A powerful FARC dissident front is fortifying its presence in the southwestern department of Putumayo: a former guerrilla stronghold, a region dense with coca crops, and a lynchpin in the ex-FARC mafia's efforts to control Colombia's southern border.
The 1st Front -- the largest and most established force of former fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) -- has made incursions into Putumayo, where impregnable jungles contain nearly 30,000 hectares of coca and harbor zones for cocaine production. The department, which borders Ecuador, also provides ample routes to move drugs into that country and Peru.
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The move into Putumayo is part of a larger effort by dissident FARC leaders to regain control of and expand into important military and economic zones that were FARC strongholds prior to the guerrilla force’s demobilization. Dissident leaders Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” Géner García Molina, alias “Jhon 40,” and Nestor Gregorio Vera Fernandez, alias “Iván Mordisco,” have pushed to reunite various exFARC mafia groups throughout Colombia.
The 1st Front’s network of fighters have been building capacity in large, central departments like Guaviare, Meta and Caquetá. The fortification of of the 1st Front has been crucial to the taking control of drug trafficking routes between Guainía and Venezuela and Vaupés and Brasil.
The 1st Front’s network of fighters began to expand from Caquetá to Putumayo in 2018. The push was led by Edgar Mesías Salgado, alias “Rodrigo Cadete”, who was an ally of Gentil Duarte. Cadete, however, was killed in February 2019.
InSight Crime Analysis
The reason the FARC dissidents have focused on Putumayo is the department is a jewel for drug trafficking.
As a result, multiple criminal groups have battled to control the thousands of hectares of coca that covers Putumayo. Violence is particularly intense along the San Miguel and Putumayo rivers, which are major drug trafficking routes, connecting the south of Putumayo with Ecuador, Perú and the Amazon.
It was with this in mind that the 1st Front began its expansion at the beginning of 2018. Rodrigo Cadete and his men ventured down the Caquetá River, a natural border between the department of the same name and Putumayo. They eventually arrived at Puerto Guzmán.
On-the-ground sources told InSight Crime that the dissidents have taken over control of every aspect of daily life in the rural area, while simultaneously continuing to infiltrate the department.
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Meanwhile, the group has recruited former members of other ex-FARC fronts, such as the 32nd Front, in order to quickly build capacity, sources told InSight Crime.
This is the case in Puerto Limón, a zone in southern Mocoa that serves as the border between the towns of Puerto Guzmán and Villagarzón, where the 1st Front has expanded with the help of former members of the 32nd Front.
The 1st Front also edged into Puerto Asís municipality, which borders Ecuador and is a strategic zone for drug trafficking.
The 1st Front’s incursion into Putumayo has led to conflict, even with another ex-FARC mafia group. In 2018, fighters ran into cell from the 48th Front, led by Pedro Oberman Goyes Cortés, alias Sinaloa. He refused to join Cadete's and Duarte’s criminal umbrella.
This resulted in a war between the 1st Front and the 48th Front that killed many in the rural zone of Puerto Asís.
Sinaloa, however, was recently killed.
Since his death, it is not clear if the conflicts have continued. Some analysts say the successors of Sinaloa are continuing to fight the 1st Front in Puerto Asís, while others say the groups have begun to negotiate.
What is clear is that the 1st Front is determined to control sections of Putumayo, given its lucrative drug routes.
If the 1st Front manages to control the department, whether through alliances or through force, the group would be able to consolidate its presence from Vaupés to Putumayo, thereby giving them control of most of Colombia’s southern border.
This would allow it to control a number of key international drug trafficking routes, converting the 1st Front into arguably the most powerful criminal group in Colombia’s south.