A former paramilitary known as "Pijarbey" is rebuilding the drug empire of fragmented trafficking group the ERPAC in Colombia's Eastern Plains, and is now positioning himself to become a major actor in Colombia's underworld -- if he can evade capture.
Martin Farfan Diaz Gonzalez, alias "Pijarbey" is the leader of the Libertadores del Vichada, a splinter group of the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC), which once dominated the key drug trafficking territory of the Eastern Plains.
For the last three years, Pijarbey and his organization have been battling the other narco-paramilitary network to emerge from the dissolution of the ERPAC, known as the Meta Bloc. That battle is now all but won as the Meta Bloc has faded in the wake of the capture of its leader, Rubber Antonio Navarro Caicedo, alias "Flaco Fredy," and main backer, Daniel "El Loco" Barrera.
Pijarbey now oversees a 250-strong organization and a vast drug trafficking empire that includes coca crops, cocaine processing laboratories, and drug trafficking routes to Venezuela in the Eastern Plains provinces of Meta, Vichada, and Guaviare.
However, Pijarbey does not appear to be content with claiming dominion over the Eastern Plains and rebuilding the ERPAC's drug empire, and is now looking to expand his operations into new regions and criminal activities. In March, security forces dismantled a large Libertadores del Vichada cocaine storage center in the province of Casanare, north of Pijarbey's traditional stronghold, and seized large quantities of chemical precursors and other supplies for processing the drug.
Two months later, Colombian police arrested nine men Pijarbey had allegedly sent to the province of Amazonas -- near the country's southern border with Brazil and Peru -- to establish a drug trafficking route, process cocaine and recruit new members. Although the group had been operating in the region for less than a year, it was reportedly able to produce 1.5 tons of cocaine a month. According to police, Pijarbey had also forged ties with Brazilian drug traffickers in the border area, who helped the group transport cocaine from Peru to Amazonas capital Leticia and on to Brazil.
SEE ALSO: Pijarbey Profile
Other recent arrests have indicated that Pijarbey also has ties to a drug trafficking group that operated out of El Dorado airport in capital city Bogota. On July 19, authorities arrested three airline employees and 21 others who allegedly bought cocaine from Pijarbey and transported the drugs to the United States, Mexico, Bolivia, and Spain.
Additionally, Pijarbey has been linked to a fuel theft network in the province of Meta that allegedly stole gasoline for use in his cocaine laboratories. Police investigations revealed that some members of the group infiltrated oil company Pacific Rubiales by posing as truck drivers, obtaining information that allowed the network to pump up to 200 gallons of gasoline a day from storage tanks.
However, while Pijarbey has been expanding his operations, the authorities appear to be closing in on him and his organization. In April 2013, police arrested the second-in-command of the group's urban hitman network, alias "Risas," whose capture was followed by that of Pijarbey's closest advisor, Edison Guillermo Velasquez Alvarez, alias "Farid." In January 2014, the group's financial chief and Pijarbey's right-hand man were both captured in the space of a week. Then -- during a June operation to determine Pijarbey's whereabouts -- police arrested his brother Raul Diaz Gonzalez, alias "Raulito," who one investigator said managed Pijarbey's finances and ran a network of assassins in Villavicencio.
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The Libertadores del Vichada are now poised to fill the vacuum left by the ERPAC, while Pijarvey could soon become a drug trafficker to rival his Eastern Plains predecessors, ERPAC founder Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias "Cuchillo" and his drug trafficking ally, the notorious kingpin Daniel "El Loco" Barrera.
The Eastern Plains region is a strategically important drug trafficking and cultivation area partly because of its proximity to Venezuela, which serves as a transit nation for US- and Europe-bound cocaine. The region is thought to produce some 100 tons of cocaine a year, and generate as much as $300 million in cocaine sales. According to a 2013 Police Community of the Americas (Ameripol) report (pdf), Pijarbey's group alone produces 80 tons of cocaine a year.
One of the reasons for the Libertadores del Vichada's rapid expansion and advantage over their rivals in the Meta Bloc is likely the group's ties to the Urabeños, Colombia's dominant criminal group. Pijarbey forged an alliance with the organization when the Libertadores del Vichada began battling the Meta Bloc shortly after Pijarbey's release from prison in 2012, and the Urabeños likely provided Pijarbey with cash and arms, and possibly troops. According to El Tiempo, investigations by the police and US drug agency DEA confirm that Pijarbey has maintained his ties to the Urabeños, but it remains unclear how much power and independence he has ceded in the process.
The recent captures and police investigations suggest that Pijarbey's ambitions extend beyond his stronghold in the provinces of Vichada and Meta, and that he is looking to expand into some of the few corners of Colombia that the Urabeños have yet to reach, such as the Amazon tri-border region. Although it remains unclear whether or not his incursion into the Amazon region continued after the arrest of his emissaries, the fact the group was able to establish such a large-scale operation in less than a year suggests Pijarbey has the logistical capacity and manpower to reactivate his Amazonas network.
SEE ALSO: Libertadores del Vichada Profile
Pijarbey's rise is also likely attributable to his ability to cultivate ties with officials. As a high-level ERPAC operative, Pijarbey served as the group's main contact with corrupt security officials, who gave him information about upcoming police operations, and several recent incidents suggest he has maintained some of these relationships.
In March 2013, Pijarbey managed to escape minutes before a pre-dawn police raid at a farm where he was hiding out in Vichada, suggesting he had been tipped off. Five months later, police seized government weapons from some of Pijarbey's hit men, which led authorities to believe someone with access to military weapons was supplying the group with arms.
In another suspicious incident, Pijarbey's brother Raul was only sentenced to house arrest following his capture -- despite the fact that police had originally reported that he was involved in drug trafficking, extortion, murders, and forced displacement in Meta. Although the judge who issued the sentence claimed prosecutors had failed to present evidence of Raul's direct involvement in criminal activities, there may well have been other factors influencing the decision.
According to the Colombian authorities, the Libertadores del Vichada are now one of only four remaining paramilitary successor groups, and Pijarbey's talent for corrupting local officials and his demonstrated strategic and logistical abilities look set to make him a major force in Colombia's criminal underworld. However, in order to achieve this he will not only have to avoid capture, but also see off the challenge from the remnants of the Meta Bloc, and ensure he stays on the right side of the most powerful Colombian criminal group today, his current allies, the Urabeños.