A mass displacement in west Colombia, due to clashes between leftist guerrillas and drug trafficking paramilitaries, may be a foreshadowing of one scenario awaiting the country should the insurgents from the FARC agree to a peace deal in coming months.

Around 220 people have been displaced from southwest Colombia as a result of clashes between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and presumed members of criminal group the Urabeños, Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office reported.

On February 13, fighting reportedly broke out between the Daniel Aldana Mobile Column of the FARC and members of an “unidentified illegal armed group associated with drug trafficking” in a rural Afro-Colombian community in the municipality of San Andrés de Tumaco, Nariño department.

Fleeing the violence, a number of families made their way to the municipal capital, finding lodging with other family members and friends.

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As early as November 2015, the Ombudsman’s Office had issued warnings on the dangerous situation faced by the population of San Andrés de Tumaco, due to ongoing FARC presence and the possible incursion of the Urabeños. In late 2015, graffiti started appearing, alluding to armed groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), as well as pamphlets referring to the “Gaitanistas” — another reference to the Urabeños.

Other displacements in western Colombia have also been reported. On February 26, the Ombudsman’s Office confirmed the displacement and “confinement” of over 900 people in the Alto Baudó municipality of the western department of Chocó, for fear of clashes between the ELN and the Urabeños. The paramilitary group allegedly told the local community it intends to expand its presence and social control in the region.


Urabeños territory as of 2014. Source: INDEPAZ

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There are several possible reasons for this recent outbreak of violence in west Colombia.

Firstly, it may be partly due to the government’s crackdown on the Urabeños, a security push known as “Operation Agamemnon.” This was launched in response to demands by the FARC leadership in Cuba that the government take action against the country’s neo-paramilitary organizations. Known as BACRIM (an amalgamation of the Spanish words “Bandas Criminales”), the groups are hybrid political-criminal organizations that littered the country following the demobilization of right-wing paramilitary groups a decade ago.

As a result of Operation Agamemnon, Colombia’s security forces pushed the Urabeños out of their home turf along the Caribbean coast, and into more western departments like Chocó. This may explain the clashes between the Urabeños and the FARC’s 57th Front in this region. It is also possible that the Urabeños were pushed even further south, into Nariño department, and hence resulting in clashes with the FARC in that area. 

The violence in Chocó and Nariño may also be linked to a growing scramble for control of drug routes and crops between criminal groups as the proposed deadline for the peace talks draws near. The deal, originally scheduled to be signed in late March, will likely be delayed for several months at least. 

A peace deal may result in at least a third of FARC troops refusing to demobilize in order to retain their lucrative criminal economies. Meanwhile, the Urabeños — whose main supplier of coca base is the FARC — will also be looking for the best way to continue their drug business under the new conditions.

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Both organizations therefore have interests in securing territorial control of coca cultivations, drug corridors, departure points and safe areas for setting up laboratories — much of which is currently in the hands of the guerrilla group. This situation could lead to a series of different scenarios.

In one possible outcome, the Urabeños could look to take total control of FARC economies in certain areas. This hypothesis supported by the group’s territorial advances in recent years. The Urabeños have nearly doubled their area of influence since the peace talks began in 2012, entering areas that have historically been under FARC control.

As a December 2015 report by the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz – INDEPAZ) explains, these new strategic areas include parts of the Pacific Coast, which is a drug smuggling gateway and has become a key territorial objective for the Urabeños. (See INDEPAZ map above)

Another key area the Urabeños could be looking to take over is Nariño, currently the main coca producing region in Colombia, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

However, it’s also quite possible that other factions of the FARC and the Urabeños will have a less belligerent relationship in other parts of Colombia. In areas like the department of Bolivar, strong commercial ties between the Urabeños and the FARC may see dissident guerrillas continue to collaborate with — or simply join the ranks of — the paramilitary organization.

Such suspicions were made more acute in mid-August 2015, with the discovery of email exchanges between FARC leaders, which suggested that the guerrilla group was selling drugs to the Urabeños and providing security to the group in Urabá.

Nevertheless, there is also the possibility that FARC factions that refuse to demobilize will opt to run their criminal economies independently.

The leader of the FARC unit behind the displacement in Nariño, who is known as “Rambo,” may be among those unwilling to share their stake in the drug trade with the Urabeños. The head of this FARC unit controls drug trafficking in the department, including cultivations, cocaine laboratories and drug routes. Rambo also appears to have cut out the middleman in commercializing illegal goods, and is negotiating directly with the Sinaloa Cartel to export cocaine out of the country.

It should be noted that the peace process has brought about a relative drop in hostilities between the FARC and security forces, with the government diverting more time and resources into fighting other armed actors such as the Urabeños and the ELN. With many FARC elements continuing to advance their criminal economies, this easing off — along with the foreseen reduction in military troops post-peace deal — could paradoxically see dissident guerrilla factions become stronger and richer as a result.