The ex-FARC mafia are a series of criminal structures that emerged during and after peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) guerrillas in 2016. They have established themselves as major criminal players in both Colombia and Venezuela.
Rather than a single structured organization, the factions that make up the ex-FARC mafia are characterized as groups composed of former FARC members that occupy formerly FARC-controlled areas. There are two main factions of the ex-FARC mafia: the self-styled Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central - EMC), led by Néstor Gregorio Vera Fernández, alias “Iván Mordisco,” and the Second Marquetalia, led by Luciano Marín, alias "Iván Márquez." Although there used to be others, now all ex-FARC factions have some connection to one of these two main dissident groups.
At the end of April 2023, the EMC faction reached a ceasefire agreement with President Gustavo Petro’s government. However, on May 21, Petro suspended the measure in response to the killing of four youth by the EMC in the southern department of Putumayo.
Internal divisions within the FARC emerged shortly after the peace talks with the Colombian government began. Although the top FARC leaders were willing to end the guerrilla group’s more than half a century of armed violence, other of the group’s most important leaders approached the process with significant doubts or refused to participate at all.
The first to distance himself from the FARC was Iván Mordisco, commander of the infamous 1st Front, or Armando Ríos Front. In July 2016, the 1st Front published a press release announcing its decision to withdraw from the peace process and keep its weapons. The unit claimed it would remain in place to combat the structural causes of the armed conflict.
In response, the FARC Secretariat in Cuba ordered Miguel Botache Santillana, alias "Gentil Duarte," to return to Colombia to take up command of the 1st Front and restore discipline. With more than 30 years of experience as a guerrilla fighter and political leader, Gentil Duarte had been an active negotiator in peace talks since 2012.
He traveled to Guaviare, where the 1st Front is located. But instead of restoring discipline, Gentil Duarte accepted Iván Mordisco’s proposal to join the dissident movement and continue controlling drug trafficking to the south of the country. He abandoned the peace process at the end of 2016, escaping with $1.35 million and several of his men from the 7th Front, who formed the first FARC dissident group.
This turn of events had serious implications for the future of the peace process. After learning of Gentil Duarte's departure, the Secretariat expelled from its ranks four other commanders -- Géner García Molina, alias "John 40;" Luis Lizcano Guadrón, alias "Euclides Mora;" Miguel Díaz San Martín, "Julián Chollo," and Ernesto Orjuela Tovar, alias "Giovanni Chuspas" -- who were opposed to the negotiations.
Since then, thousands of members from across the FARC's ranks have abandoned the peace process to return to illegal activities, strengthening the groups that make up the ex-FARC mafia.
August 2019 marked a turning point for the ex-FARC dissidents. Iván Márquez, Seuxis Pausías Hernández, alias "Jesús Santrich," and Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias "El Paisa," released a video announcing the "birth of the Second Marquetalia" in response to the "treason of the State" regarding the peace agreement. Márquez, the only commander to speak in the video, explained that the group would embrace the legacy of the FARC and that it would accept any former guerrillas within its ranks.
The announcement of the Second Marquetalia created a division between the factions of the ex-FARC mafia that persists to this day.
Led by Márquez, the Second Marquetalia attempted to form an alliance with their former comrades-in-arms but were rejected by Gentil Duarte and Iván Mordisco. Searching for allies, Márquez then turned to old political and military contacts in Venezuela, which allowed him to carve out territory and establish control over criminal economies on Venezuelan soil.
Although the Second Marquetalia had significant political connections and financial muscle, it was no military match for Gentil Duarte’s faction.
Residents, academics, human rights defenders, and journalists who spoke to InSight Crime at the time agreed that Márquez had to request military support from the Maduro regime to compete with the 10th Front, which had superior economic and military resources.
Throughout Colombia, ex-FARC dissident factions fractured. Departments such as Cauca, Nariño, and Putumayo became the battlegrounds for armed confrontations between ex-FARC mafia groups affiliated with the Second Marquetalia and the EMC.
These conflicts prompted several commanders to take refuge on Venezuelan soil. Venezuela, however, was no longer friendly territory for many of them.
One of the first ex-FARC commanders to fall in Venezuela was Jesús Santrich, who, according to media reports, was killed in Zulia in May 2021 by Colombian military who infiltrated Venezuelan soil. In December 2021, El Paisa was killed in the state of Apure.
Lastly, Gentil Duarte was killed in May 2022 in the border state of Zulia. Reports stated that Duarte had been attacked with explosives in his camp.
The deaths of these important commanders weakened the Second Marquetalia and the EMC, forcing Márquez and Mordisco to rethink their strategies.
When Petro took office as president in August 2022, his promise of “Total Peace” for Colombia presented a new opportunity for the reeling groups.
In September 2022, representatives of the Colombian government and the EMC began peace talks, which led to the signing of a ceasefire in April 2023. However, on May 21, Petro suspended the measure in response to the EMC killing four minors in the southern department of Putumayo.
The Second Marquetalia has had exploratory dialogues with the Colombian government since the end of 2022, with official talks possibly commencing soon.
In 2022, Indepaz detected 40 groups defined as ex-FARC Mafia or FARC dissidents, totaling at least 4,500 armed members.
Unlike the homogenous structure of the FARC, the ex-FARC Mafia operate as a coalition of factions with shifting alliances, in which different leaders coordinate actions based on their commercial interests.
Since it was created, the Second Marquetalia faction has been led by Iván Márquez. When Márquez was recovering after an attack in Venezuela, he was replaced by José Vicente Lesmes, alias "Walter Mendoza." However, Márquez has once again presented himself as the sole leader of the faction in peace talks with the Colombian government.
Márquez coordinates military actions and illegal economies with around 12 groups in different regions of Colombia, according to investigations by InSight Crime and a report published by Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP). Among the most prominent is the Border Command, formerly the 48th Front, which operates along the Colombia-Ecuador border, and the Alfonso Cano Western Bloc, which operates in the Colombian Pacific.
The EMC faction was in the hands of Gentil Duarte until his death in mid 2022. While a major blow to the group, his death did not destabilize its structure, and Iván Mordisco was quickly recognized as the natural successor.
The EMC has co-opted factions in eastern and western Colombia. As a result, Mordisco is reportedly leading the Western Coordinating Command (Comando Coordinador de Occidente - CCO), as well as the self-styled Eastern Joint Command, located in Arauca and Vichada, and the Middle Magdalena Bloc, in the central and northeastern part of the country.
Javier Alonso Velosa, alias "John Mechas," leader of the 33rd Front, is another important figure. He is particularly important to the ex-FARC mafia’s coca leaf cultivation efforts.
Julián Chollo, another leader, has significant influence in the Venezuelan Amazon, while John 40 oversaw lucrative drug trafficking operations there, making him one of the most important financiers of the ex-FARC mafia. He has since moved to Norte de Santander.
What began as a small group of FARC fighters dissatisfied with the peace process has turned into a criminal threat with transnational reach.
The ex-FARC mafia had a presence in at least 20 of Colombia's 32 departments in 2022, according to Indepaz figures. The groups have mainly been concentrated in border regions such as Arauca, Putumayo, Nariño, and Norte de Santander, where they can find international safe havens and coordinate cross-border criminal economies.
These departments are sites of a wide range of criminal activities, like coca crop cultivation, illegal mining, and drug trafficking, as well as export points for drugs destined for international markets.
Venezuela has also become a crucial destination for certain ex-FARC Mafia groups. Structures like the Acacio Medina Front, led by John 40, the 1st Front, and the 10th Front, maintain a presence in the states of Amazonas, Apure, Bolívar, Guárico, Mérida, Barinas, Táchira, and Zulia, which allow them to control key areas for drug trafficking, extortion, illegal mining, and contraband smuggling.
Allies and Enemies
Ex-FARC mafia groups maintain alliances and hostilities with criminal groups in Colombia and Venezuela, as well as with political and military contacts on Venezuelan soil.
With so many groups that make up the ex-FARC mafia, it is difficult to precisely chart which groups are allies and enemies.
Ex-FARC mafia groups have also created alliances with other criminal groups, which allows them to maintain strategic control of key areas and criminal economies. These alliances can be diverse and often compete with each other. Ex-FARC mafia groups have at different times allied with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), the Gaitanistas, and the Caparros.
In the same vein, disputes that have occurred among ex-FARC mafia groups have revolved around the need to preserve or expand their control of Colombia's strategic locations.
In other cases, disputes between dissident factions have plunged the country into violence. In Nariño, various ex-FARC groups are disputing control of coca crops and drug trafficking routes towards the Pacific. Along the border with Venezuela, the 10th Front has been attacked by Venezuelan armed forces -- who allegedly acted to advance the interests of the Second Marquetalia -- in a military campaign that displaced thousands of people to Colombia.
Additionally, in January 2022, dissidents of the 10th Front in Arauca and Apure, Venezuela, started a violent war against the ELN for territorial control.
The ex-FARC mafia represent one of the main security risks in Colombia due to its rapid growth, its control of strategic areas around the country, and its ability to strike at the civilian population, armed forces, and other criminal groups.
Peace negotiations with the ex-FARC mafia will require different strategies than the talks with the FARC in 2016. President Petro will face several factions that are more criminal than political, with their members unlikely to give up the lucrative criminal economies that they control.
The EMC represents the main challenge to total peace. They have the most substructures on Colombian soil and the largest number of members. Mordisco's refusal to join negotiations in 2016 may also make it difficult for the government to bring him in to the process.
Although Iván Márquez continues to command the Second Marquetalia, his health raises questions about the future of his faction. Without Márquez, it’s unlikely that the group will be able to maintain its forces and alliances, leading to the possibility of breakaway factions during the peace process.
The Acacio Medina Front is well positioned to grow in Venezuela. The group has control over illegal mining in Amazonas, agreements with security agents and other illegal groups, and extensive knowledge of both sides of the border. This could allow the group to continue to make money, expand membership, and gain influence in other states.
Thus, the future of the ex-FARC Mafia is different for each faction.
In the context of Petro’s total peace policy, it is likely that the factions will try to reach agreements with the government. The government has begun discussions with the EMC faction, but the longevity of relations will depend on maintaining a ceasefire between the EMC and Second Marquetalia.