The FARC’s Missing Leaders

Several top-ranking members of the old FARC guerrilla organization, now a political party, may have deserted the peace process. This has sparked fears that they might join the growing ranks of the ex-FARC mafia, and boost these dispersed criminal groups’ national and international power. The second-ever national council, in August, of the FARC party -- created following the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) guerrillas -- had some worrying absentees. Among them was second-ranking party member Luciano Marín Arango, alias “Iván Márquez,” who was also the former FARC guerrillas’ chief peace negotiator, and a historic member of the insurgency’s top command -- the Secretariat. Former high-ranking FARC commander Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias “El Paisa,” was another no-show. They were among nine confirmed FARC leaders who had given up their security details and were seemingly out of contact with the FARC party. Official sources brought the number of missing commanders named to at least ten:  
  1. Luciano Marín Arango, alias “Iván Márquez”
  2. Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias “El Paisa”
  3. José Benito Cabrera, alias “Fabián Ramírez”
  4. Henry Castellanos, alias “Romaña”
  5. Élmer Caviedes, alias “Albeiro Córdoba”
  6. Nelson Enrique Díaz, alias “Iván Alí”
  7. José Manuel Sierra, alias “Zarco Aldinever”
  8. Alberto Cruz Lobo, alias “Enrique Marulanda”
  9. Luis Gustavo Cuéllar, alias “Manuel Político”
  10. Olivio Merchán Gómez, alias “El Loco Iván”
It is so far unclear whether these figures are simply unaccounted for, or have abandoned the peace process completely. One most concerning possibility is that some will join the ranks of the criminalized dissident groups (or ex-FARC mafia). All of the absent commanders were based in reincorporation zones in Colombia’s southern and eastern regions, where the FARC dissidents are more powerful and organized than anywhere else in the country. Speculation is that Iván Márquez and El Paisa may even have crossed the border into Venezuela, where one of the original dissident leaders – Géner García Molina, alias “Jhon 40” – is running drugs on the border with Venezuela and Brazil. Should these veteran figures desert into criminal ranks, they will bring decades’ worth of prestige, experience and in some cases drug trafficking expertise with them. They also risk encouraging many other demobilized fighters, already disillusioned by the election of a right-wing president and slow-moving peace process, to follow in their footsteps. Iván Márquez has a strong following among ex-combatants, perhaps even more than FARC leader and now party president, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias “Timochenko,” himself.

Ex-FARC Mafia Attempts to Reunite Dissident Factions Across Colombia, Could Soon Have National Reach

  • The most powerful ex-FARC mafia network in the Eastern Plains has been spreading its tentacles across Colombia, in an apparent attempt to reunite far-flung ex-guerrilla elements into a coordinated criminal structure.
  • Notorious ex-FARC drug trafficker Jhon 40 -- part of a powerful FARC dissident-turned-criminal network based in the Eastern Plains -- was apparently dispatched to the drug hub Catatumbo, on the northern Venezuelan border. Catatumbo has historically been an enclave of the FARC, National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrillas and Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) narco-guerrillas, who for years preferred to coexist peacefully. However, when the FARC were taken out of the equation, war broke out between the two remaining groups.
  • Jhon 40’s appearance there a few months ago, far from his base alongside the Eastern Plains dissidence, is apparently aimed at organizing the remnants of the FARC’s 33rd Front and establishing control of drug routes in different corners of Colombia.
  • The revival of the 33rd Front could help consolidate a new ex-FARC structure with national and transnational reach. It could also exacerbate the Catatumbo war. Should the ex-FARC side with the either the EPL or the ELN, it could sound the death knell of the other side.
  • A powerful leader of the same ex-FARC network in the Eastern Plains, Miguel Botache Santillana, “Gentil Duarte,” has apparently worked to spread the network’s influence to other parts of the Venezuelan border as well. Intelligence sources told InSight Crime that Gentil Duarte reached out to the ELN in Arauca department earlier this year, meeting with one of the guerrilla group’s most belligerent and controversial leaders, Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias “Pablito.”
  • Other ex-FARC commanders’ advances have been rejected. A Gentil Duarte emissary reportedly tried to strike up a relationship with former FARC member and current drug trafficker Pedro Oberman Goyes Cortés, alias “Sinaloa,” in Putumayo. But Goyes apparently refused the offer, leading to an outbreak of violence in the area. InSight Crime believes that Putumayo has seen a silent transition from the FARC’s demobilization for the simple reason that the same FARC members continue to run cocaine trafficking activities as before the peace process. The incursion of competing ex-FARC mafia elements could disturb this status quo, and seems to be happening already.
  • An increasingly coordinated dissident network across Colombia will pose one of the greatest challenges to the government of new president Iván Duque, who entered office on August 7.

ELN Kidnaps State Agents, Jeopardizes Peace Talks With New President

  • As President Duque’s new government contemplated whether or not to pursue peace talks with the ELN, the guerrilla group kidnapped seven security force officers in Arauca and Chocó departments. The two ELN factions responsible are among the most opposed to the peace process.
  • Their leaders – Ogli Ángel Padilla, alias “Fabián,” and alias “Uriel” in Chocó, west Colombia, and Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias “Pablito,” on the eastern border with Venezuela – have shown a relative unruliness and independence from the ELN leadership, which does not have a strong hierarchical structure. These blocs have jeopardized the peace talks on more than one occasion by continuing to kidnap and carry out violent acts. In west Colombia, Fabián and Uriel sit on highly strategic drug routes, and have been expanding with vigor over the past few years.
  • It is likely that these powerful war fronts will show the most resistance to any call for a peaceful exit.
  • During Duque’s presidential campaign, he was tough on the ELN talks, demanding that the group suspend all criminal activities if a deal was to be reached. Continued kidnapping may well be the line in the sand for his government’s negotiations with Colombia’s last guerrilla army.

Colombia’s Urabeños Further Weakened as Command Crumbles

  • Once Colombia’s most powerful drug trafficking organization, the Urabeños have suffered the loss of yet another top leader in an intense state crackdown that has gravely weakened the group.
  • Carlos Antonio Moreno, alias “Nicolás,” was considered to be the main drug trafficking actor within the Urabeños’ command node. In early August he was captured, only months after the death of fellow leader and key financier Arístides Manuel Meza, alias “El Indio.” The Urabeños’s finances have taken a significant blow.
  • As well as the fall of its leaders, the group has loss of dozens of tons of cocaine at the hands of security forces over the past few months, with InSight Crime hearing from several sources that the Urabeños have been unable to pay some of their members on the ground.
  • Along with the declaration by Urabeños top leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” that he is willing to surrender to authorities, this has precipitated a fracturing of the group’s power. Factions are now splitting off and becoming increasingly independent in and around the organization’s heartland on the Caribbean coast, in strategic areas like Bajo Cauca (northeast Antioquia), which could well be the group’s downfall.

Medellín’s Divided Oficina Seeks Peace

  • Medellín’s notorious Oficina de Envigado organization – the local heir of Pablo Escobar’s drug trafficking empire – has revealed attempts to fix the group’s violent internal divisions while also suffering a series of blows to its leadership.
  • Imprisoned Oficina top leader Juan Carlos Mesa, alias “Tom,” is reportedly seeking a deal with opposing factions of the Oficina organization and the gangs they control to end their conflict in Medellín. Tom reportedly also sent a letter to President Duque requesting, not for the first time, that the government negotiate a surrender with his group.
  • Over the past few decades the Oficina has evolved into a federation-like structure with increasingly independent and disjointed factions. Indeed, recent months have seen rivalries among Oficina factions associated to a wave of violence in Medellín. A deal between these opposing elements would reinforce the five-year-old “pax mafiosa” keeping the peace between different criminal groups with a stake in Medellín, although it is unlikely to receive any government support. Furthermore, Tom’s outreach may be a ploy to gain leverage and delay his impending extradition to the United States.
  • Furthermore, in August authorities arrested several top Oficina leaders: alleged successors to Tom, who was himself arrested in December 2017. But the Oficina’s federation-like rather than hierarchical structure also makes it resistant to the fall of its bosses. And the Oficina’s days as a significant international drug trafficking organization are past. While some elements of the group are still involved in transnational activity, it mainly acts as a regulator for independent drug traffickers. This means that crackdowns on the group’s leadership does not directly weaken the Medellín-based traffickers who use their services, and who are now working with Colombia’s highest-ever cocaine production.

Triple border – Colombia, Peru and Ecuador – ravaged by the Ex–FARC Mafia

Peruvian authorities captured 51 alleged drug traffickers and dismantled four clandestine drug processing laboratories in an operation conducted in the department of Loreto, on the border of Colombia and Ecuador. Among those detained were 40 Colombians that apparently belonged to the Ex-FARC Mafia operating in the area. Ex-FARC Mafia groups and the Comuneros are increasingly operating in Peruvian territory, especially in the country’s Putumayo province. This dynamic is illustrated by a recent surge in complaints concerning criminal structures recruiting minors in the region. In addition to the Ex-FARC mafia, other groups including the Peasant Guard (Guardia Campesina), the Independent Revolutionary Movement of Colombia (Movimiento Independiente Revolucionario de Colombia), and the New Horizon (Nuevo Horizonte) are active in the region, often collaborating with local groups like La Constru. On June 16, 2018, the Peruvian government responded to the increasing presence of Ex-FARC Mafia in the region by declaring a 60-day state of emergency in the border area. Colombian authorities supported the measure based on their belief that Édgar Salgado, alias “Rodrigo Cadete”, one of the Ex-FARC Mafia affiliated with the 1st Front, was entering the region.

Bajo Cauca and northeast Antioquía, the heart of the fight between the Urabeños and the FARC dissidents

  • Since February 2018, dissident elements of the FARC’s 36th Front, led by Ricardo Abel Ayala Arrego, alias “Cabuyo”, have been fighting the Urabeños for control over drug trafficking and illegal mining in the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia, especially in the municipalities of Briceño, Ituango, Toledo and San Andrés de Cuerquía.
  • To gain the advantage in this conflict, alias “Cabuyo” has aimed to recruit ex-combatants from the 5th, 18th, and 36th fronts of the former FARC guerrilla. He has also sought to forge alliances with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), the Caparrapos, a territorial criminal group with a presence in the region, and criminal structures from the Valle de Aburrá like the Pachelly, a group whose activities are focused predominantly in the municipality of Bello.
  • In the context of the violent dispute between the Urabeños and the Ex-FARC Mafia, social leaders in Ituango have found themselves victims of assassinations and constant threats. This has prompted a high number of displacements in the sub-region of Antioquia, augmenting the displacements caused by the Hidroituango crisis and the River cauca flooding.

In Bajo Atrato, the Urabeños and ELN’s war for control over drug trafficking continues

  • On July 24, 2018, Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office released an early warning declaring that 3,499 people in the urban center of Murindó were at risk due to confrontations between the ELN and the Urabeños. The local ombudsman, who was in particular danger for having denounced the situation, had to be transferred to another municipality accompanied by a robust security detail.
  • The early warning also cautioned that the security forces did not appear to have established a presence in the region following the departure of the FARC’s 34th Front. On the contrary, the ELN guerrilla group and the Urabeños seemed to have intensified their presence in the area.
  • Some days before, members of the Urada Jiguamiandó indigenous community in Chocó’s Urabá region, reported that a group of approximately 40 people, possibly members of the Urabeños, had entered their indigenous reserve.

The surrender law, insufficiently attractive and innovative for the GAO and GDO

  • On July 10, 2018, the now ex-president Juan Manuel Santos approved a law to facilitate the surrender of Organized Armed Groups (Grupos Armados Organizados – GAO) and Organized Criminal Groups (Grupos Delictivos Organizados – GAO). Under this new law, criminal structures can collectively surrender to justice and receive benefits such as reduced sentences and special imprisonment conditions in exchange for delivering information about the group’s structure, alliances, and drug routes.
  • Still, these benefits are not new in the Colombian justice system, nor are they significant enough to tempt criminal networks.
  • This new law, along with rumored dialogues between the government and the Urabeños, has prompted discussions about the criminal organization’s possible intent to surrender. The group, however, has stated that they consider the incentives provided by the new law insufficient, suggesting the prospect of surrender is not as imminent as previously thought.
  • In contrast, Juan Carlos Mesa Vallejo, alias “Tom”, one of the leaders of the Oficina de Envigado crime group, pledged his intent to surrender under the new law. In response, Colombia’s Defense Minister clarified that the new law applies only to the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), the Urabeños, the Puntilleros and the FARC dissidence, excluding both the Oficina de Envigado and the ELN.

Supreme Court reopens the process against Uribe for alleged witness tampering

  • The Supreme Court called ex-president Uribe for questioning as part of an investigation into bribery and procedural fraud. The case against Uribe began four years ago when the former president denounced Congressman Iván Cepeda for alleged witness tampering. The court decided to close the case against Cepeda.
  • In light of the Supreme Court’s announcement, the former president initially declared himself “morally impeded” from continuing his work as a senator and presented his letter of resignation. Uribe’s resignation would impact which institution has the power to handle his case, determining whether it would remain in the Supreme Court or be transferred to the Attorney General’s Office.
  • Later, though, Uribe requested that congress halt the evaluation of his resignation, a request which the president of the Senate accepted. To date, Uribe still occupies his seat in the Senate, meaning the Supreme Court continues to manage the investigation against him.
  • The recently elected president of Colombia, Iván Duque, has expressed solidarity with the former president and pronounced confidence in his political mentor’s honor and innocence. Members of the ex-president’s political party, the Democratic Center (Centro Democrático), have also weighed in, making accusations against the suitability of those who preside over the High Court.

The assassination of social leaders: a form of resistance to the peace process

June was one of the months that saw the greatest number of attacks against social leaders in Colombia this year. The Colombian Observatory of Organized crime registered at least 17 assassinations in June, bringing the total number of social leaders assassinated in the first half of 2018 to approximately 78. Although the exact figures vary depending on the source consulted, it is apparent that the Colombian state faces an immense challenge when it comes to guaranteeing the security of social leaders in the country. The significance of these attacks goes beyond their social and humanitarian impact. The fact that many of these leaders are on the front lines between the population and the country’s criminal groups suggests that their deaths could be the result of changing criminal dynamics in the region. One example is that of Carlos Prado. A social leader in the municipality Olaya Herrera, Prado was allegedly assassinated by Ex FARC Mafia. Orlando Negrete Ramírez’s assassination in Tierralta, Córdoba, serves as another example. His murder seems to have been the result of a criminal reorganization in southern Córdobo between criminal group including the Urabeños, dissident elements of the FARC, and the criminal band known as the Caparrapos. The death of social leader Francisco José Guerra in Ituango, Antioquía may have been related to a similar dynamic. In Antioquia, evolving criminal dynamics between dissident elements of FARC’s 36th Front, the Urabeños and their former allies the Caparrapos have plunged the department into a spiral of violence and crime. This violence is reflected by the fact that, since 2016, at least 41 social leaders have been assassinated in Antioquia. Although the assassinations of social leaders may not be directly related to the shifting criminal landscape, they are proof that a new criminal dynamic has begun to emerge in Colombia. The targeted assassination of community leaders suggests that criminal groups are pursuing a violent strategy to silence and intimidate everyone who might stand in their way.

1. The return of glyphosate fumigation

  • The practice of aerial fumigation with the herbicide glyphosate began in 1999 as part of Plan Colombia, a US sponsored aid program to fight drug trafficking in the country. It did not end until 2015, when President Juan Manual Santos suspended aerial fumigation during peace talks held with the now demobilized FARC.
  • Aerial fumigation has been heavily criticized ever since it was first implemented due to the associated health risks for civilian populations and the severe environmental consequences. Farmers were forced to move constantly due to the relentless fumigation.
  • President Juan Manual Santos has authorized the reintroduction of aerial fumigation, but only with unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. Drones spray pesticides from a lower altitude, supposedly preventing much of the environmental damage typically caused by aerial spraying.
  • The reintroduction of aerial fumigation with drones is not guaranteed to reduce illicit crop levels, which have been on the rise since 2015. However, it marks the return of a strategy that has been fundamental to the government’s fight against drug trafficking.

2. The Naya: The fight for the drug trafficking corridor continues

  • The rural sub-region that lies between the departments of Valle del Cauca and Cauca is known as the Naya, and is home to coca crops, cocaine producing laboratories, and an international trafficking route by which drugs are smuggled to Central or North America. Criminal groups are currently fighting for control over this strategic drug trafficking region.
  • Members of one of the region’s warring factions publicly introduced themselves in a video sent to the media. In the video, the United Force of the Pacific (Fuerzas Unidas del Pacifico - FUP) presented themselves as a new group of FARC dissidents.
  • Both the FUP and their rivals have consolidated control over territories within the region. The FUP moves in the higher parts of the Naya mountains, while their primary rival, a group calling itself the Defenders of the Pacific (Defensores del Pacifico) maintain a presence in the lower regions, especially in the municipality of López de Micay in Cauca.
  • Groups associated with Mexican cartels seem to be forging alliances with the FUP, while the Urabeños have begun to establish a presence in the region by sending emissaries to purchase cocaine.

3. Puerto Valdivia: threatened by criminal groups

  • The conflicts in the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia have reached the municipality of Puerto Valdivia where the Caparrapos and the Urabeños continue to fight one another.
  • The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) has also intensified its presence in the region, and dissident elements of the FARC continue to occupy the area. Both the ELN and FARC dissidents have joined the territorial fight for control over the drug trafficking corridor.
  • This violent situation has restricted the mobility of local civilian population and authorities, especially in rural areas. The last attack registered in the region occurred on June 11th when armed criminals attacked a police patrol in a rural zone, killing two officers.

The Naya: the disputed drug trafficking route

The Naya is a rural sub-region between the departments of Valle del Cauca and Cauca that is home to coca crops, cocaine production laboratories, and an international drug trafficking route. Due to its strategic importance, dissident groups of the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) violently compete for control of the territory. The Naya and Micay rivers intertwine, connecting the Western Andes in the municipality of Suárez, Cauca, with the pacific coast port of Buenaventura in Valle del Cauca. This connection is known as The Naya Route. Suárez, as one of the top marijuana producing regions in the country and one of the principle coca producing municipalities in Cauca, marks the beginning of the Naya drug trafficking route. The path of this river enables drug traffickers to move cocaine through every phase of the trafficking economy: production, processing, collection, and international export to Central America via the Pacific coast. For this reason, several criminal groups maintain a presence in the Naya region. The first group to appear in the area was the United Force of the Pacific (Fuerzas Unidas del Pacific - FUP), made up of dissident elements of the FARC’s 30th Front that did not participate in the peace process. Upon arrival, the group forged alliances with drug traffickers in the region to guarantee the free flow of cocaine. This changed with the arrival of a second dissident group. Calling itself the Defenders of the Pacific (Defensores del Pacifico), the group arrived from López de Micay around the end of May. Although there is little clarity as to the group’s identity, it appears to be composed of around 200 fighters. Meanwhile, in the south of Valle del Cauca, reports surfaced alleging that 80 EPL guerrillas had arrived in the area to fight for control of the coveted route. This dynamic has generated a grave security crisis. In May, four people were reportedly kidnapped in Alto Naya, another three members of an indigenous reservation were murdered, and multiple families were displaced from rural areas due to armed incursions.

1. Iván Márquez implicated in drug trafficking investigations

  • The DEA is investigating Iván Márquez along with Jesús Santrich and his nephew Marlon Marín as part of case involving a conspiracy to traffic 10 tons of drugs into the United States, the Wall Street Journal reported.
  • Just a few days before The Wall Street Journal report was made public, Iván Márquez left Bogotá for the Training and Reincorporation Space (Espacio Territoriales de Capacitación y Reincorporación – ETCR) in Miravalle, Caquetá. Márquez claimed his departure was the result of persecution against him, Jesús Santrich, and his confidant, alias “El Paisa”.
  • From the ETCR, Márquez has demanded Santrich, who is currently imprisoned, be liberated and has called for judicial protection and the accelerated implementation of economic programs for former FARC members. He has also renounced his seat in Congress.
  • Iván Márquez and Jesús Santrich, both fierce critics of the peace process, have used the Colombian government’s shortcoming to justify their actions.
  • The fact that a leader as important as Iván Márquez, widely supported by the former FARC rank-and-file, is an outspoken critic of the peace process heightens the risk that those close to him might defect to the dissidence. Márquez has even warned that if the government does not keep its end of the bargain, the peace process could fail.

2. Assassinations of ex-FARC combatants

  • The number of ex -FARC members assassinated in the first four months of 2018 has risen to 22, demonstrating the high risk that this population faces.
  • The primary groups responsible for these attacks have been the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), and the Urabeños. The most concerning areas are the departments of Antioquía, Nariño, Bolívar, Cauca, and Arauca.
  • There are three major risks associated with these assassinations. 1) Members of the FARC political party play an important role in the implementation of the peace process and the related economic programs. 2) The assassinations, sometimes within the ETCRs themselves, promote a perception of insecurity among demobilized combatants. 3) This perception of insecurity and fear can lead former FARC fighters to abandon the peace process and bolster the ranks of the dissidence.
  • If the government fails to protect demobilized combatants it will send a grave message, not only to former FARC fighters, but also to illegal groups like the ELN that are currently engaged in peace talks.

3. The ELN and EPL’s war for Catatumbo continues unabated

  • The war between the ELN and the EPL for control over Norte de Santander’s strategic Catatumbo region is concentrated in the municipalities of Tibú, El Tarra, Teorama, Convención, San Calixto, Ocaña, Playa de Belén, Ábrego and Hacarí.
  • Between March 14 and April 30, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations (Oficina para la Coordinación de Asuntos Humanitarios de la ONU – OCHA) reported that the conflict has affected 154,000 people in 11 municipalities, leaving 120,000 with limited mobility and restricted access to basic necessities.
  • Violent confrontations between both groups and members of the National Army are a constant. Still, none of the illegal groups appear to have suffered significant force reductions, which could be partially due to their ability to move between Norte de Santander and neighboring Venezuela.
  • Colombia’s Defense Minister has denounced the presence of ELN camps in the Venezuelan states of Apure and Zulia.
  • With the FARC’s departure from Catatumbo, the region presents a host of security challenges from the implementation of crop substitutions programs to the fight against international drug trafficking.

4. Gang Crisis in Medellín’s Comuna 13

  • Around the end of April, a spate of violent clashes broke out between gangs in Medellín’s notorious Comuna 13 neighborhood. The violence began shortly after authorities captured Cristian Camilo Mazo Castañeda, alias “Sombra” or “Cabo”, leader of the drug trafficking gang Robledo.
  • The rising insecurity in Comuna 13 seems to be the result of a criminal reorganization between gangs known as “combos” linked to the Oficina de Envigado. The capture of key figures in the Oficina de Envigado leadership like alias “Tom” and “Juancito” are at the root of the various disputes.
  • The possible participation of the Urabeños in the dispute over Comuna 13 is likely to exacerbate insecurity. Comuna 13 is strategically important given its geographic connection with Urabá, a subregion of Antioquía through which cocaine is shipped to Central America.
  • Rising violence throughout Medellín has left more than 200 dead so far this month, and Comuna 13, the main focus of this violence, has become militarized.

Catatumbo: The undisciplined EPL and its war with the ELN

The criminal dynamics in Catatumbo have intensified over the past year. Following the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) have both attempted to expand into territories previously controlled by the defunct guerrilla. However, several blows to the EPL’s leadership, including Victor Bavarro alias Megateo’s death in 2015, Guillermo Leon Agurre alias David León’s capture in 2016, and the possible disappearance of Jader Navarro Barbosa alias Caracho, have left the group without a clear chain of command. This has prompted some members of the EPL to expand their drug trafficking businesses, breaking alliances and impacting local communities in the process. Since March 2018, the EPL has clashed with the ELN’s Eastern War Front (Frente de Guerra Oriental) in Catatumbo, a region in the northeastern department of Norte de Santander. These violent confrontations have resulted in massive displacement and selective assassinations throughout the region.
  • The alliance between the ELN and the EPL in the region began to deteriorate following the FARC’s departure. Reports suggest that ex-combatants from the FARC joined the ranks of the EPL, strengthening the group and enabling it to confront the ELN.
  • An EPL pamphlet confirming its territorial war against the ELN and announcing an armed strike beginning April 15 further contributed to displacement in the region.
  • The ELN appears to have gained the upper hand in the conflict, having consolidated its presence in municipalities previously controlled by the EPL such as EL Tarra, San Pablo and Convención. Meanwhile, the EPL has sought to take control of areas bordering Venezuela that have historically been dominated by the ELN.
  • The two groups are disputing 16,000 hectares of illicit coca crops, cocaine production laboratories, the famous “pata e grillo” (gasoline used to produce low-purity cocaine) and international drug trafficking routes in the Venezuela border region.

Jesús Santrich captured and accused of drug trafficking

  • On April 10th, the National Police and the investigative unit of the Attorney General’s Office (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación – CTI) captured Seuxis Paucias Hernández Solarte, alias “Jesús Santrich”, and Marlon Marín, Iván Márquez’s nephew, for drug trafficking.
  • Santrich’s capture was a critical development for the implementation of the FARC peace agreement. His arrest created an internal division within the FARC between those who believed the ex-guerilla was innocent and those who would leave it up to the courts to determine his culpability.
  • Iván Márques, one of the most important leaders of the FARC political party was at the forefront of the group that upheld Santrich’s innocence, even likening his arrest to “judicial persecution”. Following his colleague’s capture, Márquez decided to move to the rural zone of the Colombian department Caquetá and not to return until Santrich was freed.
  • Santrich’s capture has cast the judicial security of the ex-FARC guerillas into doubt. The lack of clarity as to when Santrich committed the crime and the ongoing debate between different judicial bodies about the role Santrich played in drug trafficking have deepened concerns held by large segments of the demobilized FARC.

The dissidence led by alias “Guacho” and the assassinated Ecuadorean journalists

  • Ecuadorean national Walter Arizala, better known as alias Guacho, is leader of the FARC dissident group the Oliver Sinisterra Front. In recent months, Guacho has positioned himself as one of the most powerful actors in the Colombia-Ecuador border region. He has allegedly committed various terrorist attacks on both sides of the border in an effort to control strategic drug trafficking zones. His criminal exploits include attacks against energy towers, homicides, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and even the detonation of a car bomb in Esmeraldas, Ecuador.
  • One of the most shocking acts perpetrated by the dissident group was the kidnapping and murder of two journalists and a driver from the Ecuadorean newspaper El Comercio. Shortly thereafter, the group kidnapped and murdered an Ecuadorean couple in Nariño, demonstrating its control in the southwestern Colombian department.
  • The criminal activities of Guacho and the Oliver Sinisterra Front have sparked a political crisis between Colombia and Ecuador, prompting Ecuador to back out of hosting the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the ELN. Guacho is currently the principle military objective in both countries.

Return of the second wave of “extraditable”

  • A growing amount of evidence suggests that drug trafficking capos and paramilitary commanders are returning to the country upon completing prison sentences in the United States, and that they may be behind rising homicides in Cali and Medellín.
  • Capos who have recently returned to the country include: Ever Veloza, alias HH, the feared former commander of the Bananeros and Calima blocs of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC); Carlos Alberto Rentería, alias Beto, a member of the Cali Cartel leadership and Javier Zuluaga, alias Gordo Lindo, a capo from Valle del Cauca who bought a franchise of the AUC in order to sneak into the peace process as a paramilitary commander.
  • These names were added to a long list of former drug traffickers and paramilitary commanders who had already returned to the country like Perra Loca, el Químico, el Negro Asprilla, Tornillo, Cejas, el Mocho, Camisa Roja and el Socio o Pipe Montoya.
  • Many of these capos and commanders likely returned to take revenge on those who betrayed them and to recover lands and assets from front men. Still, it is not clear whether they will actively participate in sub-regional criminal dynamics in the future.
  • In the last six months, a growing number of homicides exhibit characteristics that correspond to the modus operandi of mafia organizations: bodies with signs of torture, others dismembered, wrapped in bags and hidden in trunks of cars, or thrown in the streets.

Confrontations between the Caparrapos and the Urabeños in Bajo Cauca, Antioquía

  • Several high-level captures have weakened the Urabeños command structure in the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia, causing the criminal group to fragment. The Caparrapos, a former paramilitary splinter group also operating in Bajo Cauca, took advantage of the Urabeños misfortune and declared war on their former allies for control over the region. The ensuing conflict has resulted in various displacements.
  • Alias “Ratón” is thought to be the leader of the Caparrapos and has allegedly allied with the Medellín-based criminal group “Los Triana” and dissident elements of the front 36th, both of which are invested in weakening the Urabeños. In addition, an alliance between the Caparrapos and the ELN is not out of the question considering the ELN is seeking to strengthen its influence in the region. The Urabeños, on the other hand, are led by alias “Gonzalito” in the region and can likely count on the support of the criminal group “Pachelly”.
  • The municipalities with the highest levels of violence, forced displacements and assassinations are Tarazá, Caucasia, Cáceres, Yarumal and Andes; areas characterized by their direct connection to the municipalities of Briceño and Ituango and the Nudo del Paramillo National Reserve. Between April 13 and 15, various clashes between the Caparrapos and the Urabeños have resulted in the displacement of 43 families from the urban center of Tarazá. In total, around 781 households have been forced to flee this year due to violence. These areas contain either coca crops or important drug routes and are therefore disputed due to their strategic importance for drug trafficking.

Colombia’s Elections

Colombia’s congressional elections saw greater advances for the underworld than for democracy. The risk of disillusioned ex-guerrillas returning to arms was heightened by blows to the FARC peace process, politicians with underworld ties consolidated power, and campaign season killings were rife. The elections for the Senate and the House of Representatives were supposed to mark the evolution of the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) into the political party The Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común – FARC. But the FARC’s democratic coming out party was marred by violence and a disastrous performance at the ballot box. In the pacific region, the FARC denounced receiving threats purporting to be from the Urabeños, and accused the ELN of murdering party activists. Pamphlets circulated signed by Ex-FARC mafia cells that threatened the FARC and banned them from campaigning in certain territories. Elsewhere, their attempts at campaigning were met by hostility and even violent protests. In the end, the FARC obtained just 0.34 percent of the senate vote and just 0.21 percent in the house race. The disappointing results were compounded by the strong showing of anti-peace process parties, which could now use their increased clout in congress to wreak havoc on the implementation of the peace agreement. The FARC’s disastrous first foray into democratic politics could have serious consequences. Shunned by the public and targeted by armed actors, the peace accords’ promise of political participation looks increasingly hollow, and this will likely drive yet more disenchanted former guerrillas into the arms of the Ex-FARC Mafia. While the FARC struggled to gain traction in politics, mafias and armed groups continue to penetrate the system. The Fundacion Paz y Reconciliacion identified 70 congressional candidates with alleged links to organized crime, armed groups or corruption cases, 42 of whom won their elections.1 The results were a reminder that political clans and caudillos, which often act as points of intersection between the underworld and the legal world, still hold sway over much of Colombia. Underworld influence on the elections was also visible in political violence. MOE recorded 62 violent actions against political and community leaders during campaign season, including 31 murders. The killings were a brutal sign that while Colombia is getting ever close to leaving behind the era of political violence, violence in politics remains a serious threat.

ELN – EPL Tensions Erupt into Open Conflict in Catatumbo

  • Fighting has broken out between the ELN and the EPL in the drug trafficking hub of Catatumbo. Community leaders told media there had been at least 19 deaths,2 while the United Nations warned the conflict has had a humanitarian impact on 17,000 people.
  • Both the ELN and the EPL have put out public statements condemning the actions and questioning the revolutionary credentials of the other side.
  • Despite the aggression and accusations, the rivals also both called for a negotiated resolution to the conflict, and brokering a truce would clearly be the best outcome for both sides.
  • Militarily, the conflict is a dangerous strategy. Both the ELN and the EPL are firmly entrenched in the region militarily and socially, so neither side is likely to be able to defeat the other without paying a heavy price. Furthermore, both already have to contend with another enemy - the 6,000 troops currently deployed in Catatumbo.
  • The conflict is also bad for business. The ELN primarily profit from the Catatumbo coca trade, while the EPL run processing and trafficking networks. As the two groups control different links in the regional drug trafficking chain, cooperation is more profitable than competition.

ELN Return to Talks but Peace Process Faces Uncertain Future

  • President Juan Manuel Santos announced that peace talks with the ELN, which were suspended after a series of deadly attacks in January, are to restart. Brokering a new ceasefire will be top of the agenda.
  • Santos is about to become a lame duck president, and so he has little to lose in gambling on another run of talks before his term ends. If negotiations produce significant and concrete advances then they may survive the handover of presidential power. If not, then war with the ELN will no longer be his problem.
  • The events of recent months make success an outside bet. The ELN, already internally divided over making peace and aggressively expanding, will have little faith in any commitments made by a government whose days are numbered, and that has so far delivered little of what was promised to the guerrillas’ demobilized cousins in the FARC. On the other side of the equation, anti-peace parties now outnumber pro-peace factions in congress, while two out of the three frontrunners for president would almost certainly kill off negotiations if elected.

Playboy “Invisible” Narco Caught Hiding in Plain Sight

  • Spanish police arrested Juan Pablo Muñoz Hernández, alias “Carlos Ciro,” a previously unknown figure who allegedly trafficked Colombian cocaine to Europe via Brazil while posing as a publicist and manager of artists.
  • Ciro fits the profile of an “invisible” – the hidden Colombian drug traffickers that broker international cocaine deals. However, while many invisibles prefer a low profile, Ciro built an ostentatious façade, living a jet set lifestyle and rubbing shoulders with global elites and celebrities.
  • He is the second captured capo to have been caught hiding in plain sight recently. In February, authorities arrested Sebastián Murillo Echeverry, alias, Lindolfo, the son of a drug trafficker and an alleged Oficina de Envigado crime boss who ingratiated himself into Colombian high society.

Ex-FARC Mafia Hold Key to Colombia’s Newest Criminal Conflict Zone

Clashes between an emerging Ex-FARC Mafia cell and the Urabeños in Ituango are signs that the Nudo de Paramillo is rapidly becoming the latest epicentre of post-FARC criminal violence. Rearmed factions of the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) faced off against the Urabeños, leaving a reported four dead and three injured on the Urabeños side and resulting in the mass displacement of around 35 families. The Nudo de Paramillo region is a key strategic criminal territory. It is one of northwest Colombia’s most important coca cultivation areas, and a hub of internal movement corridors connecting key territories such as Sur de Bolivar, Bajo Cauca, Chocó, Urabá and the Caribbean coast. There are multiple actors in the conflicts raging around the Nudo. In the south, the conflict between the ex-36th Front guerrillas and the Urabeños is complicated by the presence of former fighters from the 18th Front of the FARC and reports the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) may also have entered the region. Along the eastern border, the Bajo Cauca municipalities of Tarazá, Cáceres and Caucasia and the Cordoba municipality of San José de Uré have seen bitter fighting between the Urabeños and a splinter group known as the Caparrapos, while the ELN, with a strong presence in Tarazá and Cáceres and in nearby municipalities such as Anori, also have a claim on drug interests in the region. In the northern territory of Alto Sinú, meanwhile, reports suggest ex-FARC fighters and commanders are working with the Urabeños to violently seize control of coca crops and the movement corridor towards the coast. The outcome of the various battles for the Nudo de Paramillo and the criminal future of the region remains uncertain. But the balance of power in these conflicts is likely to lie with the former FARC guerrillas. Their local knowledge and influence along with their experience in war and crime is unmatched. The FARC were previously the most powerful actors in the region, and the Ex-FARC Mafia, whether acting alone or in alliance with the ELN or even mafia groups, are now likely to assume this position.

Transnational Pursuit of Undeclared Assets Threat to Demobilized FARC

Angry crowds looted a chain of supermarkets in Tolima and Cundinamarca after prosecutors arrested the chain’s owners and accused of them of laundering millions of dollars for the FARC. Colombian prosecutors later handed over 13 million electronic files to their Ecuadorian counterparts related to FARC assets in Colombian’s southern neighbour. Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez’s dogged pursuit of the FARC’s undeclared assets represents one of the principal threats to the ambitions of demobilized guerrilla leaders. If he can show they have not complied with their commitment to turn over their wealth, then they will lose the benefits agreed to in the peace agreement. Much of these hidden assets are likely to be in Ecuador, a logistics hub and rearguard refuge for the FARC’s western and southern blocs with a dollarized economy, which facilitated the laundering of international drug trade payments. Similarly, many assets are likely to be found in Colombia’s neighbour to the west, Venezuela. The central question surrounding this process is whether the demobilized FARC have access to these assets or whether they are now in the hands of Ex-FARC Mafia elements and frontmen.

Combat and Killings Sound Alarm in Catatumbo

The west Colombia region of Catatumbo saw several deadly confrontations between the security forces and both the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Popular – EPL) as well as the killing of three Venezuelans in Colombia, attributed to the ELN. The violence has also crossed the border, with seven people killed in a clash authorities say was between the EPL and Venezuela’s forensic police. Although Catatumbo has not yet emerged as one of the main conflict zones of the post-FARC underworld, there have been indications of a deteriorating security situation for some time. Most of the reported violence has involved clashes between armed groups and the security forces, and selective assassinations. However, InSight Crime’s sources have also spoken of a conflict between the ELN and the EPL that has been building since the withdrawal of the FARC from Catatumbo.

Indications Ties Between ELN and Venezuela Growing Ever Closer

Reports have emerged of the ELN distributing Venezuelan government food aid stamped with guerrilla propaganda in the border regions. The Colombian government later confirmed that an ELN guerrilla who died while planting explosives in Norte de Santander was a current or former member of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard (GNB). If the Venezuelan government is aiding the ELN cement social control, then this could signal the embattled administration is shifting from a permissive towards a cooperative stance towards the guerrillas in Venezuela. The notion that the Venezuelan government is trying to establish a role in the border region’s underworld and its criminal economies was further reinforced by the naming of Fredy Bernal as “protector” of border state Táchira. Bernal previously acted as the Venezuelan government’s contact with the FARC and is also a key connection with the Venezuelan armed “colectivos” networks and the police. The flood of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan refugees into Colombia, meanwhile, is providing a fertile recruiting pool of desperate people, not only for the ELN, who have long recruited Venezuelans, but for all underworld actors active along the border.

Armed Strike Demonstration of ELN’s Strength and Weakness

The ELN carried out a three-day “armed strike,” principally in protest at the government’s suspension of peace talks. There were reports of burned vehicles, attacks against transport infrastructure and retentions and harassment of travellers in Nariño, Antioquia, Cauca, Cesar, Norte de Santander, and Valle de Cauca, but no reported causalities. The strike acted as a reminder that the ELN retain the capacity to cause considerable disruption to everyday life in several regions of Colombia. However, their actions were largely restricted to areas with a strong ELN presence, showing that despite their recent expansion the threat the rebels pose and influence they wield remains territorially limited.

ELN offensive suggests internal divisions over peace

The ELN launched a national offensive following the end of their ceasefire with the government, attacking security forces and oil industry infrastructure around the country. After a bombing in the city of Barranquilla killed five police, for which the ELN Urban War Front (Frente de Guerra Urbana) claimed responsibility, the government suspended peace talks. The statement issued by the front suggested the bombing was an attempt to take the guerrillas evident national post-ceasefire strategy of showing they can continue to wage war while they talk peace into the urban areas, where the guerrillas have had little influence for many years. However, other factors hint at a more disruptive strategy in play. The repercussions of such an attack on the peace process was entirely predictable, while comments later made by the ELN’s chief negotiator alias “Pablo Beltran” suggested the pro-peace faction in the guerrilla leadership did not authorize or even have advance knowledge of the attack. This raises the possibility that the attacks’ disastrous impact on the peace process was fully intended, and that the bombings were a statement that may have been targeted as much at the pro-peace factions within the ELN leadership as at the Colombian government.

Turf wars and leadership woes could signal the end of the Urabeños as a national force

  • The Urabeños’ national leadership was further weakened by the surrender of Eduard Luis Vargas Gutiérrez, alias Pipón, the brother of killed Urabeños second-in-command Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez, alias “Gavilan,” and the arrest of alias “Leo,” who is reportedly family to maximum leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga alias ‘Otoniel.
  • The Urabeños hold over key drug trafficking territories in Bajo Cauca, Antioquia, and San Jose de Uré, Cordoba is being challenged by local criminal groups that previously operated as semi-autonomous members of the Urabeños franchise.
  • There are ever fewer reasons to obey the orders of a distant and weak leadership, and even less to kick up the percentage of local profits they often demand, and these new criminal turf wars could well mark the first violent throes of the disintegration of the Urabeños as a national network united under one command.

Ex-FARC mafia threat crosses Colombia’s southern border with attack against Ecuador police

  • Authorities in Ecuador and Colombia are working to track down former FARC fighter Walter Patricio Arisala Vernaza, alias “Guacho,” who they blame for a car bomb attack against a police station that injured 28 people in the Ecuadorean state of Esmeraldas has been blamed on former FARC fighter Walter Patricio Arisala Vernaza, alias “Guacho,” who reportedly heads an ex-FARC mafia cell of approximately 50 fighters that is seeking control of coca crops, laboratories and trafficking routes through Nariño.
  • The attack represents an alarming warning that the threat posed by ex-FARC mafia cells could easily expand into Ecuador, which is a key departure point for cocaine produced in south Colombia and the country of origin for numerous ex-FARC guerrillas in the region.

Are Mexican cartels seeking to take over drug trafficking in Colombia?

  • Media reports suggest Mexican organized crime groups are seeking to take control of the Colombian drug trade after their local partners failed to meet their “quotas,” and have established a presence in nine departments across the country.
  • It is highly unlikely that the Mexicans are attempting to directly take and control territory as this would come at a high cost and would exponentially increase their exposure to law enforcement. What is more likely is that the increasingly fluid and fragmented nature of the Colombian cocaine trafficking world and the loss of reliable partners from among the demobilized FARC and the increasingly fractured Urabeños has prompted the Mexicans to take on a more hands on role in securing supply chains and coordinating production and trafficking activities in Colombia.

Security Forces Reinforcements Could Spark Trafficking Migration

  • The security forces are ramping up their efforts in two of Colombia’s most violence ridden drug trafficking territories, deploying 2,100 more police and military will be deployed in Choco, and bolstering the Joint Task Force Hercules in Tumaco with reinforcements, new leadership and a special forces deployment.
  • The territorial trafficking groups in these areas will have little choice but tough out the increased security forces pressure but the growing operating risks and higher possibility of interdiction of shipments could lead to the international drug traffickers that employ these groups to seek out alternative production zones and trafficking routes.
copyright icons

Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.


Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?