-year old police-led manhunt that has aimed to topple the Urabeños leadership. In those two years, authorities have captured over 1,500 alleged members and seized 100 metric tons of cocaine and more than $170 million in assets from the organization, according to President Santos.
Justice Minister Enrique Gil Botero and the Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez will now evaluate the Urabeños’ proposal and the next stage of the process.
This white flag appears to be a first for the Urabeños leadership. Its timing may not be a coincidence. Despite years on the run, the leadership had not taken a direct hit until Gavilán’s death on August 31. However, Colombia’s most powerful criminal organization is far from leaving the criminal arena for good.
As the biggest search bloc in Colombian history tightens the net around Otoniel and other key lieutenants, a quick exit may be the leadership’s best option. Furthermore, Otoniel is a former guerrilla and therefore likely understands how to position himself on the battlefield and in the political field. But it is unlikely that the Urabeños cells running lucrative criminal activities across Colombia will share his willingness to surrender. The Urabeños operate more like a franchise than a hierarchical criminal organization, meaning that many — if not the majority — of those using the group’s powerful brand name operate semi-independently and do not respond directly to the top leadership.
A prosecutor at the Attorney General’s Office told InSight Crime that according to unofficial estimates, the Urabeños may have around 3,500 members (other official estimates are reportedly lower). The source believed that the rate of dissent from any eventual surrender would be even higher than that of the FARC, which has seen numerous powerful splinter groups emerge despite having a far more vertical line of command than Otoniel’s syndicate.
Today, the Urabeños hold tight control over vast illicit economies from the cocaine trade to illegal gold mining. And despite internal divisions, they have been expanding their control into strategic territories, including those left up for grabs by demobilized FARC rebels. It would be difficult for Urabeños cells to give this all up, or even to renounce using the name that strikes fear and subjugation in the communities under their influence as well as rivals who may seek to usurp their power.
Furthermore, the judicial benefits are not as appealing as if the Urabeños had succeeded in carving out a place for themselves at the negotiating table as a political armed group. The Colombian government has adamantly rejected their continued attempts to be seen as a political movement modeled on their paramilitary predecessors in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). According to the Attorney General’s Office, the leadership had been seeking reduced sentences comparable to those given to the AUC — a maximum of eight years — and a general amnesty for the rank and file.
However, the most they will apparently be able to barter is a 50 percent reduction on their sentence, which in the case of Otoniel could reach the 60-year maximum. For this, the former combatants would have to disclose everything about their criminal activities and those of the organization, and hand in all of their assets.
Moreover, Colombia currently has no legal framework for a criminal organization to surrender en masse, meaning that each member would have to turn themselves in — albeit collectively — and be prosecuted individually, the state prosecutor explained.
The prospect of such a laborious, incomplete, and uncertain process seems daunting, but there is a precedent. In 2011, a drug trafficking organization composed of demobilized AUC paramilitaries, the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (Ejercito Revolucionario Popular Antiterrorista Colombiano – ERPAC), unexpectedly surrendered to authorities. But rather than dismantle the organization, the process saw scores of fighters opt out and set up yet more criminal groups in alliance with larger armed actors. The ERPAC case also illustrated the difficulties of bringing criminal cases against those individuals that did surrender.
Despite the inevitable hurdles, if the current administration can get the Urabeños‘ top leadership to surrender, it may give President Santos more political capital as he reaches the end of his tenure. Dismantling organizations such as the Urabeños is a key government promise for the FARC negotiations, and it has so far been doing poorly in keeping its end of the peace deal. This development could inspire more confidence in the country’s multiple peace processes, including continuing negotiations with the now-largest guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). The two sides agreed on a ceasefire on September 4.
Indeed, this may also raise the chances of a pro-peace candidate winning next year’s presidential race and maintaining the path set out by the accords. On the other hand, any ensuing Urabeños fragmentation could quickly lead to an escalation in Colombia’s armed conflict, backfiring on Santos and putting Colombia’s most vulnerable communities at greater risk.