One of the top commanders of the FARC dissidents, alias "Gentil Duarte," has spent more than a year trying to rebuild the disparate units of the former guerrilla group into a united fighting force. With at least 2,500 former fighters now having left the peace process, will Duarte be able to bring them into the fold?
This unification project began to take shape almost a year after the signing of a historic peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
Duarte's initial plan was to extend the influence of the ex-FARC Eastern Bloc in the south of the country and aimed to gather between 6,000 and 8,000 men in 2019.
SEE ALSO: Profile of Miguel Botache Santillana, alias 'Gentil Duarte'
Taking advantage of his popular support and leadership within the FARC prior to its dissolution, Duarte started calling on dissident commanders in Colombia and Venezuela and sent some his closest allies as emissaries to speak on his behalf.
Before being killed by military forces in February, Édgar Mesías Salgado Aragón, alias “Rodrigo Cadete," was a powerful voice for Duarte in the effort to unite dissidents in the southern of Colombia. Cadete spent 36 years with the guerrilla movement across the 14th, 15th, 16th, 27th and 49th climbing the FARC’s ranks, until becoming commander of the 27th Front Isaías Pardo Leal in the Eastern Bloc, once the guerrilla group’s strongest military branch. One of his first tasks was to negotiate with dissident groups in Nariño in order to secure access to drug trafficking routes along the Patía river.
To consolidate his expansion in this department, Duarte also contracted Walter Patricio Arizala, alias “Guacho,” now dead, according to two letters published by El Comercio in Ecuador.
However, this alliance did not last. After Guacho rose on the authorities' priority list after the murder of 13 indigenous leaders in the municipality of El Charco in September 2018, Duarte preferred to negotiate with other dissident groups in the area such as the Stiven González Front.
According to a report by Colombia's Ombudsman's Office in 2018, dissidents from the 10th Front in the department of Arauca could also be joining Duarte's movement.
It is believed this group's contribution will be to provide logistical support through the delivery of supplies and weapons from Venezuela, helping Duarte to regain control over territory formerly controlled by the FARC.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Ex-FARC Mafia
According to InSight Crime's Colombian Observatory of Organized Crime, about 2,500 FARC dissidents have currently taken up arms. They are distributed in 37 different groups, present in 18 departments and 120 municipalities, especially in historic FARC areas of influence such as Guaviare, Vichada, Cauca, Putumayo y Meta.
However, not all these structures are equal. They vary widely in terms of numbers, armed capacity, leadership, alliances with other groups, rivalries and participation in illegal economies.
For example, the 1st and 7th Fronts, led by Iván Mordisco and Gentil Duarte respectively, are the most important FARC dissident groups.
Beyond broad control of diverse criminal economies, they are present in three departments and have alliances with a range of illegal organizations. Their strength has made them one of the major threats to security in Colombia and the national government ordered a bombing campaign against them in 2017.
Furthermore, as the main partners in this unification plan, Duarte and Mordisco operate within a tight structure where each man maintains control of their front but are allied in controlling territory and drug trafficking routes going to Venezuela and Brazil through the departments of Guaviare, Vaupés and Guainía.
Finally, their relations with their local communities show how these two fronts continue to advocate for the FARC's ideology and cast out as traitors any who signed the peace agreement with the government.
For these reasons, Duarte and Mordisco have sought to re-arm and organize dispersed dissident structure and, while they have run into trouble, they have finalized alliances with the 14th, 16th, 17th, 27th, 40th, 42nd, 43rd and 44th Fronts.
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The rearrangement of different ex-FARC units into a united structure could see the guerrilla group return to combat with a strength level similar to that before its demobilization. The difference is that the group's motivation would seem to be more financial than ideological, and focused more on controlling illegal economies than on seizing power through force.
However, the path to unification is fraught with trouble. While Duarte has sought to give his plan an ideological basis, the truth is that negotiations between dissident groups is mainly based on economic interests. Control of drug trafficking routes and illicit crops are motivating different fronts to unite.
SEE ALSO: Death of 'Rodrigo Cadete' in Colombia Heavy Blow to FARC Dissidents
For this reason, it is unlikely that Duarte will find traction with all dissidents. Several groups may prefer to maintain their small-level, locally based drug trafficking operation rathe rthan join a national or international structure.
This was the case of alias "Sinaloa" of the 48th Front in Putumayo, before his death in March 2019, who rejected Duarte's proposal last year as he preferred to run his own drug trafficking.
Furthermore, dissident FARC groups with specific knowledge bases such as illegal gold mining are likely to be in high demand, not only by Duarte but by other illegal groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Urabeños.
Another major obstacle is posed by the various operations being carried out by the Colombian authorities. While the government is focused strongly on the ELN, the FARC dissidents are far from forgotten. Guacho, Rodrigo Cadete and Sinaloa have all fallen in recent months, and anyone providing information leading to Duarte's capture could net a reward of 2 billion pesos ($637,000).
Should this alliance be formalized, the FARC dissidents would control a network of drug, gold and weapons trafficking stretching to the Pacific and stretching into Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Venezuela. This would also help Duarte to strengthen his connections with Brazilian criminal groups for the marijuana trade and with Mexican cartels to move cocaine.
The future of Duarte's unification plan depends notonly on the speed at which authorities can work to undo him but also on his own capacity to adapt and modify his strategy. He will also depend heavily on the role of other major former FARC leaders such as Luciano Marín Arango, alias “Iván Márquez,” y Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias “El Paisa.”
While both of these are still engaged in the peace process, they have distanced themselves from it in recent months and there are concerns they will abandon it altogether. Given their prominence as part of the FARC, joining Duarte's plan would be a major advantage in his quest to build a new criminal empire.
*This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime's Colombian Organized Crime Observatory.