Three of Colombia’s most powerful neo-paramilitary criminal bands have reportedly made a non-aggression pact and defined their respective territories in parts of the country’s troubled north and west, marking a new chapter for drug trafficking.
In early February, leaders of three Colombian criminal gangs (called by the government BACRIMs - "bandas criminales"), the Rastrojos, the Urabeños and the Paisas -- reportedly met in Medellin to clarify the borders between their areas of control in the country. Colombian daily El Pais interviewed two anonymous sources familiar with the meeting, who said that it was attended by Fernando Varon, alias "Martin Bala," a Rastrojos leader, the Urabeños’ "Mi Sangre,” and Julio Cesar Sanchez, alias "El Politico," a leader of the once-powerful Paisas. Sanchez was captured just days after the meeting, in the northern province of Cordoba.
The meeting ended with the three agreeing to clarify their zones of influence in the north and west of Colombia. In exchange for allowing the Urabeños to hold onto the Sucre and Choco departments along the Panamanian border, the Rastrojos were granted undisputed hegemony over the departments of Valle del Cauca, Cauca and Nariño in the southwestern corner the country. One cell of the beleaguered Paisas, who have taken several hits to their command structure in recent years, was allowed to continue operating in the central northwestern department of Antioquia, although the leaders agreed to keep the majority of the province as disputed territory.
Despite the agreement, these groups are still enmeshed in bloody turf wars across the northern region, as InSight Crime’s map below illustrates. The Rastrojos and Urabeños are still competing for control in the northern departments of Magdalena, Santander and Guajira, and the Urabeños are still engaged with what is left of the Paisas in a bloody turf war over Cordoba.
Colombian authorities have claimed not to have any knowledge of the supposed pact, and would neither confirm nor deny its existence to local media. According to Antioquia police chief Col. Jose Gerardo Acevedo Ossa, the reports of the meeting are being treated as “rumors” until officials see or hear evidence to the contrary. Acevedo also told reporters that any pact between authorities is likely to be temporary, and cautioned local media not to put too much stock into the reports.
His caution is well-founded. InSight Crime believes that although the three organizations have a clear motive to form a non-aggression pact, there are bound to be points of tension in any agreement. For one thing, it is far from clear that Varon is truly allied with the Rastrojos. In 2005 the Rastrojos’ leaders allegedly ordered a hit on Varon, and, although it failed, it is unlikely that the drug boss has forgotten the incident. There have been reports that Varon is currently fighting the Rastrojos.
Additionally, last June police investigators reported that Victor Patiño Fomeque, alias "El Quimico," a former member of the Cali Cartel, had entered into an alliance with the Urabeños in the Valle del Cauca department. Patiño was arrested in 1995 and extradited him to the US, but was returned to Colombia in 2010. It is believed that Patiño worked under Varon in his days with the Cali Cartel, and still maintain links to his former boss. If this is true, it would indicate that Varon could be playing a double game, and has less loyalty to the Rastrojos as is currently believed.
Another factor that poses a danger to any agreement is the issue of third parties. After the ERPAC agreed to demobilize in late December, their area of control in the eastern plains region represents an attractive source of potential funding for both the Rastrojos and Urabeños. It is currently unclear what is to become of the ERPAC’s drug trafficking networks in the east, but if either group takes them over it could give them a financial edge over the other, making them less likely to honor any kind of agreements in other parts of the country.
Colombia’s rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) should not be left out of the equation either. Both the Rastrojos and Urabeños are known to have local connections with rebel groups, largely based on the supply of unprocessed coca base. If security forces succeed in taking down either rebel group this year, it could create a significant power vacuum that would put a spoke in the wheel of any kind of inter-BACRIM agreement.
A third variable which would affect the prospects of an agreement is the fact that a handful of major players in Colombia’s criminal underworld are reportedly negotiating to surrender with US law enforcement. The Colombian government has acknowledged that Luis Enrique and Javier Antonio Calle Serna, the leaders of the Rastrojos, are in the middle of clandestine talks with US officials as a response to increasing pressure from security forces. Intelligence sources have informed InSight Crime that Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias “El Loco Barrera,” is also considering turning himself in, and is similarly negotiating with US officials. If any of the above turn themselves in, it is likely that they will provide a wealth of intelligence to counternarcotics officials about other top drug trafficking figures, friend and foe alike. If this happens, it is unlikely that the Urabeños and Rastrojos will still be motivated to maintain a cease-fire.
Ultimately, while the reports over the agreement may be true, it is unlikely to bring any kind of lasting peace to Colombia’s embattled north and west departments. Even if none of the problematic factors above cause the agreement to fall apart, the structure of BACRIM groups surely will. Unlike their predecessors in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the second generation of paramilitaries in Colombia lacks a centralized command structure. Talk of large-scale agreements between them is misleading, as the relationships between them generally have more to do with the regional dynamic of the cocaine trade than anything else.