At least four criminal groups are apparently running the illegal economies in the port of Tumaco on Colombia’s Pacific coast, which is resulting in homicides and mass community displacement.

As the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) rebels gather in pre-concentration and official concentration zones where they will demobilize and prepare for their transition into society, they are relinquishing territorial control within the capital of Nariño department, Tumaco. This has precipitated a bloody battle between various criminal organizations over the guerrillas’ former turf. 

*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length and published with the permission of Verdad Abierta. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here

Illegal armed groups like the so-called Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC, also known as the “Urabeños”) and National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrillas are arriving in areas where rebels from the FARC’s 8th and 29th Fronts, and the Daniel Aldana and Mariscal Antonio José de Sucre Mobile Columns, had previously operated.** Local groups are also appearing, putting the civilian population at risk; this was seen recently in the mass displacement that occurred on January 5 in the Pital de Costa area, in the northern part of Tumaco. 

“Thirty armed men in camouflage arrived at night,” a human rights defender who requested anonymity said. “They held a meeting with the community to say that they were going to control the zone and drug trafficking in the area.” 

The reaction of many local inhabitants was to flee to the urban capital and to the neighboring municipalities of Mosquera and Francisco Pizarro, according to a report from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations (Oficina para la Coordinación de Asuntos Humanitarios de la ONU – OCHA). The Municipal Ombudsman’s Office (Personería) of Tumaco reported 142 families displaced to the municipal capital and another 27 to the municipality of Mosquera. 

The human rights defender interviewed by Verdad Abierta said that although the numbers are unknown, people also sought refuge in the localities of Playa San Juan, Guachal de la Costa (in Tumaco), Cocal Jiménez, Cocal Payán, Tasquita (in Mosquera) and Satinga (in Olaya Herrera). 

Local Ombudsman Amy Castillo confirmed that dozens of people who arrived to the urban center were given food and accommodation assistance by the mayor’s office. However, the official acknowledged that the municipality did not have the resources to tend to all of those displaced for the three months required by law, and while the Victims Unit (Unidad de Víctimas) registers them. Faced with these obstacles, they are requesting help from NGOs and the local and national governments. 

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“We began [last week] with the delivery of humanitarian aid, which consisted of food supplies for 15 days, jointly delivered with institutions who will support us in mitigating the humanitarian situation,” Tumaco Government Secretary Edwin Palma explained to local media regarding how the mayor’s office was addressing the situation. “Another measure we’re taking is defining a lease agreement so these families can stay in more dignified conditions in Tumaco, and here we are.”

“More than 100 people stayed in Pital and today they are left with nothing to eat,” the human rights defender told Verdad Abierta. “The few shopkeepers who were there left, and the people are afraid to go to work in the fields because they might be confronted by armed groups.” 

OCHA also reported this confinement and expressed that the population fears retaliation from the illegal armed groups that now dominate the area. Meanwhile, according to Castillo, officials from state entities are waiting for a National Police dispatch in order to enter the village and tend to the residents. 

Verdad Abierta contacted the chief of police in Tumaco, Col. Carlos Castellanos, to discuss the matter. Initially, he said he was in a security meeting, and at the time of publishing had not responded to requests for comment. 

State Vacuum

Beyond the problem of humanitarian aid lies the question of whether or not the state has the capacity to occupy territories left behind by the FARC in the long term. For many community leaders, as well as for the municipal ombudsman, it’s clear that these violent acts are related to the issue. 

“It’s no secret that, in these remote areas, the power over social guidelines belongs directly to the FARC,” Castillo said. “As they left, this created a void that the state did not have the capacity to fill. So the groups with a criminal past and certain ties to organized armed groups, including the guerrillas, saw an opportunity to strengthen themselves and take over drug trafficking.” 

The conflict over illegal economies in Pital de la Costa is nothing new. The local ombudsman explained that it has been a strategic zone in the armed conflict because it offers sea and river navigation and is close to Ecuador, but is still sufficiently distant from the municipal capital — at least three hours away by boat. 

Sources consulted by Verdad Abierta claimed that paramilitaries from the Libertadores del Sur Bloc came in the year 2000 to take control of the profitable cocaine trafficking business. A couple of years after their demobilization, in 2005, the illegal armed group known as “Los Rastrojos,” lead by Nulver Sarria García, alias “Apache 5,” and Iller Numar Trujillo Díaz, alias “Apache 4,” took over Pital de la Costa. 

This faction of “Los Rastrojos” was expelled in 2011 by the Daniel Aldana Front of the FARC, which have since exercised control over the area, at least until mid-2016. At this point, the insurgent known as “Don Y” rejected the peace process and seized some strategic points in north Tumaco.

However, the dissidence of “Don Y” meant his death. He was assassinated on November 12, 2016, in the rural locality San Pedro del Vino, Francisco Pizarro municipality. One month later, the FARC assumed responsibility for his death, according to a statement by the monitoring team attached to the peace process.

Armed and Unknown 

The threat posed by the presence of new illegal groups and their constant battle to gain control of the port town of Tumaco resulted in three more mass displacements over the last year: two in mid-February 2016 in the localities of Bajo Jagua and Alto Jagua, and another in December in the locality of Teherán. A total of 220 families were displaced, according to data from the Ombudsman’s Office. 

A homicide rate of 70 per 100,000 inhabitants is more evidence of the critical humanitarian situation and public security turmoil in the municipality. This is an alarming figure when considering that the national homicide rate is 25 per 100,000, according to Defense Ministry data. In the first two weeks of this year there were seven homicides, four more than during the same period in 2016. 

The situation has worsened in recent months. In addition to the ELN’s interest in controlling certain zones abandoned by the FARC, the AGC have been intending to consolidate their presence in Tumaco since the year 2015. But they are not the only ones. 

“Some people who allegedly belonged to the demobilized United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) [paramilitary organization], the Rastrojos and/or the Águilas Negras [criminal organizations]” could be forming new groups to take possession of drug trafficking routes and other illegal economies. The Early Warning System (Sistema de Alertas Tempranas – SAT) of the Ombudsman’s Office announced this on November 8, in a document accessed by Verdad Abierta. 

As if all of these groups weren’t sufficient enough to destabilize security in Tumaco, the Public Ministry added that there are also some guerrillas (presumably militiamen and fighters) who do not want to join the peace process. They hope to form new structures to continue running illegal economies and control strategic territories and populations.

For their part, FARC guerrillas gathered at the pre-concentration area in El Playón have issued two announcements recently in which they denounced the presence of alleged paramilitaries in the vicinity of the zone, who are supposedly under the command of three men known by the aliases “Cusumbo,” “Olindillo” and “Titano.”

“Another group of 40 paramilitaries from the ‘Urabeños’ are located in the area of El Seivito, five minutes from the Tumaco-Pasto road and near the military base of Chilví,” the FARC said in their announcement. “Another paramilitary group going by the name of ‘Los Negritos,’ and made up of some 30 men, can be found in the area of El Descolgadero…They dress as civilians and in camouflage, and carry short and long firearms.”

In March 2016, a pamphlet signed by Los Negritos appeared threatening members of the Tumaco Victims Committee (Mesa de Víctimas de Tumaco), the Ombudsman’s Office’s SAT found. Three months later, another anonymous pamphlet circulated in Llorente, but this time it was signed by the so-called “Assassins Organization of the Pacific” (“Organización Sicarial del Pacífico”) warning of a “social cleansing” process. And on August 3, a group going by the name of “The People of Order” (“La Gente del Orden”) threatened anyone collaborating with other illegal armed organizations in the Puente del Pindo area, in the municipal capital. 

All of these criminal groups appeared to fight for control of drug trafficking routes and revenues from illegal gold mining, sexual exploitation and oil theft from the Transandino pipeline, which runs through the municipality. With the FARC now gathered and on the path to legality, “the de facto authority that regulated those types of ‘situations’” has been lost, the Ombudsman’s Office admitted.

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Such is the extent of insecurity in the area, that since January 17 threats against the local police stations have been circulating on WhatsApp. In an internal police memo seen by Verdad Abierta, the security institution even asks the station commanders to provide “safety recommendations to the personnel under their authority” because they fear being “the target of an attack,” such as an explosive device being launched against the officers. Facing the greatest risk is the La Espriella station, located on the Tumaco-Pasto highway, by the areas of Chilví, Llorente and La Guayacana, according to the document.

It is therefore little surprise that the community leaders of Tumaco are crying out for their local, departmental and national governments to establish a presence throughout the port town to counter the criminal groups striving to take over the territory with brute force.

“The issue is that if the government does not make these areas a priority, filling those gaps with the public security forces will be very difficult, and regions such as Tumaco will be worse off after the conflict,” a local leader who requested anonymity said.

Verdad Abierta tried many times to reach Carlos Correa, high councilor to the president for the regions, and Edwin Palma, the government secretary for Tumaco, to know their position on the institutional presence. They did not respond.

*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length and published with the permission of Verdad Abierta. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

** InSight Crime field research conducted after the publication of this article found that the Daniel Aldana Column was the only unit operating in Tumaco prior to demobilizing.

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