As Colombia’s largest guerrilla army grows weaker, its allegiances to other armed groups in the country have fractured. Increasingly based on local dynamics rather than overarching national strategy, these relationships are signs that the conflict in Colombia has taken a different form in recent years.
On April 26, police discovered 1,200 pipes, intended for conversion into handmade landmines, in a remote part of the northern department of Bolivar. They also found 35 kilograms of ammonium nitrate, shrapnel and electric wire. As Colombian newspaper El Tiempo reports, local police claim that the explosive material belonged to the Rastrojos, and would have been used to lay anti-personnel mines near their cocaine-processing factories.
According to a press release from the Colombian National Police, the criminal band developed their use of mines with material support from the 6th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armasa Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), who also instructed the group in their use.
If true, the claim suggests an allegiance between the FARC and Rastrojos in the department, which would be surprising considering the rivalry that exists between the two groups in other areas of the country. As InSight has noted, fighting between the two groups has become especially intense in the Pacific department of Cauca, culminating in a series of clashes in February that left more than 20 dead.
Although the FARC generally refrains from forging alliances with emerging criminal bands (known as BACRIMs), such agreements are not unheard of. For example, an alliance currently exists between the FARC and the Popular Anti-terrorist Army of Colombia (Ejercito Popular Antiterrorista de Colombia - ERPAC) in the country’s Eastern Plains (Llanos Orientales). The two groups have apparently reached a non-aggression pact in the area which appears to be holding despite the death, in December last year, of the ERPAC founder and leader, Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias "Cuchillo."
Still, these relationships are rare, and are usually strictly limited to business. In the northern department of Antioquia for instance, where the FARC control the majority of coca-processing facilities, the rebels have been known to sell their coca base to multiple BACRIM groups in exchange for weapons, ammunition or cash.
If the FARC is training the Rastrojos to manufacture mines in Bolivar, it could be a sign that the guerrillas are experiencing increasing pressure from security forces in that department. For one thing, if the guerrillas are working with paramilitary groups, it shows they lack the strength to hold out against the military by themselves.
Additionally, if the FARC are sharing their expertise in mine-laying, a classic guerrilla tactic, this would in itself be an indicator that their capacity to carry out military offensives has decreased. Landmines are likely to become more frequently used as the military continues to make progress against guerrilla forces, who will choose such ambush tactics rather than engaging in combat.
Colombia is the nation second most affected by landmines, just after Afghanistan. InSight has developed a map to track this phenomenon, showing the top ten departments and municipalities most affected by anti-personnel mines so far this year.