A wave of violence has struck Colombia's southwestern Cauca department, in the form of targeted killings and armed groups battling for control of coca crops and trafficking routes -- a deadly mix.
Much of the violence has centered around Cauca's southern municipality of Argelia, where dissident members of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) reportedly have gone house-to-house in search of their former fighters, El Tiempo reported.
A controversial peace agreement with the Colombian government in 2016 led to the demobilization of some 13,000 FARC fighters. Since then, groups of dissident fighters have grown into the ex-FARC Mafia.
Argelia's mayor, Jhonnatan Patiño Cerón, said a squad of some 30 men -- who presented themselves as part of the dissident Carlos Patiño Front and wore army uniforms -- entered the town twice, asking where the demobilized fighters lived, according to El Tiempo.
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On April 11, the squad sought to intimidate the former guerrillas and to announce their presence in the region but no violence broke out, he said.
About a month later, the group reportedly stopped former FARC member Maximiliano León as he drove a motorcycle through the village of Puerto Rico and then shot him dead, according to Colombian media reports.
Argelia and the nearby municipality of El Tambo have also seen repeated clashes between the Carlos Patiño Front and the José María Becerra Front of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN). Battles between the two insurgent groups forced hundreds of residents to flee their homes in March and April.
The ex-FARC Mafia appear to have a stronger position in Argelia, while the ELN dominates in El Tambo. Both groups have also clashed with Colombian armed forces in recent months.
Argelia and El Tambo are key locations for the ELN and the ex-FARC Mafia, as they are crucial points along the drug trafficking route to the Pacific, as well as major coca-growing areas, with nearly 10,000 hectares in cultivation between them.
The targeted killings of social leaders and activists have also continued. In 2019, 62 social leaders and human rights activists were murdered in Cauca, the most in any Colombian department. By June 2020, 42 more were killed, according to the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz – Indepaz).
InSight Crime Analysis
The violence in southern Cauca is unlikely to cease in the near future for three reasons.
First, Colombia's two most powerful criminal groups, or at least some of their strongest cells, are battling for control of the key Micay River corridor. The towns of Argelia and El Tambo, which are part of this corridor, provide the ELN and the dissident FARC groups with access to coca crops and to an essential route for the trafficking of drugs, chemical precursors and weapons to the Pacific.
Other armed groups have also possibly entered the fray. In August 2019, reports emerged of another ex-FARC Mafia cell, the Estiven González Front, moving into southern Cauca from their base in northern Nariño.
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While InSight Crime could not confirm that the Estiven González Front was setting up a permanent presence in Cauca, their muscling into the area is likely to lead to more clashes.
Second, the government does not appear to have a security strategy in place, besides repeated, if unfocused, army operations. According to experts from Colombia's Truth Commission (Comisión de la Verdad), army incursions have failed due to counter-insurgency tactics that do not work against groups that are increasingly moving away from their guerrilla roots to become more outwardly criminal.
Third, even when violence dies down in one part of southern Cauca, it tends to resurge elsewhere. While May did not see any major clashes between the ELN and the ex-FARC Mafia in Argelia and El Tambo, new outbreaks of gun battles and displacements were reported in Guapi, on the Pacific coast of southern Cauca.