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Colombia authorities arrest 13 suspected drug gang members as part of government crackdown

By Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times –

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombian authorities announced the arrests Saturday of 13 suspected members of a powerful drug gang, the latest salvo in the government’s all-out war against the group, highlighted by the New Year’s Day killing of its leader.

The target of the government crackdown is the organization known as the Urabenos, which morphed from a paramilitary group into a criminal gang after it was demobilized several years ago.

In response to the government pressure and the killing of leader Juan de Dios Usuga, the gang issued a 48-hour ban on business and transport activity that started Thursday in several cities, including Caribbean tourist mecca Santa Marta. The ban bit hard: Many businesses and roads were empty at the height of the long holiday season.

In the northern province of Antioquia, the gang on Thursday burned at least 11 cars of owners who violated the ban, police said.

“The Urabenos have the power to intimidate,” police Gen. Jose Roberto Leon told reporters Thursday. “People are afraid of them, and these criminals take advantage of the vacation season, when there are thousands of visitors in Santa Marta.”

Among the 13 arrests announced Saturday was that of a suspected gang member caught distributing fliers to businesses and motorists in Cordoba province, threatening them with death if they violated the ban.

In response, President Juan Manuel Santos convened a special “security council” meeting Friday in Santa Marta. At the gathering, he announced a “shock plan” to combat the gang and offered a $1-million reward for information leading to the capture of the dead leader’s brother and presumed new capo, Dario Antonio Usuga. The plan includes 300 extra police officers whom Santos is sending to the city, as well as 16 more judges to rapidly try suspects.

“No one can intimidate Colombians,” Santos told reporters after the council meeting. “No criminal organization has ever been able to confront the state, ever.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Bogota said by email Saturday morning that Washington has issued no special travel warning for the areas affected by the gang.

In the early morning of Jan. 1, special police units killed Juan de Dios Usuga at his jungle ranch in Choco state near the Panamanian border in a 30-minute exchange of gunfire. One member of an elite anti-narcotics unit was killed in the operation.

From his base there, Usuga allegedly controlled cocaine traffic along transport corridors in northwestern Cordoba, Choco and Antioquia states, key links in the drug routes of Colombian cocaine headed to the United States via Central America and Mexico. In recent months, police have captured three submarines the gang used to transport as much as 6 tons of cocaine per trip.

Before joining a right-wing paramilitary group in the early 1990s, the Usuga brothers reportedly were members of a Maoist leftist guerrilla group called the EPL, which was demobilized in 1991.

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