With Colombia now producing more cocaine than ever before, the rise of illegal mining, as well as widespread extortion, the ex-FARC mafia has all the resources it needs to rebuild itself into a national force.
Prior to their demobilization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) did not merely maintain control over strategic areas as part of their struggle against the state, they also kept a tight rein over criminal activities in those areas. This allowed them to become one of the best-financed guerrilla groups in Latin America.
The FARC had influence all the links of the cocaine production chain, including protecting coca growers, regulating the coca base market and charging a tax (gramaje) from producers. A number of guerrilla units, including the 10th, 16th, 29th, 30th, 33rd, 48th and 57th Fronts, were all located in crucial drug trafficking areas and border areas, generating large profits through their involvement in the transnational drug trade.
Besides its drug trafficking operations, the FARC also charged “impuestos de guerra” (war taxes) or “vacunas” (vaccines) from residents in areas they controlled. According to calculations made by InSight Crime, at the time of its demobilization, the group was collecting around $75 million a year from these taxes. Annual FARC income in those days was in excess of $200 million a year.
In 2018, production of cocaine hydrochloride stood at around 1,120 tons, according to figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), while around 80 percent of the gold exported by Colombia was illegally extracted. Given their knowledge of drug trafficking and illegal mining, as well as Colombia’s current security panorama, the ex-FARC mafia now have access to ample sources of financing.
Cocaine trafficking was one of the most important pillars of the FARC’s financing for decades, and it is now the most lucrative criminal economy for the ex-FARC mafia. From the collection of taxes to the production and transportation of cocaine as well as smuggling it into other countries, the FARC earned income from all links across the drug trafficking chain. These profits have been so important that dissident elements from all the aforementioned FARC fronts, except the 57th, have emerged.
The Eastern Plains and the Colombian Amazon are important regions for the drug trade. The dissident 1st Front controls the cultivation, production and transportation of cocaine in much of the departments of Amazonas, Caquetá, Guainía, Guaviare, Meta and Vaupés. The rebels also charge a tax (“gramaje”) to third-parties seeking to acquire coca paste or cocaine, according to interviews carried out with local officials in Puerto Rico, Caquetá. Shipments of drugs are sent along strategic routes to Venezuela and Brazil, with the ex-FARC mafia maintaining alliances with drug trafficking groups in both countries.
Drug routes to Venezuela often pass through the San Fernando de Atabapo border crossing, or head for Arauca, further inland. Once they cross the border, most of these shipments continue on to Central America. In southern Colombia, they make their way to Brazil through the department of Vaupés. Here, the dissident 1st Front controls the exit points and many laboratories, known as “crystallizers,” (cristalizaderos) which transform coca paste into cocaine. This group also oversees the buying and selling of coca base in the departments of Guaviare y Caquetá, as well as its processing into cocaine and transport by river out of Colombia. The 1st Front not only sits astride key drug trafficking corridors, beginning in Miraflores, Guaviare, and connecting Vaupés to Brazil.
Field research in Amazonas revealed the border crossing of Tarapacá as a choke point, where most shipments of cocaine and marijuana from the southern departments of Putumayo, Caquetá and Cauca exit Colombia. Around the triple frontier, drug shipments from Peru and Colombia are usually bound for the city of Manaus in Brazil.
The department of Nariño remains the largest coca grower in Colombia despite a reduction in the hectares reported for 2018. Of 41,903 hectares of coca crops in Nariño, 16,046 are located in the coastal municipality of Tumaco, where several ex-FARC mafia groups battle for control of drug trafficking real estate. The first, the Oliver Sinisterra Front, a group of FARC dissidents who abandoned the peace process in 2017, are battling the United Guerrillas of the Pacific (Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico – GUP) and Los Contadores, a criminal group run by alias “Contador,” once a financial operator for the FARC’s Daniel Aldana Column and 29th Front.
These three groups, along with the Estiven González Front, a dissident faction of the FARC 29th Front, are based in municipalities along Nariño’s Pacific coast. From here, they exercise control over coca crops and cocaine processing, as well as transportation of the drug to Ecuador, Central America and the United States.
In rural parts of Nariño, cocaine laboratories are conveniently located near departure points, the Pacific Ocean and Ecuador. With much of the cocaine traveling by river, the laboratories are located along the banks of major rivers in Nariño. Around 2.4 tons of cocaine pass along the department’s waterways every month.
While located right next to Nariño, the department of Putumayo is home to a different set of criminal actors. Dissidents from the 48th Front watch over coca production areas along the border with Ecuador, and laboratories along the Putumayo and San Miguel rivers, InSight Crime learned during field research in Lago Agrio, Ecuador.
The 48th Front of the ex-FARC Mafia have reached an agreement with a criminal group known as La Constru to divide up drug trafficking in Putumayo. While the FARC dissidents provide security for coca crops and cocaine processing laboratories, La Constru is in charge of international contacts, including with Mexican cartels, as well as handling logistics for drug routes to Europe and Central America.
In northern Cauca, the control of the Naya and Micay rivers is crucial to transporting drug shipments down to the Pacific Ocean. In this region, the Naya river leads to the port of Buenaventura, the biggest Pacific port and one of Colombia’s busiest gateways for drugs.
According to authorities in the area, these groups “move everything by river, down the Naya river,” security forces in Guapi, Cauca, told InSight Crime. The armed groups have 200 mules moving the drugs in caravans. They move the coca base with these mules until it arrives at the processing laboratories. Then, the crystalized cocaine goes by river, usually to Buenaventura from where they can send go-fast boats to Central America or through containers in the port
Currently, a dissident group allied to the 1st Front, named the Jaime Martínez Column, controls drug trafficking in a region of Naya. Cauca has the third-largest area of coca crops in Colombia and, similar to Nariño, it sees constant departures of drug submarines and go-fast boats from its Pacific coast, principally bound for Central America. A number of these vessels have been seized from ex-FARC mafia groups.
On the other side of the county, in Norte de Santander department, the former FARC 33rd Front also participates in the drug trade alongside other criminal groups. Based in municipalities such as Tibú, El Tarra, Sardinata and Convención, these ex-FARC mafia elements have agreements with the ELN about how to divide up drug routes. They also move cocaine into the Venezuelan states of Táchira and Zulia where they are believed to have relationships with Mexican cartels which buy shipments.
Marijuana, particularly the variety known as “cripy,” has become a significant source of income for Colombian organized crime. It now feeds the internal market and is exported to other countries, including Brazil, Chile, Venezuela and into the Caribbean, with InSight Crime field research finding it in Trinidad and Tobago.
Highly profitable, marijuana now funds several ex-FARC groups. Export prices can be three times higher than in Colombia. In Cauca, for example, one kilogram of cripy marijuana costs around $25, but it can fetch around $75 as soon as it crosses the border into Brazil, the municipal ombudsman of Leticia in the department of Amazonas told InSight Crime.
The largest-scale cultivation of marijuana takes place in the so-called “Golden Triangle” in the department of Cauca, formed by the municipalities of Miranda, Caloto and Corinto. Up to 60 percent of illegal marijuana from Colombia comes out of the Golden Triangle. According to sources within the local government, Corinto alone has an annual crop of 750 tons of cripy marijuana, worth some $50 million abroad.
In these municipalities, the ex-FARC mafia’s 6th Front, also known as the Dagoberto Ramos Column, which fought a battle with dissidents of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) earlier this year for control of the area, keeps marijuana greenhouses under close surveillance to prevent authorities from cutting the power to them.
Much of this marijuana is sent to Brazil in a collaboration with Brazilian gang, Family of the North (Familia do Norte). Security force sources confirmed to InSight Crime that “rivers are highways which they use not only to move cocaine hydrochloride or cocaine paste, but also to bring across caches of marijuana.”
Tons of marijuana are sent from Cauca to the city of Manaus in Brazil along the Caquetá River in northern Amazonas. Another increasingly popular exit route for marijuana goes through the department of Vichada. It is sent to Puerto Gaitán, Meta, before being loaded onto boats and taken down the River Meta to Vichada. Once it reaches Puerto Carreño, the marijuana then goes out along the Orinoco River through Venezuela, where there are fewer controls.
With the global price of gold having risen steadily since 2010, illegal gold mining has grown in tandem. The FARC built up this criminal economy around a system of extortion or “taxes” on extraction. They charged around $7,000 for each dredge or piece of heavy machinery that entered their territory as well as charging the machine owners a tax based on the amount of gold being extracted, usually ranging between $1,000-4,000 a month.
The relative ease with which gold can be legalized makes it a criminal economy of choice for armed groups in Colombia. Illegal mining of this precious metal is present in several areas of the country, especially along rivers in rural areas, where authorities have little presence and even less control. The ex-FARC mafia have continued the tax system began by the rebel army extorting miners and even owning the dredges and mechanical diggers used to extract gold.
An example of this is the dissident 36th Front in Antioquia. Its struggle to control gold mining in Antioquia and the town of Yarumal, through which much of the gold passes, led to the 2018 murder of three geologists from the Canadian multinational, Continental Gold. The crime was reportedly carried out by the 36th Front and allies among the ELN, which also has criminal interests in the area.
In the Colombian Pacific, illegal mining generates major profits in the areas of Timbiquí, Guapi and López de Micay, in the department of Cauca, and Tumaco, in the department of Nariño, albeit at a high environmental cost.
Tumaco, one of Colombia’s most violent municipalities as well as having one of the highest levels of coca crops in the country, also provides illegal mining income. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, around 587 kilograms of gold were extracted in Tumaco in 2017, generating $1.8 million in extortion for illegal groups, including the Oliver Sinisterra Front and the United Guerrillas of the Pacific.
Further north in Cauca, dissident groups also exercise control over illegal mining. Under the command of Leider Johani Moscue, alias “Mayimbú,” the Jaime Martínez Column controls a gold mine in the municipality of López de Micay, from which they receive up to 1.5 billion pesos (around $440,000) per year, according to the authorities.
In Timbiquí, the dissident Estiven González Front regulates the work schedules of illegal miners and gold panners in the area. They extort entire communities, “allowing” them to continue with gold extraction under the excuse of providing protection from other criminal groups and the authorities. This level of extortion has become so severe that “landowners have nothing left because the highest percentage (of income) is going to the guerrillas and the owner of the machinery.”
The ex-FARC mafia are also active in illegal gold mining across the Eastern Plains and the Colombian Amazon. Around the Yaigojé Apaporis National Natural Park, these dissident groups maintain control of the Taraira region, bordering Brazil, where they regulate the exploitation of minerals. This activity also takes place along the Caquetá River, where 1st Front fighters provide protection to miners and machinery operators in exchange for money or part of the haul of minerals, according to interviews carried out with security forces and officials in Leticia, Amazonas.
The department of Guainía has been one of the most affected by illegal mining. According to several reports, members of the 1st Front are directly involved in illegal mining between Colombia and Venezuela. Leaders such as Géner García Molina, alias “Jhon 40,” and alias “Julián Chollo” control mines, dredges and essential supplies used to extract gold rural Guainía, especially around Puerto Inírida on the border with Venezuela.
The Guainía River is also an area of special interest for the Acacio Medina Front, which is estimated to bring in around 180 million pesos (around $53,000) per month in profits from illegal mining. In Meta, this same group controls dredges used in illegal mining in areas such as Mapiripán.
Across the border in Venezuela, 1st Front dissidents, including the Acacio Medina Front, receive much of their income from illegal gold mining. The state of Amazonas is perhaps the most affected by this criminal economy. According to a recent International Crisis Group report, the Acacio Medina Front controls the illegal Yapacana mines in this state. There have also been reports of this group forcing children and young people to work in the mines through intimidation and threats to their families.
Under the leadership of Jhon 40, this section of the ex-FARC mafia controls between 30 and 40 dredges on the Negro River in Guainía, charging a tax of 10 grams of gold per month for every dredge. The gold is then sent to Colombia along the Guaviare, Guainía and Inírida rivers.
Prior to their demobilization, the FARC maintained extensive extortion networks in the territories under their control. Known as “vacunas” (vaccines) or “impuestos de guerra” (war taxes), these payments provided a steady stream of cash for the guerrillas. Many of the ex-FARC mafia groups which have arisen in the last three years have maintained this practice, often charging more than their predecessors. As a public official told InSight Crime in Guaviare, “extortion has worsened. Now the dissidents extort those who were not extorted before, but right now people also report a little more.”
The dissident 10th Front as well as the ELN are known to charge the “war tax” across the border, in the Venezuelan state of Apure. Additionally, they charge a “toll” for goods being transported by river and charge 4 percent of the value of public works contracts to allow them to go ahead in areas they control. This last modality is also repeated in the municipality of Miraflores, in Guaviare, where the dissidents there charge the same percentage for any contract executed.
Farmers in the departments of Arauca, Guaviare and Meta are charged between 10,000-30,000 pesos ($3-9) per head of cattle per year, according to official sources in Guaviare. The transport of goods and passengers along the rivers controlled by the ex-FARC mafia are also subject to extortion. A Miraflores official in Guaviare told InSight Crime that “every vessel passing down the river has to pay.” Another source in Calamar, Guaviare stated that dissidents charge 200,000 pesos ($60) for every ton of merchandise moving down the river.
With around 3,000 tons of merchandise moving down the river every month in 2017, this could mean an estimated annual income of 600 million pesos (around $175,000). Towards the center of the country, in Tolima, the Dagoberto Ramos Column have also demanded payments of 400,000 pesos ($120) from public transport drivers traveling through the area.
Likewise, merchants are also victims of this criminal economy. They are summoned in small groups to rural areas of municipalities to make payments to ex-FARC Mafia groups, who intimidate the population into not reporting this to the authorities.
Another form of extortion, used by the ex-FARC mafia in Cauca, is extortion through kidnapping. The authorities have captured several members of the Dagoberto Ramos Column specialized in this criminal economy, and who were responsible for the gathering of intelligence and kidnapping of victims as well as the extortion of family members across Cauca.
There are several takeaways from all of this. The first is the most ex-FARC mafia units are making significant profits, well beyond what is needed to sustain their current numbers. Second they are not shy in fighting one another for control of criminal economies. Thirdly the evidence suggests that most of them are now just about the money, with little evidence of political work being done in their areas of influence. They may profess an ideology, but they are increasingly acting likely purely criminal syndicates.
Photo Credit: AP
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