For the Ecuadorean province of Esmeraldas on the Pacific side of the Colombia border, 2019 began with a warning that the horrors of the past year were no aberration.

January started with a series of grisly murders and mutilated corpses: a body with his tongue pulled out of his throat, another with his face split by a machete blow and his severed arms at his side. The images circulated among the residents, passed from phone to phone via social media. The message was clear: despite an unprecedented military deployment, the Esmeraldas border region remains the domain of drug traffickers and armed groups.

On the island of Palma Real, at the western tip of the border, the apparent calm is undershot with fear and paranoia. Residents will not talk freely, despite the permanent presence of a special forces unit. Criminal ears and eyes remain on every corner, they say.

*This article is part of an InSight Crime investigation into how Ecuador became one of the global cocaine trade’s primary dispatch points. Read the first part here

Palma Real’s location at the mouth of the Mataje river makes it a drug trafficking intelligence hub, and the island and its fishermen are used by traffickers to keep watch over movements along one of the region’s most important trafficking arteries. It’s isolation, meanwhile, makes it a favored underworld retreat.

Telltale signs of drug trafficking’s influence crack the idyllic façade of the small village. Shiny new boats bob alongside the worn and battered vessels that make up most of the island’s fleet — boats bought by those that have done drug runs to Central America, according to locals. The small shack bars with booming speakers that line the street leading to the dock are well-stocked with expensive whiskey to meet the demands of the drug traffickers who arrive by boat to party.

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However, the clearest sign that the drug conflict has come to town are the Colombian accents that sporadically sound out. In March, over 150 Colombians from the border municipality of Tumaco suddenly descended on Palma Real. The Colombians, from several hamlets located along a major drug trafficking artery, had been driven out of their homes by combat between rival criminal groups.

The fighting began when the drug traffickers that locals were used to seeing pass through were ambushed by another group, heavily armed and in military uniforms.

“We woke up in peace and by night we were in a war,” one of the displaced, who did not want to be identified, told InSight Crime.

For over two weeks, the conflict rolled from village to village, leaving residents hugging the floor and hiding under mattresses.

The original drug traffickers eventually repelled the attack and the fighting subsided, but most of the displaced had little intention of returning. It is a position one local, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, could understand. “It’s like an earthquake, the first tremor is over but there will always be aftershocks,” he said.

The conflict behind the displacement stands as a postscript to the violence that tore through Esmeraldas in 2018.

It began in the shabby coastal backwater of San Lorenzo. In January 2018, a car bomb exploded outside police headquarters, leaving 28 people wounded, including several police officers. The attack was attributed to the Oliver Sinisterra Front (Frente Oliver Sinisterra – FOS). The FOS are the new incarnation of the drug trafficking wing of the now demobilized Daniel Aldana Mobile Column of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). They were led by an Ecuadorean who would soon become Colombia’s most notorious criminal of the day: Walter Patricio Arizala, alias “Guacho.”

Criminal Ties of the Oliver Sinisterra Front (Ex-FARC Mafia)

“They are dissidents, but they are not like the others — they are drug traffickers,” said the source in Palma Real, who identified the FOS as the drug traffickers the displacement victims described coming under attack in Tumaco.

The bombing was just the beginning. Over the next four months, the FOS ambushed security forces and blew up electricity infrastructure. They staged two kidnappings that ended in murder, infamously seizing then executing two Ecuadorean journalists and their driver, who were covering the security crisis.

The violence marked a sharp departure from what had been a peaceful coexistence between Guacho and the Ecuadorean state.

The FOS takeover of the region had initially been seamless. They co-opted the former FARC support networks, which provided intelligence and routes for moving drugs, precursors and arms. The support networks also provided stash houses, refuge for FOS units and helped them plan and carry out attacks. Investigations revealed a small team of Ecuadorean FOS militia members that coordinated the actions.

While the FOS’s forces were concentrated in Colombia, they would move freely through Ecuadorean communities in Esmeraldas and Carchi, winning over communities by offering gifts and throwing parties, according to sources in the region.

The FOS also inherited the non-aggression pact between the FARC and the Ecuadorean authorities in the border region. Whether this was a paid-for alliance, as multiple sources alleged to InSight Crime, or a tacit agreement is unclear. Whatever deal there was, though, by January 2018 Guacho considered it broken.

SEE ALSO: Ecuador – A Cocaine Superhighway to the US and Europe

Guacho’s campaign, and in particular the kidnapping of the journalists, broke all the rules. The violence was too outrageous to be left unanswered. It provoked a massive military response on both sides of the border, and Ecuador and Colombia began cooperating closely to hunt down Guacho and the FOS.

In Ecuador, investigators began picking apart his network, eventually making 75 arrests of alleged members of the FOS militia and support networks, 62 of them Ecuadoreans. In Colombia, meanwhile, they tracked the main prize: Guacho himself, killing the FOS leader in December 2018.

Leadership of the FOS passed to Carlos Arturo Landázuri, alias “El Gringo,” but cracks in the organization he inherited were already beginning to show. Local sources say members of the FOS broke away to join a group led by Mario Cabezas Muñoz, alias “Mario Lata,” another ex-FARC fighter with a long history in the drug trade. Lata and his reinforced criminal army launched an assault against the FOS, seizing territory in Colombia and advancing towards Ecuador.

The first signs of what the new era might look like were the brutal murders at the turn of the year. In one case, the horribly mutilated body was deliberately dumped in a spot a police patrol had just passed and would soon return to.

Police believe the victims had likely been identified as informants, but while the exact motives for the killings are unclear, investigators have no doubt the brutal violence used was intended as a message.

“These murders were for something heavy,” said a local prosecutor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This creates fear in the population, and now nobody will tell you anything.”

That fear permeates Palma Real. Locals say Mario Lata’s forces have reached the border, and in Palma Real he has flipped FOS collaborators and put them to work trying to secure a foothold on the island. There is little prospect of combat like that seen in Tumaco, or the spectacular attacks launched by Guacho. But community leaders expressed a different fear: that they might end up the next message.

Top Image: Esmeralda’s Palma Real, a drug trafficking hotspot

*Additional reporting was contributed by Mayra Alejandra Bonilla.

*This article is part of an InSight Crime investigation into how Ecuador became one of the global cocaine trade’s primary dispatch points. Read the first part here.