The demobilization of Colombia's main guerrilla group, the FARC, has left a criminal power vacuum along the country's eastern border with Venezuela, where a war for control is now playing out between two remaining rebel groups -- with severe consequences for local citizens caught in the crossfire.
In Filo de Gringo, a town in the eastern Colombian region of Catatumbo, a group of masked men patrol the streets. They wear black sweatpants, rubber boots, and red or sometimes white t-shirts. They carry pistols, which locals say they “wave around like toys.”
They are the new urban militia of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Popular – EPL).
The urban militia serves as a link between the community and the insurgency. They ensure the rules and laws imposed by the guerrilla group are obeyed. Well-known and identifiable to the locals, but hidden from the view of security forces and most outsiders, they act as a substitute police force, providing the insurgents with intelligence and instilling a regime of fear and control.
Andrés,* a social worker in Filo de Gringo, says the militia is trying to rid the village of anyone who works for the Colombian state so the guerrilla group can impose its own authority.
“They told me to leave or they’d kill me. They don’t care I’m here to work with children. They see me as the enemy,” Andrés told InSight Crime.
The militia emerged in Filo de Gringo in 2016 as the EPL began to summon local communities in Catatumbo to compulsory meetings. The resurgent guerrilla faction had new rules to convey.
Curfews would be imposed. Social gatherings would be restricted. Thieves and drug users would be killed.
“We’d heard most of this before,” Andrés said. “But somehow it was different. The tone was more aggressive.”
Retaliation for crossing the EPL can be harsh. In the town of San Calixto, to the southwest of Filo de Gringo, cafe owner Nelly Amaya defied the guerrillas' orders not to serve food to the security forces. As a result, she was shot dead.
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Amaya, who belonged to the Catatumbo Small Farmers’ Association (Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo – ASCAMCAT), was the first of several social leaders to be killed in the region since the demobilization of the FARC.
“It was a change of tactic," Andrés said. “There were new guys in town and they meant business. They were sending a message.”
It was a message that the communities of Catatumbo received loud and clear.
In the nearby town of El Tarra, it was an EPL militiaman known as “Zanahoria,” or “Carrot,” whose reign terrorized locals until his arrest in April.
“He’d break into our houses in the middle of the night,” one resident told InSight Crime. “They would give us paint and tell us to write EPL on our outside walls. They said they’d kill us if we refused.”
The EPL used to be confined largely to Hacarí, La Playa and Ábrego -- a cluster of towns roughly 100 kilometers west of the border with Venezuela. However, as the FARC retreated in 2016, the EPL began to expand beyond its traditional stronghold, and also became more active along the frontier.
This expansion has not been a peaceful one, and has at times turned even Catatumbo’s playgrounds into battlegrounds.
“The schools are caught in the crossfire. Teachers are powerless to protect their students," said a local official from El Tarra. "In Filo de Gringo, the EPL has sometimes entered the classroom and taken over the teaching,”
Charities working against forced recruitment estimate that last year in Catatumbo more than 150 young people were drafted by both the EPL and the much larger National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).
“They’re seduced with guns, money and motorbikes,” the local official said.
Gabriel Quintero Prado, a former EPL commander, says the guerrillas have been forced to recruit more members to keep up the manpower necessary for their expansion. But Prado told InSight Crime the new recruits may be contributing to the high rates of violence.
“The problem is they’re inexperienced. They’re trigger-happy and they’re out of control,” he said.
While the EPL itself is raising the fears of local communities and contributing to bloodshed, so is the war between the guerrilla group and its larger cousin, the ELN. The ELN says clashes with the EPL have killed more than 100 fighters on both sides since March.
Security forces believe the guerrilla factions are fighting for control of Catatumbo’s lucrative drug trade. According to the latest monitoring report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), there has been an explosion in the amount of coca crops being grown in the region. And with the FARC out of the picture, the rules of the game are rapidly changing.
According to a senior ELN source, the EPL are working with the beleagured but still-powerful Urabeños crime network and Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel to establish a new drug trafficking corridor. The source told InSight Crime that the Sinaloa Cartel has had a presence in the region since 2016.
But according to Quintero Prado, the recent fighting is also about mining.
“Catatumbo is sitting on Colombia’s richest source of coal. The EPL want to exploit that. They always have. But the ELN will want to stop them at all costs,” he said.
Quintero Prado does not deny the EPL’s involvement in the illicit drug trade, but he insists the guerrilla group maintains its revolutionary origins.
“The insurgency is grounded in the social problems of this region. They embody the struggle of the small farmers,” he says. “They have land, they have men and they have laws. They are a substitute for the state.”
Catatumbo has traditionally tacitly supported the guerrillas. But according to Quintero Prado, leaders of the EPL's political wing are finding their relationship with the armed revolutionaries increasingly difficult to manage.
“There is a concern over the increasing number of alliances with the Urabeños. They worry that increasingly criminalized elements are eroding the political history and social base of the party and the guerrilla,” he said.
The EPL has suffered a crisis of leadership since October 2015, when security forces fatally shot Victor Ramon Navarro Cervano, alias “Megateo.” His successor, Guillermo León Aguirre, alias "David Léon," was arrested in Medellín just two months later.
The current commander goes by the aliases “Mauricio” and “Pacora.” His real name remains unknown, but he is apparently a disciple of Megateo and brings with him more than 30 years of guerrilla experience.
His rival is Reinaldo Peñaranda Franco, alias “Pepe,” who was a close ally of Léon. He is said to have better organizational and political skills than Pacora, who has been credited for establishing a successful military strategy.
More recently, however, a guerrilla using the alias “Manuel” is reported to be vying for influence. He is considered to be the most ruthless of the three, and according to the local police, has taken charge of recruitment.
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The recent end of the EPL’s armed strike, which for two weeks brought Catatumbo to a standstill and trapped thousands of residents in their homes, is a victory by the political and social base of the insurgency, which managed to persuade the guerrilla’s hardliners to back down. But while the group’s criminal elements continue to assert their control of Catatumbo’s marginalized communities, they will undoubtedly further damage their core base of support.
What began as a struggle for the plight of the small farmer, has now become the chase for territorial gain. New recruits are no longer schooled in leftist ideology, but instead hired to ensure the EPL’s dominance of the post-FARC underworld. While the EPL’s political wing tries to assert and defend its ideological roots, it may continue to lose influence over these new radical elements, as the EPL’s campaign for social change morphs into a criminal and violent pursuit of profit.
* Name changed for security reasons.
Top photo credit: Mathew Charles