July 3, 2022No Comments

Amazonia: A strategic territory for Human Trafficking and illegal mining

Authors: Beatrice Tommasi and Marta Pace.

The Event

On June 5, in the municipality of Atalaia do Norte located in the state of Amazonas, two people disappeared: namely, Bruno Pereira, the indigenous activist member of the non-governmental organization Coordenação da Organização Indígena União dos Povos Indígenas do Vale do Javari (UNIVAJA), and Dom Phillips, an English journalist and contributor to The Guardian. According to UNIVAJA and the Observatory of Human Rights of Isolated Indigenous Peoples and Recent Contact (OPI), the last registration of the two occurred on June 5 in the morning while they were travelling on a small boat between the community of São Rafael and the town of Atalaia do Norte. After ten days of search and the involvement of the army, navy, and police, on June 16, the bodies of Phillips and Pereira were found. 

Image Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/fire-forest-fire-children-fear-4429478/

The double world of the Amazon

These killings do not seem to be an accident and unveil serious security issues in the region. The concerned area is the far west of the Amazonas and condenses serious conflicts, both from a social and an environmental point of view. On one side, the area hosts the largest number of indigenous people in voluntary isolation in the world. On the other side, it is a strategic region for drug trafficking, and it is crossed by an international cocaine transit route which goes from Peru to distribute in Brazil, Europe and Africa. Moreover, the already tense situation in the region is worsened by the presence of illegal loggers and fishermen whose activities are profoundly altering the ecosystem of the Amazon rainforest.  

All these activities in the region, carried out mainly within the Indigenous Land Vale do Javari, witness the inability and omission of the bodies responsible for the inspection and protection of indigenous territories. As a result, this power vacuum is filled by the presence of the main criminal organizations, who diversify their activities and cause an increase in violent actions against and murders of those who oppose their main interests in the region. According to a study conducted by Mato Grosso do Sul prosecutor Ricardo Pael Ardengui on the impact of transnational organized crime on indigenous communities, environmental crimes - typical of the entire Amazon - have become another mean of profit for organized crime, which has consolidated the drug trafficking route through the Amazon. In this regard, it is worthy to mention that in the last few years, Amazonia has seen a sharp increase in crimes involving drug trafficking, deforestation, and broader violence against indigenous peoples. 

The growing action of criminal groups is the result of the fact that the Brazilian state lacks a compact and effective strategy aimed at fighting deforestation and drug trafficking activities. Indeed, institutions have failed in preventing the spread of criminal organizations, which are now active on various fronts: from the environmental one with massive deforestation, to the paramilitary one with kidnapping and political assassinations. Initially, the criminal activities of the various factions of the region were aimed at using the territory to create new routes for the drug trade, and environmental crimes were used to open new transit areas and alternative routes. Nowadays, the illegal exploitation of forest resources, such as gold and wood, takes place to expand the profits of organized crime. 

Criminal organizations

Criminal activities in the area see the participation of various factions and organizations. Initially, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) - a criminal organization founded in 1993 by inmates in the prison of Taubaté (São Paulo) - clashed with the Família do Norte in Amazonas - another organized crime faction present in the region, resulting in a bloody struggle for the control of the region. In recent years, the PCC has consolidated its control over the area by maintaining close alliances with other criminal organizations, such as the Guardioes do Estado and the Amigo dos Amigos, and expanding internationally through the creation of new partnerships with other Latin American criminal groups. Moreover, the fact that they act at the Triple Frontier - a tri-border area along the junction of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay - has given crime a more entrepreneurial and broader vision, favoring timber smuggling and mining. Within the Amazon, particularly the Atalaia region, there is also the presence of other criminal groups resulting from the break-up of the Família do Norte, the PCC and Bolivian and Peruvian drug trafficking organizations. Consequently, all these conflicts threaten the right and the choice of various groups and ethnicities of having non-contact with the non-indigenous and even indigenous populations of the Javari Valley. 


Furthermore, this threat has been exacerbated by the rise of evangelical churches and the interest of missionaries in evangelizing isolated indigenous people.  It was reinforced by the Bolsonaro government's appointment in 2020 of the pastor, anthropologist and former missionary Ricardo Lopes Dias in the position of coordinator of General Coordination of Isolated and Recently  Contacted Indigenous Peoples at FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio), a Brazilian governmental protection agency for Amerindian interests and culture. It was this appointment that replaced the indigenous activist Bruno Pereira, defender of the right of indigenous people to remain isolated. At the time, a group of 14 indigenous people denounced the dismissal of Bruno, one of FUNAI’s most experienced members concerning isolated peoples. This fact was already a harbinger of the deep problems in protecting these peoples by the Brazilian government headed by President Bolsonaro.  

November 23, 2021No Comments

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

By: Giovanni Giacalone

Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dario-Antonio-Usuga-David-1.webp

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.