Members of the ex-FARC mafia along the Colombia-Ecuador border are under heightened pressure from security forces in the wake of the killing of three Ecuadorean press workers, illustrating evolving criminal dynamics in one of the South America's most criminally strategic regions.
Authorities in Ecuador on April 13 arrested 43 alleged members of the Oliver Sinisterra front, led by Ecuadorean national Walter Arizala Vernaza, alias "Guacho," reported El Telégrafo.
The arrests were part of security operations carried out by Ecuadorean police and military forces after three employees of the Ecuadorean newspaper El Comercio were kidnapped on March 26 along the Colombia-Ecuador border and later killed.
In an April 15 interview with CNN en Español, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said that the press workers were killed in Colombia. In a separate statement that day, Santos offered support to Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno and said Colombian forces were also stepping up operations along the border.
President Moreno demanded in an April 16 press release that Guacho turn himself in within 10 days.
Ecuadorean authorities are offering a reward of $230,000 for information leading to Guacho’s capture, while the Colombian government is offering a reward of 400 million pesos (around $146,000).
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In years past, Guacho was a close associate of Gustavo González Sánchez, alias “Rambo,” a former commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). Rambo reportedly ran drug trafficking operations for the rebel group's Daniel Aldana Mobile Column in the southwestern department of Nariño, a major cocaine production center bordering on Ecuador, which has become an increasingly prolific drug transshipment point.
There are many doubts surrounding Rambo’s involvement in the peace process and it is unclear whether he has demobilized under the terms of a November 2016 peace deal between the FARC and the government, or whether he is still involved in criminal operations in the region. Some reports claim Rambo fled to Ecuador with money and weapons to see how the demobilization process would play out; others claim he demobilized in the western department of Cauca.
Given this uncertainty, there is a possibility that Rambo has deserted the demobilization process and is now working with Guacho. The Daniel Aldana Mobile Column dominated criminal operations along the Colombia-Ecuador border in the past, and Rambo may now be pulling the strings while the Oliver Sinisterra front operates under the command of Guacho.
According to data from Colombia's Ideas for Peace Foundation (Fundación Ideas para la Paz – FIP), the Oliver Sinisterra front could have as many as 500 members in Nariño.
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The murder of the press workers and the resulting security operations highlight how the wave of ex-FARC mafia groups gaining strength in Colombia is having grave effects on other countries in the region, a dynamic that will likely be challenging to rein in.
Repeated security operations in the border region in recent years have made Colombian territory too hot for higher-level criminal actors, opening space for mid-level players like Guacho. These lower-level actors may be less concerned about drawing attention to themselves, making them willing to engage in high-profile violence like the killing of the press workers and the car bombing of an Ecuadorean police station earlier this year that was also linked to Guacho.
However, this wanton use of violence may backfire, as Colombia and Ecuador have stepped up joint border security efforts that could disrupt the activities of criminal groups like Guacho's in both countries.
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At the same time, recent developments have further jeopardized the country's peace process, which could further increase the scale of the ex-FARC mafia and the threat it poses.
For example, authorities in Colombia recently arrested top former FARC member Seuxis Paucis Hernández Solarte, alias “Jesús Santrich,” who was set to assume one of the 10 congressional seats guaranteed to the FARC political party as part of the peace agreement. The arrest was based on US drug trafficking charges against Santrich, and the possibility that he may be extradited -- something the peace deal was supposed to prevent -- will likely raise concerns among other former fighters about the government's commitment to the agreement.
Corruption allegations against the agency in charge of managing the majority of funding for the successful implementation of the peace process with the FARC guerrilla group have also surfaced recently, likely causing former guerrillas to question whether the full amount of funding promised for peace deal initiatives will actually materialize -- or whether a large chunk will be siphoned off by graft.
These concerns about the future of the peace deal are likely to spur greater numbers of former FARC fighters to abandon the peace process. Like many before them, these dissidents are likely to join the growing ranks of ex-FARC mafia groups led by the likes of Guacho.
The expansion of the ex-FARC mafia could produce even greater levels of violence, not only in Colombia but also, as the recent events suggest, in neighboring Ecuador. Indeed, just days after the journalists' death, Guacho reportedly kidnapped two more Ecuadorean civilians.
*This article was written with assistance from Mimi Yagoub and Javier Villalba.