Surrounded by several of his ministers, Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos announced October 21 that "9,000 police and military" would fight against drug trafficking and crime in Tumaco in what he called Operation Atlas.
The reality is that most of these military and police were already doing operations in the area. The new plan for Tumaco is more a re-launch of old plans that security forces had previously used in the port town without much success.
Homicides in Tumaco have increased more than anywhere else in the country this year, at least until August, and illegal armed groups have also multiplied.
Of the 9,000 police and military personnel, 6,000 come from two task forces that have been in Tumaco for five years: the Army's Pegasus Task Force and the Navy's Poseidon Task Force.
The Pegasus Task Force, headquartered in the village of El Gualtal on the road leading from Pasto to Ipiales, is made up of three mobile brigades that cover almost the entire department of Nariño.
*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length, and published with the permission of La Silla Vacía. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.
Although initially created to combat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), specifically the 29th Front, Ariel Aldana Front and the Mariscal Antonio José de Sucre Mobile Column, its main task these days is to fight against drug trafficking.
Meanwhile, the Poseidon Task Force is in charge of controlling strategic points on the Mira and Mataje rivers, among others, as well as intercepting cocaine at Tumaco's ports. Tumaco is not only the municipality with the most coca crops in the country, but also one of the top exporters of cocaine. This year in Tumaco, the Poseidon Task Force has seized 24 of the 84 tons of cocaine seized throughout the country.
As for the police, which represent the remaining 3,000 men, their task is to dismantle the 15 drug trafficking organizations and dissident groups identified in Tumaco and Policarpa, a municipality on the slope of the mountain range where members of the FARC's 29th Front were concentrating as part of a rebel demobilization, according to La Silla Pacífico.
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The plan against these criminal organizations is not new either. It began earlier this year with an intelligence group made up of members from Colombia's investigative police force, the DIJIN, and the country's police intelligence unit, DIPOL. The group is supported by nine prosecutors who initiated investigations against these groups and identified 65 leaders and mid-level commanders, of which 15 have already been captured.
In June, when Colombia Vice President Óscar Naranjo launched two pilot plans of the Elite Corps against the criminal structures in Tumaco and Buenaventura, he explained to La Silla Vacía that the work of the 30 police officers who were to investigate the dissidents and drug traffickers in Nariño would be carried out with the Poseidon Joint Task Force.
The Tumaco pilot plan was the state's "immediate response" to dismantle the organizations responsible for the killings of social leaders, which are also a threat to the implementation of the Colombian government's historic peace agreement with the FARC.
It's the exact same mission as Operation Atlas that Santos announced October 21.
This elite body in Tumaco was reinforced four months ago with more investigators who belonged to DIPOL, DIJIN, the Colombian military's anti-kidnapping unit GAULA, and the Anti-narcotics Police. And a month ago, seven groups (called bubbles) were formed, each with the mission of hitting various "strategic objectives" of the criminal organizations.
According to one investigator, one of the groups in charge of intelligence and supported by the other investigators, is also in charge of finding dissident FARC commander "Guacho" from the Daniel Aldana Column. Another is in charge of finding dissident FARC commander "David" (the brother of Don Y), who formed the United Guerrillas of the Pacific (Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico).
Reinforce Existing Plans
What Santos' Operation Atlas has done is added a coordination component that can help produce results.
"Security forces are reorganized, units that were dispersed are united and a command has been given to a task force, which a major general is going to be in charge of," Santos said October 21.
However, despite Santos saying that the plan began operating on October 21, the major general who will join them has not been selected yet. The leadership of Colombia's armed forces is gathering in Bogotá to decide how this fusion will happen, sources from the army and navy told La Silla Vacía.
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For the police plan, Major General José Ángel Mendoza was assigned to coordinate these groups, which will receive additional support from investigators and analysts to turn it into a kind of Search Bloc, such as the Operation Agamemnon against the Urabeños in the region of Urabá headed by DIJIN Director Jorge Luis Vargas.
Mendoza told La Silla Vacía that there are 3,000 uniformed soldiers in total, 1,850 of whom were already doing eradication work and will continue to work with them. Police have dubbed the mission Plan Perseo and will have groups made up of between 100 and 130 members.
At the October 21 announcement, Santos said that with this plan, security forces will attack all of the "drug trafficking links" in Tumaco with "total force."
Two drug policy experts told La Silla Vacía that in the short term will most likely produce many captures, more seizures and, perhaps, a drop in homicides, but they are not very optimistic about the plan's success in the medium term.
"What they are announcing is what had to be done, but then they will forget about Tumaco just like the other times," former director of drug policy at the Justice Ministry Julian Wilches told La Silla Vacía.
The lack of optimism is perhaps due to the fact that in 2012, then-Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón, now a presidential candidate, also came to Tumaco and launched "the new Comprehensive Intervention Strategy Against Drug Trafficking."
According to Pinzón, he had "three objectives: to bring drug production to a minimum, strengthen prevention, eradication and interdiction operations, and strengthen the technological and scientific support for the advanced methods in the fight against this scourge."
But with that plan, which included an anti-narcotics police strategy and plans to replace coca crops with African Palm, nobody had it right. Coca crops went from 5,065 hectares that year to 23,000 hectares last year.
The Same Social Plan
Both Wilches and Vice President Naranjo, who spent nine days in Tumaco meeting with social leaders after the death of several small farmers, agreed that Tumaco's problems cannot be solved by security forces alone.
In an interview with Blu Radio October 20, Naranjo announced that Santos would be in Tumaco the next day. "There will be talks about the integrity of this plan because the communities are right to point out that a military police response is not enough, and it's necessary to move on to other things," he told the radio station.
Indeed, at the same press conference, Santos referred to that social program. Paradoxically, this is the same one he had already announced earlier in 2014 for all the Pacific region, as being funded with a $400 million loan that had been agreed upon with the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, but whose funds were only finally disbursed last March.
According to former manager of the Todos Somos Pazcífico Plan Luis Alfonso Escobar, Tumaco has received $87 million for 22 projects.
These include the construction of an aqueduct and sewage system, electricity in the rural area of Alto Mira, tertiary roads and a binational road to Ecuador that is one year behind and only half complete.
In conclusion, Santos' mega plan to control violence in Tumaco is to reinforce what is already in place with increased intelligence and coordination, in addition to finally implementing the social programs that were promised in 2014. However, 145 people have already been killed this year and at least 11 groups are fighting over control of drug trafficking and the power vacuum left behind by the FARC.
*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length and published with the permission of La Silla Vacía. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.