The leader of the sole remaining faction of the demobilized EPL guerrilla army is a top target of Colombian and US authorities and has been portrayed as the main power in the protest-wracked Catatumbo region, raising the question: why is the leader of such a small group such a big deal?
Victor Ramon Navarro Serrano, alias "Megateo," is the leader of the "Libardo Mora Toro" Front of the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a dissident faction of the Maoist guerrilla movement that officially disbanded in 1991. Megateo has a $1 million price on his head from Colombian authorities, who consider him the most important drug trafficker in the department of Norte de Santander, while US authorities have offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture on international drug trafficking and money laundering charges.
Recently, Colombian authorities accused Megateo of inciting the popular protests that have swept through the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander, leading to several deaths and a host of injuries as protesters clashed with police. The protests were sparked by coca eradication efforts in a region that is a major center for illicit coca production and has little state presence.
In a first-time interview with Semana magazine, Megateo denied claims that he was heading or financing the protests:
"We support any type of struggle. We are not leading this [protest] with those peasants. They are there for their own reasons and we do not need to infiltrate them. The state says that I have threatened and forced the peasants to join the marches and that I have financed them. That is a despicable lie."
Megateo also said that "of course" he wanted to begin peace talks with the government, as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are currently doing in Havana, Cuba, despite stating in a communique he released earlier in the month that he "doesn't believe in the peace process." He said his group had sent two petitions to the government to be allowed to join negotiations.
SEE ALSO: FARC, Peace and Possible Criminalization
During the interview, Megateo revealed information about his criminal structure and operations. He refused to comment on the size of his organization, but called himself a "regional leader" and said that the organization "operates in many areas." He also admitted to charging a "war tax" of slightly over $200 for every kilo of cocaine produced in the region and described his role as that of a regional cocaine broker, but denied involvement in processing and trafficking.
Days after the publication of the interview, Colombian forces in conjunction with Interpol reported the arrest of 17 people believed to have connections with Megateo's organization. Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon separately swore that forces would bring down Megateo and the other major criminal players in the region, "sooner or later."
InSight Crime Analysis
The EPL maintains a collaborative relationship with Colombia's main guerrilla insurgencies the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) -- which both have a strong presence in Norte de Santander -- and supplies cocaine to criminal organizations such as the Rastrojos. Although Megateo's army is far smaller than that of either of the other guerrilla groups -- in 2012 it was estimated to consist of about 50 fighters --, officials have called him "the person who leads the parade" in the region.
Megateo is much more than a small time local drug broker. Colombian authorities say he owns large tracts of land in Catatumbo, which are the site of cocaine laboratories that can process up to two tons of cocaine per month. He also is believed to have a support network in border city Cucuta that helps move cocaine from the municipality of Ocaña in Norte de Santander into Venezuela. While a kilo of processed cocaine fetches around $2,000 a month in Colombia, that can rise to $4,000 - $6,000 in Venezuela, meaning his organization could be making up to $8 million a month.
Megateo became a prime target of Colombian authorities in 2006 after his group ambushed and killed 10 officials from the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) and seven soldiers who were hunting the guerrilla leader in Hacari, Norte de Santander.
He has also received blows to his organization, including the arrest in September 2012 of 14 members wanted for extradition to the US on international drug trafficking charges.
The kingpin himself has continued to evade capture, something likely linked to the great support he enjoys from locals. Semana likened him to a drug trafficking "Robin Hood," saying he provides area residents with Christmas presents and interest-free loans. An anonymous antinarcotics official told Semana, "What he has skillfully acquired is great support from the population, going back years."
Official corruption has also worked in Megateo's favor -- according to Semana, he ambushed the 2006 DAS operation thanks to advance warning from corrupt DAS officials, while in 2012 an investigator with the prosecutors office was arrested for ties to the drug lord. When asked, the EPL head said, "corruption sometimes helps." According to El Tiempo, Colombian soldiers caught with 300 kilos of cocaine in Magdalena department in May were carrying cocaine belonging to Megateo's organization, indicating that security forces in the area are not just being paid off, but are actively involved in his trade.
The release of the interview as Megateo is receiving attention over the protests in Catatumbo raises the question of whether his choice of timing could be related to his desire to join peace talks. The content of the interview also suggests that Megateo is looking to polish his image -- he played down both his status as Catatumbo's main criminal player and a major drug trafficker, saying that the authorities liked to blame him for everything that happened in the region.
Participating in peace talks could provide a graceful exit strategy for what remains of the EPL as if the group were to be allowed into talks it would imply recognition of the faction as part of the original rebel force and as a group with political aims, rather than a purely criminal offshoot. This would not be the first time an essentially criminal organization attempted to depict itself as a political actor in Colombia. The original Rastrojos leadership employed a similar strategy, attempting to claim status as a unit of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in order to gain benefits when the paramilitaries demobilized in a process that ended in 2006.
By claiming he is an EPL leader, Megateo maintains at least ostensibly, a "guerrilla" status, in contrast to many of those who demobilized in the original EPL peace process. A number of former EPL fighters helped form the Peasant Self Defense Forces of Cordoba and Uraba (ACCU) in the 1990s, and a number of these fighters later formed the core of the Urabeños, a criminal group without any apparent ideological or political aspect. Other EPL alumni include former Rastrojos head Javier Calle Serna, alias "Comba," and Medellin kinpin Diego Murillo, alias "Don Berna."
The Rastrojo's attempts to claim political status ultimately failed, and Megateo is also unlikely to be allowed a seat at the table in Havana. However his case also serves as a reminder of what may well happen if a deal is struck for the FARC to demobilize.
Certain FARC fronts are heavily involved in drug trafficking, and the fragmentation and criminalization of some factions of the guerrillas' organization -- as happened with Megateo's EPL dissidents -- seems likely. In Norte de Santander these elements may even join forces with Megateo's men. Elsewhere in the country, Colombia runs the risk of creating a whole new generation of Megateo style narco-guerrillas.