Ex-FARC commander “Gentil Duarte” has risen to the top of Colombia’s most-wanted list, but the relatively unknown figure turned public enemy number one may be a less significant threat than the hefty price on his head suggests.
The Colombian government has named Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” as its top target and offered a reward of nearly $2 million for information leading to his arrest, El Tiempo reported on February 19.
According to official documents and other sources accessed by El Tiempo, Gentil Duarte has amassed a following of more than 500 armed dissidents after breaking away from the peace process between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) at the end of 2016. He reportedly commands six dissident fronts of the now-demobilized guerrilla group that have traditionally had the deepest involvement in the drug trade.
The former FARC leader is reportedly seeking an alliance with Gustavo Giraldo, alias "Pablito," a top figure in the FARC's guerrilla cousin group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN). Pablito is thought to operate along Colombia's border with Venezuela, a key drug trafficking corridor.
Gentil Duarte has also reportedly established contact with powerful Brazilian crime groups including the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) and the Family of the North (Família do Norte - FDN), allegedly trading Colombian drugs for powerful weapons from Brazil.
However, in contrast to the picture reportedly painted by Colombian authorities, InSight Crime field investigations suggest that Gentil Duarte is not the top leader of all dissident elements of the FARC. Rather, he is part of a “board” of rebel commanders that run the FARC dissidence much like a federation.
The Road to Dissidence
Before joining the FARC dissidence, Gentil Duarte was an important part of the peace process and served as a member of the initial delegation sent to attend negotiations in Havana, Cuba. In June 2016, when the commander of the FARC's 1st Front, Néstor Gregorio Vera Fernández, alias “Iván Mordisco,” became the first guerrilla commander to declare himself dissident, the FARC’s ruling body sent Gentil Duarte to quell the rebellion.
Naming Gentil Duarte, a member of the FARC’s General Staff (Estado Mayor Central) with more than 30 years of experience in the organization, as the envoy to the 1st Front seemed like a logical choice. But shortly after he arrived at the unit's stronghold in the department of Guaviare, Gentil Duarte disappeared.
As months went by, rumors began to circulate that he had been murdered by the rebels under Iván Mordisco’s command. The truth, though, turned out to be quite the opposite. Apparently, Iván Mordisco had made Gentil Duarte an offer he could not refuse: join the dissidence and continue controlling the lucrative drug trade in Colombia’s Eastern Plains.
In December 2016, Gentil Duarte deserted the peace process and escaped with nearly $1.5 million and six of his most trusted men. In response, the FARC expelled Gentil Duarte along with four other dissident commanders operating in the Eastern Plains.
The Ex-FARC Mafia
Although Gentil Duarte is the most senior of the ex-FARC commanders in Colombia’s Eastern Plains, he is not the leader of all dissident elements in the region. While there was a clear hierarchical command structure under the FARC, the dissident factions operate much more like a federation. InSight Crime field investigations suggest that Gentil Duarte is just one of several important commanders who make up the leadership of this federation. In fact, recent reports that Gentil Duarte is expanding his influence into the Amazon region and forging criminal alliances with Brazilian crime groups are likely the product of misconceptions about the structure of the FARC dissidence.
As commander of the 7th Front, Gentil Duarte controls extortion and the drug trade in the central department of Meta. This may have put him in contact with Mexican criminal groups like the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, which has reportedly sent emissaries to the region. It is Iván Mordisco, though, who commands the 1st Front and controls the criminal economies in the coca-rich departments of Guaviare, Vaupés and Guainía, the two strategic trafficking routes into Venezuela and Brazil. If the FARC dissidence is forging alliances with Brazilian cartels, it is likely the doing of Iván Mordisco or one of FARC’s most notorious drug traffickers, Géner García Molina, alias “Jhon 40” or “John 40,” the former head of the 43rd Front who was expelled from the FARC in 2016 alongside Gentil Duarte.
John 40 is likely based in the Venezuela state of Amazonas, on the tri-border area between Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. Reports of ex-FARC elements working with the ELN to traffic cocaine in Venezuela point to John 40’s direct involvement. Two of the other expelled commanders, alias “Giovanny Chuspas” and alias “Julian Chollo,” are likely those spearheading the expansion into the Amazon.
The Face of the Ex-FARC
This is not to say that Gentil Duarte plays an insignificant role within the FARC dissidence. Regardless of the number of fighters he commands or the proportion of illicit revenue he controls, Gentil Duarte has become one of the most prominent faces of the FARC dissidence. A senior member of the organization, Gentil Duarte is well-respected by rebels both inside and outside the peace process. As such, his example could serve as inspiration for guerrilla elements that were never interested in peace or have become disillusioned by the peace process. Just a few months ago, the commander of the 27th Front, Édgar Mesías Salgado Aragón, alias “Rodrigo Cadete,” deserted the peace process to follow in Gentil Duarte’s footsteps.
The Colombian government's struggle to uphold its commitments under the peace process is likely to continue to undermine ex-combatants’ commitment to demobilization. High-level defections like that of Gentil Duarte further threaten the still fragile peace process, and cast doubt on the government’s ability to negotiate peace with Colombia’s largest active armed group, The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).