Colombia's FARC guerrillas are just weeks away from completing their demobilization, but reports of arms thefts, drug trafficking, forced recruitment and murders linked to FARC dissidents show how a new underworld is already taking shape in their wake.
Within the last two weeks, reports of dissident activity involving members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) have emerged from the north, south, center and east of Colombia, suggesting that breakaway guerrillas are beginning to assert control over key drug trafficking territories.
The central and eastern departments of Meta, Caquetá and Guaviare have become hubs of dissident activity, with reports indicating that ex-FARC networks now control key drug trafficking corridors, are involved in trafficking cocaine and the marijuana trade, and run extortion networks.
On July 29, the Colombian navy reported it had seized a one metric ton shipment of high-potency marijuana belonging to dissidents of the FARC's 47th Front being transported down the river in the municipality of Solita in Caquetá, reported El Tiempo. The seizure is the second such recent haul in Caquetá following the discovery of another ton in May, which authorities linked to 14th Front dissidents.
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The week before, on July 21, the capture of Eduardo Moreno Montaña, alias "Jairo Pineda" or "Pando," exposed the operations of a dissident cell operating in the central eastern department of Meta, reported Semana. Moreno, who deserted from a Meta demobilization camp in April, allegedly led a cell of 30 people specializing in extortion that was responsible for several recent attacks with explosives.
The security forces believe Moreno's cell was part of a larger network primarily comprised of 7th Front dissidents, which itself is one of three powerful criminal networks in the region, with the others headed by ex-FARC from the 1st and Acacías Fronts. These three organizations control territory that together constitute key drug trafficking corridors leading to Venezuela and Brazil, according to Semana.
These dissident networks have continued the practice of forced recruitment of minors, according to comments made by Colombia's Government Ombudsman Fernando Carrillo. His claim was reinforced by reports from the municipality of Solano in Caquetá that the army had taken various youths into their protection as they were being targeted for forced recruitment by remnants of the breakaway 1st Front.
Additionally, on July 25 in the southwestern department of Nariño, the army reported the capture of five FARC dissidents allegedly running a drug trafficking network in the municipality of Policarpa, reported El Tiempo.
The region -- which is one of the country's principal coca cultivation and processing areas, and sits on trafficking routes to the Pacific coast -- has been a hotbed of dissident activity. The army estimate there are at least 100 dissidents operating in three networks, according to El Tiempo, while the FARC themselves accused a gang formed by dissidents of murdering a demobilizing FARC militiaman on July 15.
On the same day, in the northwestern department of Antioquia, it emerged that Gov. Luis Pérez had made allegations about FARC dissidents forming criminal gangs in a letter to the Defense Ministry.
According to Pérez, in the municipality of Dabeiba, the FARC expelled three members who stole weapons from caches turned over to the United Nations as part of the demobilization agreement, and recruited around a dozen local criminals to form their own network. Pérez also alleged in the municipality of Ituango, 14 FARC deserters had stolen weapons and formed a criminal gang. Both Dabeiba and Ituango are coca production and processing sites.
InSight Crime Analysis
In many respects, the FARC peace process is progressing as planned; the FARC have turned over their arms and a list of their assets, are forming their new political party, and are just weeks away from the end of the transitional demobilization period. But the final days of the FARC as a guerrilla organization have left the Colombian underworld on the cusp of a new era. And while exactly what shape it will take remains to be seen, the consistent stream of reports on the activities of FARC dissidents offer some clues.
The criminal interests of these networks are clear. Each of the recent reports are from territories that lie on important trafficking arteries and are hubs of drug cultivation and processing; coopting this lucrative trade is almost certainly these groups' primary objective. However, as seen in Meta, drug trafficking may not be the only criminal activity in their criminal portfolio, and if these cells can exert territorial control in their zones of operation they are likely to also establish extortion networks.
The weapons seized in raids against the dissident networks -- which included AK-47s in Caquetá, grenades in Meta, and rifles and a machine gun in Nariño -- suggest these networks have managed to abscond with a powerful arsenal of weaponry.
The recent reports also offer significant clues as to how these networks will be structured. So far, the ex-FARC cells identified remain relatively small. The largest of the organizations likely has just over a hundred members, and the reports from the east suggest groups there are not as hierarchically and militarily organized as the FARC guerrilla army.
Small, agile and more decentralized networks with diversified criminal interests that control links in the drug trafficking chain rather than the entire process are typical of today's Colombian underworld. But the possibility remains that Colombia could repeat the pattern witnessed after the demobilization of its paramilitary counter-insurgency, when over 30 initial groups consolidated into less than half a dozen powerful criminal armies, to the point today where there is only one organization with a genuine national reach -- the Urabeños.
Another major question hanging over the evolution of these cells is how they will interact with other elements of the Colombian underworld, in particular the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (who are expanding into former FARC territories even as they talk peace with the government) as well as the Urabeños and other ex-FARC networks. The ex-FARC cells have three options with regards to their relations to other actors: either they cooperate, confront or be absorbed.
It is highly likely the spread of FARC dissident cells will continue, and may even accelerate as the guerrillas leave the demobilization camps, which will weaken the hold of the command over the rank-and-file while leaving many ex-guerrillas faced with the daunting prospect of reintegrating into civilian life or the tempting prospect of criminalizing.
The networks illustrated by these reports likely represent the first wave of criminalized FARC units -- their interests, structure and their modus operandi. As the peace process continues to develop, it remains to be seen how they will evolve and how the rest of the Colombian underworld will evolve with them.