Millions of dollars in dirty money circulate constantly around Bajo Cauca, flowing upwards and outwards from a broad range of criminal activities. The BACRIM are the chief regulators and beneficiaries of this shadow economy.
Unlike their paramilitary and drug cartel predecessors, the BACRIM maintain a diversified portfolio of criminal activities that extends far beyond the transnational cocaine trade. In Bajo Cauca, the criminal economies controlled or exploited by the BACRIM include illegal gold mining and sales, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and above all, drugs and extortion. The huge sums of dirty money these activities generate flow through the region as cash and enter the legal economy through money laundering fronts.
The top-level drug trade dealings with Mexican cartels and other international cocaine buyers are largely the preserve of the inner circle of BACRIM leaders and the independent drug traffickers they provide services to. Local cells, though, retain a critical role in trafficking drugs from production zones to dispatch points, allowing the Urabeños leaders to move their own product as well as offer a production to dispatch escort for other traffickers. In Bajo Cauca, the BACRIM network is tasked with shepherding coca paste from Bagre, Zaragoza, Tarazá or Segovia to the northern and western coasts of Urabá, a region along the Panamanian border.
The Bajo Cauca BACRIM use their intelligence networks, armed presence and corrupt contacts to ensure the safe passage of coca paste, a service for which they charge 10 percent of the shipment's value.
The shipments are escorted by a "guía," or guide, who stays with the drugs through the load's journey through Bajo Cauca. This network of guides is coordinated from isolated villages like Cuturú on the banks of the river Nechí, which can only be accessed by the water or by a heavily guarded dirt track off the Caucasia–Zaragoza highway. Both the river Cauca and the river Nechí provide the best cover for the transportation of drugs, though public buses are another common method.
Although the Bajo Cauca BACRIM are just one link in the chain of transnational drug trafficking, when it come to local drug sales -- microtrafficking -- they control almost the entire supply chain.
The cell has commonly sourced coca paste from the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), although this is now changing due to the FARC's demobilization. They sell a portion of every shipment as the smokeable coca paste known as "basuco," while the rest they process into powdered cocaine in laboratories their stronghold of Piamonte, an area in the municipality of Cáceres.
A network of trusted motorbike-taxis then ferries the drugs to towns all over Bajo Cauca. In Caucasia, it arrives at a local distribution center in the neighbourhood known as La Ocho, where the cocaine is cut and portioned out into small plastic bags weighing a gram each. From here, a network of "mules" made up of homeless children and teenagers, who work in exchange for food and a roof over their heads, deliver the drugs to the various plazas around town, each operated by a drug dealing crew. Some of the crews are salaried workers of the BACRIM. Others purchase the BACRIM's drugs and pay a percentage of what they sell as a fee to be allowed to work. The network can expect to move around two kilos of cocaine a week in Caucasia, the profits from which stay within Bajo Cauca.
Around Colombia, extortion has become the steady, reliable financial mainstay for local BACRIM cells. In Bajo Cauca, 20 percent of their extortion profits are paid to the national command, a tax to be allowed to operate as part of the Urabeños franchise. The rest of the profits funds the cell's operational costs. It is a far-reaching shadow taxation system that is near impossible to escape; in Bajo Cauca everyone must pay what is known in Colombia as "la vacuna," or the vaccination.
In Bajo Cauca, the BACRIM extortion networks reach every type of business, large and small, legal and illegal. In many cases, the BACRIM extortion units calculate fees based on their own criminal financial analysis, while for others they obtain insider information on production or profits.
In most small businesses, the vaccination is a percentage of estimated profits based on these calculations. Others, though, lend themselves to different payment schemes: casinos pay per slot machine, transport companies per vehicle and ranchers per head of cattle.
Big businesses are often not exempt. The BACRIM in Bajo Cauca say even Colombia's biggest supermarket chains such as Éxito and Olímpica must pay, although neither company responded to these allegations. The Caucasia plant of the brewery Bavaria has also been targeted and pays a flat five million a month, according to BACRIM sources -- a claim Bavaria's head office denies.
Arms, phones and money seized during the arrest of BACRIM members
It is not just businesses that are forced to pay monthly fees; the BACRIM often also target individuals. They start with a simple telephone call to ask for money. Then come the intimidation and threats made in person. Finally, victims are summoned to make payment, usually in a park or a church. Failure to attend the meeting almost always ends in murder. "Fernanda," who did not want to give us her real name for print and works at the hospital in Caucasia, one day received a call demanding 200,000 pesos (roughly $70). "They said they would kill my daughter if I didn't go so what could I do?" she asked.
The "multa," or fine, is another method the BACRIM use to charge extortion. It is a one-off payment that the groups use to obtain large amounts of cash quickly from those they perceive to be rich. "Jorge," another victim who did not want to give his real name, is a teacher and owns land in Cáceres. One day, BACRIM members arrived at his house, accused him of damaging their mining equipment, and demanded five million pesos (roughly $1,700) in compensation. He was forced to take out a bank loan to cover it, which he says he will be paying back for the next five years. His son had to give up studying medicine because Jorge could no longer afford to pay the tuition as a result.
"I had to give them the money. We have had to make these sacrifices because they threatened to kill me and my family," he said.
However, not everyone pays extortion out of fear.
Those that pay "from their heart" in Bajo Cauca allegedly include major ranchers, bars, delivery firms and miners who work in the formal and informal markets. Bajo Cauca is rich in gold mining, and the BACRIM claim 90 percent of the operations in the region either pay the vaccination voluntarily or have connections to their networks. The miners and their representatives fiercely dispute this and say only a minority pay out of anything but fear.
A "barrequero" or gold panner working in the municipality of Nechi
Whether it is out of obligation or voluntary, any backhoe operating in BACRIM territory in Bajo Cauca must pay three million (roughly $1,030) a month just to work. Many must also pay a 10 percent cut of the profits every time they process their gold. The BACRIM also run their own mines either through frontmen or, in territorial strongholds such as Piamonte, directly.
Collecting extortion is a task for the lower ranks of the BACRIM. The "extorsionistas," or extortionists, are often teenagers or in their early twenties. The BACRIM often use women to recruit and lure naïve, young males into their circle for these jobs.
The extorsionista does not carry a weapon when collecting the money, but is often trailed by an armed escort ready to step in if necessary. The money is usually deposited in trusted front businesses. In the town of Caucasia, for example, these businesses include a bar and a barber shop. From there a more senior figure, usually the zone's second-in-command, picks up the money, and the sector's takings are counted before the area commander personally takes the money to the Bajo Cauca command in Piamonte.
Enormous sums of money circulate through Bajo Cauca's underworld, and the BACRIM have both sophisticated and rudimentary forms of handling the cash flows. Much of it is needed to keep the network functioning, while the rest feeds the upper echelons of the underworld, both inside and outside of the region.
Each sector's money flows are managed by a finance chief, who is usually someone with no criminal record or outstanding warrants. However, the job is something of a poisoned chalice. The temptation to steal -- or the presumption of the temptation to steal -- has seen many Bajo Cauca finance chiefs killed after relatively short stints in the position.
Most underworld economies are cash-based, and while many of the BACRIM costs, such as salaries and bribes, are made in cash payments, the rest must be moved into the legal economy using networks of front businesses and bank accounts. In Bajo Cauca, part of the cash is deposited into bank accounts in the names of clean members or frontmen, while the rest is laundered through front companies, which include gold traders, leather goods shops, bars and a carpenter's workshop.
*Reported by James Bargent and Mat Charles. Filmed and edited by Mat Charles. Additional filming by Sven Wolters.