Colombian authorities have claimed that Mexican cartels are attempting to establish themselves in the South American country. However, the presence of suspected cartel members in Colombia is more likely an indication that Mexican organized crime groups are seeking new partners to fill the vacuum created by FARC’s demobilization and the Urabeños’ decline, two of their closest allies.
Citing Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office, the counternarcotics police, and the Ombudsman's Office, El Tiempo reported that Mexican organized crime groups have established a presence in the Colombian departments of Antioquia, Cundinamarca, Norte de Santander, Valle del Cauca, Nariño, Meta, Guaviare, Vichada y Córdoba.
According to an intelligence report by Colombia's Anti-narcotics Police, Mexican cartels including the Sinaloa Cartel, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), and the Zetas are attempting to take control of the drug trade after their Colombian partners “failed to meet quotas for Colombian coca,” El Tiempo reported. This failure to meet quotas, the report claims, was the result of FARC’s demobilization and the weakening of the Urabeños.
The report added that Mexican cartels are sending their members to the regions with the highest concentration of coca crops as well as to strategic ports within Colombia. According to El Tiempo, authorities have detected groups of as many as 10 Mexicans coordinating drug shipments from the Gulf of Urabá.
Furthermore, in the beginning of 2017, Colombian authorities investigated 103 Mexicans involved in drug trafficking cases, according to statements made by the Colombian Attorney General, Néster Humberto Martínez, and published by El Tiempo. El Tiempo’s report does not include figures from previous years to allow for comparison.
InSight Crime Analysis
The presence of suspected members of Mexican organized crime groups in Colombia should not be understood as an indication that Mexican cartels are attempting to seize control of the country’s drug trade.
Although it might be in the groups’ best interests to create more vertical distribution chains, entering into a criminal landscape as complex as Colombia’s would present enormous challenges. Since Mexican cartels’ current business model has worked relatively well to date, these challenges would likely outweigh the potential benefits.
Therefore, the growing presence of Mexican organized crime groups in Colombia should be considered within the context of the South American country’s changing criminal landscape. The FARC, once Mexican cartels’ principal partner in the region, have demobilized, and the Urabeños, who succeeded the FARC in that role, have been severely weakened by a sustained government offensive. As a result, Mexican cartels have been forced to seek new allies to ensure that the drug trade continues to flow smoothly.
For years, Mexican organized crime groups have regularly sent emissaries to Colombia to scout new partners, supervise drug production, and ensure quality control. It is not a coincidence that Colombian authorities have recently detected a Mexican presence in regions that were formerly controlled by the FARC and the Urabeños.
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Nariño, for example, a department that produces more coca than Bolivia or Peru, used to be a FARC stronghold. Following FARC’s demobilization, dissident elements of the guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), and hybrid groups called “bandas criminals” (BACRIM), or criminal bands, began to operate in the region. Similarly, the historically FARC controlled departments of Guaviare and Meta now serve as the base for the First Front of the FARC dissidence. It therefore makes sense that Mexican organized crime groups would seek to forge alliances with these actors in order to guarantee the continued flow of narcotics.
Another example is the department of Córdoba which was historically the territory of the paramilitary groups that gave rise to the Urabeños. With the Urabeños facing threats from new criminal groups, it is likely that the Mexicans have begun looking for new alliances in this region as well.
On the other hand, the face of drug trafficking in Colombia is changing. The time when a single cartel controlled the entire supply chain has come to an end, and now smaller groups control each separate link of the production and trafficking chain. Mexican cartels must now subcontract to different organizations in order to move their product from its origin to its destination, and must have an understanding of the dynamics between these organizations.
*With additional reporting by Sergio Saffon.