On November 27, 13 people were killed in the municipality of Magüí Payán, in the southeastern Colombia department of Nariño, after an alleged confrontation between the Comuneros del Sur faction of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and dissidents from the 29th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), according to Semana. The massacre has revealed the ticking time bomb that threatens this part of the country, marked both by the absence of the state and the efforts of illegal armed groups to take control of its key drug trafficking economy.

Magüí Payán, alongside Barbacoas and Roberto Payán, is one of the municipalities that make up the so-called Telembí Triangle, an area home to a river of the same name. The Telembí River flows from the Grand Patía River, a natural corridor which links several of the most prolific areas for coca production in Nariño — Barbacoas, Olaya Herrera and Roberto Payán — with the entry points for international drug trafficking routes headed to Central America through Ecuador.

The massacre took place in the region of Colombia that InSight Crime has dubbed “ground zero” of the cocaine trade. This is the place where all of Colombia’s post-conflict doubts have come together in the new cycles of violence, which first began to intensify at the end of 2016 in municipalities close to Magüí Payán.

During a field trip to the region by InSight Crime in January and February, we observed evidence of struggles for control over illicit economies — mainly cocaine production, but also illegal mining. Since mid-2016, these dynamics have led to a quiet war. As a result, homicide rates have risen in municipalities like Olaya Herrera and El Charco, located further east and linked to the Telembí River by the Patía River.

The southeast, where the Patía joins with other rivers from the area, like the Satinga and Sanquianga, saw skirmishes and tensions throughout the year, due to the incursion of the Comuneros del Sur into territories previously dominated by the FARC during the armed conflict. These tensions normally involved dissidents from the 29th Front.

According to initial reports from Colombian public forces cited by Semana, among the dead following Monday’s massacre were a community leader and legal representative of a local community council. His brother, who was injured, remains in detention, seemingly at the hands of the ELN.

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Since the beginning of the post-conflict era, the people of the region have been immersed in drug trade-related violence. They have staged confrontations with public forces when the state has attempted to eradicate illicit crops, or they have been in the middle of violence generated by armed groups in the area, struggling for control of trafficking routes.

It seems like the latter scenario played out on November 27. According to the Colombian authorities’ official version, Magüí Payán locals were partying when they found themselves caught in the crossfire between two armed groups.

Coincidentally, the massacre occurred at the same time that demobilized FARC members abandoned a special concentration zone in the municipality of Policarpa, to the north. However, both incidents show how acute post-conflict challenges have opened up possibilities for other actors to recycle the region’s illegal economies.

The causes behind the abandonment of the rural area stemmed from failures in the implementation of the FARC peace agreement, especially in terms of the construction of infrastructure that would create productive projects and secure conditions for communities and ex-guerrillas from the 29th and 9th Fronts.

The incident generated increased concern over security in the region. In an interview with InSight Crime, the mayor of Policarpa said: “People are being killed every weekend. The violence rate has increased by 160 percent, compared to 2016.”

InSight Crime Analysis

The massacre seems to be the most recent, and the most brutal episode to hit violent, post-conflict Nariño since the peace agreement.

Another massacre saw six killed in October of this year in Tumaco, the principal urban center in the region. To this day, none of those responsible have been identified.

In addition, between 2016 and 2017, coca growers have closed roads in response to government crop eradication efforts, gangs in Tumaco have sought to settle scores, and homicide rates across the region have increased.

The violence, as InSight Crime confirmed in the field, is closely related to the coca economy. It is worth noting that, according to official statistics, Nariño produces more coca than any other department in Colombia; more than 23,000 hectares were dedicated to the plant’s cultivation in 2016 according to the United Nations. A source from within the military consulted in early 2017 said that 250 metric tons of cocaine left the department in 2016.

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This is not the first time that these rivers have become the site of disputes between armed groups. At the beginning of 2000, paramilitary groups contested the FARC’s 29th Front for control of the Grand Patía River, causing the displacement of thousands. Today, interests in this area persist: controlling the Patía where it enters the Telembí Triangle would mean controlling almost 10,000 hectares of coca from Barbacoas, Roberto Payán and Samaniego.

The river greatly facilitates the movement of criminal groups and is an excellent highway for trafficking at each stage of drug production. Control of the river and its streams also opens up the possibility of criminal groups controlling illegal mining in the Telembí Triangle.

In the Telembí Triangle, where Magüí Payán is located, a significant part of the population makes a living from illicit crops due to a lack of alternative employment opportunities and sustainable legal economies. The largest town in the area is Barbacoas, which is also marked by violence, the presence of armed groups and the state’s shortcomings in tackling systemic poverty as well as the new cycles of violence that have arrived in the wake of the FARC peace deal. This in part is due to geography; reaching Barbacoas from the department’s main urban centers, Tumaco and Pasto, can take up to 10 hours by river or land. Magüí Payán is even more remote.

In these distant regions with little state presence, violence, the omnipresence of drug trafficking and other conditions of the post-conflict scenario have combined to create ticking time bombs. The massacre in Magüí Payán is reminder of what happens when one goes off.

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