May 16, 2022No Comments

Trail of Blood in Colombia’s Tourist Resort: The murder of Paraguayan anti-narco prosecutor Marcelo Pecci

Author: Giovanni Giacalone.

On the morning of May 10th Paraguay’s anti-drug prosecutor Marcelo Pecci was murdered by two hitmen on a jet ski who reached the beach where he was vacationing with his wife and shot him in the head and the back. The murder took place in Barù, a renowned location just 45 minutes away from the city of Cartagena, Colombia. The jet ski was rented by the killers in Playa Blanca, approximately 3 km away from the resort where Pecci and his wife were staying.

“One of the men got out and without saying a word he shot Marcelo twice, one shot hit him in the face and another in the back,” Pecci’s wife, Claudia Aguilera, told the newspaper El Tiempo. The hitmen then fled in the same jet ski. A hotel security guard was also shot at, although he was not injured. Prosecutor Pecci was traveling without bodyguards and his wife said that they had not received any type of threat. Additionally, the Colombian police forces were not aware of his presence in the country.

The couple had traveled from Paraguay to Cartagena on May 5th to spend their honeymoon there. The following day, after a quick visit to the city’s historic center, they reached the Decameron Hotel and Resort in Barù, where they planned to spend the rest of the time before heading back to Paraguay on May 10th, as indicated by the message published on Monday May 9th by Aguilera on social media: “The last sunset in Barú, but we will have millions more together.” At approximately 10:30 am on Tuesday morning, the last day of vacation, Pecci was gunned down in front of his wife and tourists at the hotel’s private beach. A group of Paraguayan tourists who were at the same hotel as Pecci and were leaving on the same day complained that they were held for questioning by the Colombian police for hours, and added that at the hotel and resort there was no visible security, as reported by ABC TV Paraguay. 

Marcelo Pecci was a high-level prosecutor who specialized in contrasting drug trafficking, money laundering and organized crime. He had recently participated in the operation Ultranza Py against drug trafficking in Paraguay and he was also investigating the infiltration of Ndrangheta in the country. According to Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, head of Colombia's national police, Pecci was the victim of "transnational" criminals working across borders and the murder was very likely highly planned, with a large amount of money spent to carry it out. He also added that narcos or even international terrorists could be behind the murder. 

On the same day of the homicide, the Colombian police released a picture of one of the two alleged killers, a man dressed in black, wearing a Panama hat, with a Caribbean accent. The Colombian authorities announced a reward of up to 500 million Colombian pesos ($12,000) to anyone who can provide information about the assassins. The owner of the jet ski that was rented to the two hitmen said that they paid $50 to use the vehicle for 30 minutes, but they returned it just 15 minutes later.

There are currently two versions regarding the killers, one is that they followed Pecci and his wife all the way from Paraguay to Barù, traveling on the same plane; the second one is that they were contracted in Cartagena to conduct the hit. Rocio Vallejo, a member of the Paraguayan Parliament and the Patria Querida party claimed that organized crime is behind it, she pointed the finger against the “narco-politica” and even accused some Parliament members of being linked to the narcos, adding that “narcotrafficking knows no borders”.

As explained to the ITSS by the Brazil-based investigative journalist Maria Zuppello, who is specialized in organized crime and terrorism in Latin America: “The murder of Pecci is a tragic page not only for Paraguay but for all of Latin America that lost a prosecutor of great value. The various leads that are being followed range from the terrorist matrix of Hezbollah to the former president of Paraguay, Horacio Cartes, who was already targeted by the Dea for money laundering and narco-activity in the United States. It is now clear how Latin America has become a privileged hub for narco-terrorism”. Following the murder, the Paraguayan police searched the prison cell of Lebanese narcotrafficker Kassem Mohammed Hijazi, who was arrested in August of 2021in Ciudad del Este thanks to an investigation led by Pecci with the support of the Dea. In the meantime, Noticias Caracol revealed that four Paraguayan women who had arrived on the same flight and were staying at the same hotel as Pecci, and a person considered very close to the murdered prosecutor, are under the radar of the Colombian authorities.

It is unclear why Pecci, considering his high-level profile, was traveling without bodyguards and had not warned Colombian authorities about his presence there. It is possible that since he hadn’t received any threat, as claimed by his wife Claudia Alvarez, he thought that he would be safe in a place like Barù, renowned for international tourism and with a very low crime rate if compared to other parts of Colombia; however, the killer were after him. The investigations are currently underway with the help of the Dea, the Fbi, Interpol, and it is plausible that there will be news in the upcoming days.

November 23, 2021No Comments

The arrest of Dairo Usaga “Otoniel” and the future of the Urabeños cartel in Colombia

By: Giovanni Giacalone

Image Source:

On October 23rd, the Colombian special forces arrested Dairo Antonio Usuga David, alias “Otoniel”, leader of the Urabeños drug cartel and paramilitary group, who had been on the run since 2011. The operation, carried out by a special team codenamed “El Blanco”, was initiated in early October, when the Colombian intelligence identified Usaga in the Uraba sub-region of Antioquia, north-western Colombia, not far from the Panamanian border. The fugitive was identified through the surveillance of cartel members who were carrying medical material for the treatment of a kidney disease that Usaga was known to suffer from. The special forces surrounded him in a remote mountainous area, while helicopters and drones flew over, and Navy ships were stationed off the coast to prevent a potential escape by sea.

In mid-April, Usaga had been spotted and photographed while onboard a longboat traveling between the Verde and Esmeralda rivers in the Paramillo area. The fugitive was accompanied by two armed men and a dog. That was the last time the cartel leader was photographed before his recent capture. In 2017 the US Department of State offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest and, in 2017, Colombian police dropped flyers from helicopters offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture, but without any positive outcome. Between the end of 2020 and early 202, Colombian authorities intensified their efforts to capture Usuga, following an increase in levels of cocaine production.

Los Urabeños

The Urabeños, also known as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo), take their name from Uraba, the already cited north-western region of Colombia, which is extremely important for drug cartels as it offers direct access to the Caribbean and Pacific coasts from the departments of Antioquia and Chocó. The group’s origins can be traced back to the far-right paramilitary force Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia-AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) and to Daniel Rendon “Don Mario” who, after the 2006 demobilization of the AUC, took thousands of former fighters with him and expanded his drug trafficking operations and networks in the Uraba area, quickly expanding in over 15 departments including Cordoba, La Valle del Cauca, Santander, La Guajira and even the area of Medellin.

Don Mario was arrested by the Colombian police in April of 2009 and the cartel was taken over by the Usaga brothers, Dairo Antonio “Otoniel” and Juan de Dios “Giovany”, both former paramilitary members who had known Rendon since the 1990s.

“Otoniel” has an interesting background as he had initially joined the Ejercito Popular de Liberacion (Popular Liberation Army), a Colombian communist guerrilla group mainly active between 1967 and 1991, when it began to break apart.  However, he soon switched sides and joined the far-right paramilitary and narco-group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, active between 1997 and 2006 against the FARC and ELN. It is interesting to notice how the Usaga brothers only had approximately 250 men at their orders when Rendon was arrested in April 2009. However, thanks to the two cartel leaders, the organization quickly grew in numbers, expanding operations and territory control. “Otoniel” took over the cartel in January 2012, when his brother “Giovany” was killed by the police during a raid in the Choco department. On that occasion, the new leader offered a $1,000 reward for each police officer killed in revenge for his brother’s murder. Usaga “Otoniel” had managed to escape capture for ten years, constantly on the move, hiding in grueling parts of Cordoba and Antioquia, protected by a small group of men. However, his being on the run ended on October 23rd.

The aftermath

The Urabeños have a particular organizational structure that enables them to quickly spread their presence throughout the Colombian territory and to continue operations when one of its leaders is arrested or killed, and when some of their cells are neutralized. As explained by InsightCrime, such a structure relies on blocs that receive direct orders from the cartel’s leadership, they retain specific territories and have internal lines of command. Some of them are also in charge of smaller substructures.

Additionally, Urabeños also rely on franchises, mostly local gangs that have no formal links to the cartel nor its chain of command, as they are simply sub-contracted to operate for them, in their name. It is not very different from what Isis does with terror cells throughout the world that perpetrate attacks in their name, but that are not structurally integrated into the organization. As indicated by InsightCrime, this is a win-win situation for both sides. “For Urabeños this strategy opens doors to criminal income, hitmen and a greater territorial presence, even if indirectly. For smaller gangs, the Urabeños represent an important ally to help them establish local dominance and to overcome rivals”.

It is very unlikely that the arrest of “Otoniel” will have a strong impact on the cartel’s narco-trafficking activity, not only due to the organization’s already cited flexible structure but also because there are several deputy leaders ready to take Usaga’s place. Among them, the two with more chances seem to be Wilmer Giraldo “Siopas”, indicated as second in command of the Urabeños and in charge of the southwestern part of Antioquia; Jobanis de Jesús Ávila “Chiquito Malo”, in charge of cocaine production and exportation. However, José Gonzalo Sánchez, alias “Gonzalito”, and Orozman Osten Blanco “Flechas” are two other possible candidates.

There is also a possibility that the cartel will break down into different factions looking for control of narcotrafficking, but that would more likely be a short-term option since it would negatively impact the cartel’s trafficking activity in the medium-long term, something that the Urabeños want to avoid at all costs, considering that narco-business is thriving.