Northwestern Colombia: The news arrives slowly — paro armado, an armed strike — a faint rumor that trickles, passing from person to person, word of mouth: que no baje al pueblo, don’t go into town today. The radio crackles; static that breaks the hazy, afternoon heat:
… all public transport companies in Urabá will suspend services for fear of what could result as consequence of an armed strike ordered by the former “Gaitanista” Self-Defense Forces, today known as drug-traffic gang, the “Urabeños,” in order to observe the burial of leader Juan de Dios Úsuga David, alias “Giovanni,” shot to death by police.
Initially Giovanni´s death, amidst festivities January 1, was rewarded with generous praise and public recognition, but his absence soon unfolded tension across Colombia’s northwestern sphere.
Less than a week later, pamphlets [MS Word file document] spread throughout the zone, dictating a mandatory mourning period:
In retaliation for these events we [the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces] declare the generally suspension of everything: including business, public transport, government and state bodies. We do not want to see anyone walking around or doing any type of labor starting from 00:00 [midnight] Thursday until 00:00 midnight Friday, 2012…
On January 5, bus drivers were warned: any vehicle travelling without permission will be burned; farmers were told to stay at home; and shop owners to keep doors shut. The armed strike shuttered 16 urban municipalities – the complete shutdown of airports, banks, transport, and business – all without firing a single bullet.
The “Gaitanista” Self-Defense Forces named themselves after the Liberal leader killed in 1948, Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, but they are better known as the Urabeños, a name given to them by police and state forces, derived from the coastal region of Urabá, where their presence is strongest.
Due to a recently broken pact, Urabá, with direct access to the gulf, has become the core of a fluctuating power structure, where groups such as the Urabeños engage in a constant fight for the control and stabilization of drug trafficking routes. It is estimated that the Urabeños control at least one-fifth of all cocaine that leaves the country. But they are much more than drug traffickers, bandas criminales, or criminal gangs, and Giovanni was much more than a drug lord.
In 2009, former criminal chief Daniel Rendón Herrera, alias “Don Mario,” was imprisoned, a position from which many believe he continues to direct the Urabeños. On the ground, Giovanni claimed his position. Born on a farm in Urabá, Giovanni’s history dates back to the People’s Liberation Army (EPL), a rebel group founded on Maoist ideologies, which he joined along with his brother. In 1991, the group officially put down their weapons, and the brothers joined a local paramilitary group, which eventually grew into the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
Giovanni’s story is not uncommon in the history of the Colombian demobilization process. As head of the Urabeños, he drew from ties to previous groups to amplify their stronghold throughout the region, but few estimated to what extent. In the realm of organized crime, the Urabeños were far from a priority.
The armed strike shocked the region. Recent police data had estimated the Urabeños operated withabout 1,600 members, but the breadth and organization of the events suggested the involvement of many more. One organizer in the San José Peace Community reflected on the strike, explaining: “Statistics such as these disguise what is really going on. These groups aren’t working alone and never have been. There is no way to ever know how many are involved — alliances exist and have existed between these groups and various levels of state and government entities and have never been public and never will be. In the interest of the State, they are always hidden.”
These groups, he claims, are not criminal gangs, as the government has suggested, but rather, “they are the same paramilitaries who have always operated in the region, paramilitaries who never fully demobilized and adopted a new name to add to the confusion.” The revelation of these alliances lay in the success of the armed strike. “How is it,” he asks, “that public institutions, with high-level state and police security, such as banks and airports, were forced to close if not for direct collaboration?”
For this organizer, the events this first week of January symbolized not an armed strike, but a psychological strike — a strike rooted in fear, intimidation, and memory, conditions made possible through years of continuous violence. In the context of the Colombian conflict, names such as the “Urabeños” and “Giovanni” have only recently emerged. But the impressive influence of this armed strike revealed a known structure — a structure that has withstood the test of time, the deaths of several leaders, numerous demobilization attempts, peace talks, and promises to move forward, towards a “post-conflict” period, but a structure that continues to remain intact.