Warnings of new criminal groups emerging in one of Colombia’s most important drug trafficking hubs suggests further violence is in store for the Pacific region as the country’s underworld adjusts to the FARC guerrillas’ expected demobilization.
The mayor of Tumaco, capital of the southwestern department of Nariño, has asked for the Colombian president’s support in tackling the critical security situation and growing presence of new groups in her municipality, El Tiempo reported.
In a message to President Juan Manuel Santos accessed by El Tiempo, Mayor María Emilsen Angulo says “residents of different areas of the municipality have manifested their worries about the presence of terrorism support networks and the possible presence of a new illegal armed group, which aspires to continue charging extortion and running drug trafficking activities.”
Tumaco residents fear that this new group intends to take control of territory that will soon be abandoned by the Daniel Aldana Mobile Column of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) guerrilla group, according to El Tiempo.
The mayor’s message also affirms that the Pacific port city of Tumaco saw 77 homicides between January and August 4 this year. Of these, 37 occurred in the downtown area of the municipality and 40 in rural areas. The homicide count in Nariño’s capital during the first seven months of 2016 is similar to that recorded over the same period in 2015, according to figures from Tumaco Crime Observatory (Observatorio del Delito de Tumaco) accessed by InSight Crime.
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Angulo also said the area has seen a rise in extortion, drug trafficking and confinement, the latter attributed to the formation of “invisible borders” between certain neighborhoods. The mayor said illegal groups were “moving freely” in Tumaco’s waterways and at sea.
On August 10, Pastoral Social published a press release similarly drawing attention to the violent situation in Tumaco.
“Many people are claiming that a new armed group has arrived in Tumaco, provoking clashes with groups that were already present in the neighborhoods,” the ecclesiastic organization noted.
Pastoral Social reported that between July and August of this year three pamphlets were circulated by separate groups, all condemning criminals and FARC members. One pamphlet was signed by the “Assassins of the Pacific Organization”(“Organización Sicarial del Pacífico”), another by a group calling itself the United Self-Defense Force of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) — the name a defunct paramilitary organization. The third flyer was signed by “The People of Order” (“La Gente de Orden”).
Pamphlets found in Tumaco, c/o Pastoral Social
Pastoral Social also said that in certain coastal zones, flags alluding to the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – ELN) guerrilla group have been discovered in areas where only the FARC were thought to be present. In some places, flags belonging to both guerrilla organizations were found.
Following an August 18 security council in Nariño, President Santos said that the homicide situation in Tumaco was very worrying, and that it was the result of the “use of Tumaco as an export point for drug trafficking.” The head of state also pointed out that the security force pressure on the Urabeños — the biggest drug trafficking group in the country — on their home turf on the Caribbean coast was having repercussions in Nariño’s port city. There are signs that the Urabeños have been pushed south, into the Pacific region, as a result of heightened law enforcement operations in Antioquia department.
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The presence of new criminal groups in Tumaco could heighten the volatile security situation in this strategic corner of southwest Colombia at a time when peace negotiations that began in 2012 between the FARC and the national government are entering their final leg.
Nariño has long been one of Colombia’s main coca-growing hubs, and cultivations in the department shot up 72 percent in 2015 compared to the previous year, according to the United Nations. Its border with Ecuador and the Pacific Ocean also make it a key exit point for cocaine heading to the United States, and one of the main points of departure for Colombia’s notorious “narco-submarines.”
The local FARC faction — notably the Daniel Aldana Mobile Column (or Front) in conjunction with the 29th Front — is thought to control the lion’s share of the drug trade in Nariño. Nevertheless, there are indications that its fighters are willing to abandon the area if and when the guerrilla leadership signs a peace deal with the Colombian government. The Pastoral Social coordinator in Tumaco, Dora Vargas, told InSight Crime that FARC units in the municipality have met twice to discuss the peace process and agreed to respect calls to demobilize. Vargas said it is unclear whether this decision applies to the FARC in the entire department.
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Still, there is significant confusion surrounding the groups that may fill the power vacuum the FARC would leave behind. According to a government security analyst in Nariño, the local FARC’s diminishing authority in preparation for a peace deal has made way for the incursion of Colombia’s most powerful BACRIM — the Urabeños. Their presence in Nariño was reported late last year, and the group has established a violent presence in both urban and rural Tumaco, the analyst told InSight Crime. He believes that Mayor Angulo was referring to the Urabeños in her message to President Santos.
The government analyst added that some of the emerging groups consist of youths that used to be contracted by the FARC to support their drug trafficking activities and turf wars. However, as the guerrillas’ power weakens, these groups are now working independently, the state official explained.
But the relationship between violent crime and the presence of such gangs is less clear. News of unknown groups appearing in Tumaco began surfacing towards the end of last year, at the same time that homicides spiked, according to Vargas, and the security analyst said that some of these youth gangs have begun fighting among themselves.
A correlation also exists between these emerging groups and a reported rise in extortion and theft, Vargas added, which suggests they may be primarily involved in petty crime. Nonetheless, the Pastoral Social coordinator told InSight Crime that there is still no concrete evidence on the new groups’ impact on Tumaco’s murder rate, their activities, or their affiliation to other organizations.
Nariño is set to be one of the most problematic regions in Colombia’s imminent “post-conflict” era, in which rival criminal groups are expected to fight for control of the FARC’s criminal empire throughout the country. How these new criminal dynamics play out in and around Tumaco will determine who will benefit the most from peace with the guerrillas.
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