The Colombian government claims it has forced the country's main criminal organization out of the remote Eastern Plains region, but the area's strategic value as a cocaine production and trafficking hub means other criminal actors are likely to try to fill the vacuum.
Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said in an August 23 radio interview that Colombia's most powerful drug trafficking organization, the Urabeños, has been forced out of the Eastern Plains -- a huge swath of territory with a central role in national and transnational organized crime.
Villegas said that authorities had dismantled "the presence and leadership" of the Urabeños in the Eastern Plains following the capture of several mid-level commanders in the area.
"This is great news for traders, farmers and transporters of this region, because the main objective of this armed group was extortion and, secondly, drug trafficking," Villegas said.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile
Over the past four months, government forces have taken down at least four Urabeños commanders in the Eastern Plains.
In April 2016, authorities captured Edrile Romero Palomeque, alias "Negro Andrés," who had allegedly been sent to the plains only months before by top Urabeños commander Dario Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," to take control of local drug trafficking and extortion activities.
Shortly after Negro Andrés' capture, his successor, Gonzalo Oquendo Urrego, alias "Mona," was reportedly killed by security forces during a June operation. And on August 20, authorities captured Mona's successor, Roberto Carlos Osten Mestra, alias "Navarro." According to police intelligence, the Urabeños leadership had relocated Navarro to the Eastern Plains to arm fighters and establish relations with a criminal organization known as the "Puntilleros," named after the recently arrested crime boss Oscar Mauricio Pachón Rozo, alias "Puntilla." The Puntilleros refers to elements of two groups also known as the Libertadores del Vichada and the Meta Bloc -- fragments of the defunct paramilitary organization Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (Ejercito Revolucionario Popular Antiterrorista Colombiano - ERPAC).
Days after Navarro's arrest, a suspected Urabeños operative identified by the alias "Carrillo" was arrested in the Eastern Plains along with a small contingent of other alleged Urabeños members. Authorities said Carrillo's group had covered buildings in the city of Villavicencio in the eastern department of Meta with graffiti reading, "AGC have come to stay," a reference to the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia - AGC), the name by which the Urabeños refer to their organization.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Colombian government's claim that the Urabeños have been completely forced out of the Eastern Plains is probably overstated. But the recent series of successful operations against the group's leadership in the area raises a number of questions about the future of the regional criminal scene.
Colombia's criminal landscape has historically consisted of three key areas: the Pacific region in the west, the Caribbean region in the north, and the much more isolated Eastern Plains. Numerous criminal groups and guerrilla fronts have settled into the scarcely populated plains, carving out cocaine corridors into neighboring Venezuela and managing the abundant coca crop cultivations and cocaine laboratories. Central to this dynamic has been a succession of powerful middlemen who in their time built extensive drug trafficking networks in the area.
Before his death in 2010, the top criminal boss of the plains was Pedro Oliverio Guerrero, alias "Cuchillo," a paramilitary leader who founded the ERPAC. The group funded itself by trafficking drugs in alliance with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) and Daniel "El Loco" Barrera, a man sometimes described as the Colombia's biggest drug lord since Pablo Escobar.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of ERPAC
Since Cuchillo's death, however, the Eastern Plains have essentially been up for grabs, though a series of "capos" have come and gone over the years.
For a while, "El Loco" Barrera craftily managed a broad network of criminal partners that included guerrillas and former paramilitaries, until he was arrested in 2012 and later extradited to the United States.
Another one of the capos who took power after Cuchillo was Martín Farfán Díaz González, alias "Pijarbey" (or "Pijarvey"), who led the Libertadores del Vichada -- a splinter faction of the ERPAC, which demobilized in 2011. He was killed by police in September 2015.
Pachón had reportedly worked with both the Medellín and Cali cartels before setting up his criminal enterprise in the Eastern Plains, where his associates included Barrera and Pijarbey. As his allies fell, Pachón expanded his control in the east until he too was captured in February 2016.
Now it appears that with the last of the capos gone, the Eastern Plains are once again in disarray. Security forces are bringing down the Libertadores del Vichada commanders in swift succession. And the group that had for decades been the main military power in the plains, the FARC's Eastern Bloc, is preparing to demobilize following a peace deal with the Colombian government.
"There is no criminal boss controlling the area, there is no dominant structure," security consultant John Marulanda told InSight Crime.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of FARC Peace
According to Marulanda, the historical lack of state presence in the Eastern Plains could exacerbate a violent fragmentation of the criminal landscape once the FARC hand over their arms. Numerous guerrillas are expected to refuse to demobilize and remain in the field. In fact, the Eastern Plains are home to the first FARC front to explicitly refuse to abide by the outcome of the peace negotiations. And other groups are sure to try to muscle their way into the area.
Despite the Colombian government's claims that it has dismantled the Urabeños' presence in the Eastern Plains, it is possible that the group could soon assert itself as one of the main regional powers. Although the series of recent arrests may make it seem like the group's incursions into the turbulent east are a novelty, in reality the Urabeños' presence in the plains traces back to its very origins.
In this ongoing state of unrest, the Eastern Plains look poised to become one of the most problematic regions in the much-touted "post-conflict" era. As power dynamics get reshuffled, the Colombia government will have to boost efforts to establish control over lawless territory, or else a new crime boss will.