A new United Nations report has revealed a scandalous increase in the number of massacres carried out in Colombia, revealing new criminal dynamics in strategic areas of the country.
Massacres in the Andean nation increased 164 percent from just 11 cases in 2017 to 29 cases in 2018, according to an annual report from the United Nations' Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The OHCHR report found that the greatest number of massacres took place in the departments of Antioquia, Cauca, Norte de Santander and Caquetá, areas particularly affected by Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict.
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"In the first three of these departments, the OHCHR has also observed a higher rate of murders of human rights defenders," according to the report.
The authors explain that 66 percent of such cases were related to the work of human rights defenders, including those who support the implementation of the historic 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia -- FARC), specifically regarding the substitution of illicit coca crops.
The annual report also makes a general diagnosis on the human rights situation in Colombia, highlighting the increase in violence, the challenges posed by the fight against impunity and corruption, and the need to accelerate the implementation of the peace accords.
InSight Crime Analysis
The departments highlighted in the OHCHR report are an example of how criminal dynamics have changed in strategic areas throughout Colombia since the demobilization of the FARC guerrillas.
Northwest Antioquia department is at the heart of a conflict between the Urabeños, Caparrapos, ex-FARC mafia groups and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional -- ELN). As a result, massacres and systematic assassinations have become a common reality in the north and northeast of the department.
One such massacre occurred in the municipality of Yarumal at the beginning of 2018. Unsurprisingly, it was members of the Urabeños who reportedly attacked suspected members of the Caparrapos, leaving seven people dead.
In southwest Cauca department, which was also included in the OHCHR’s list, a conflict is brewing between the ELN and former FARC fighters over control of key municipalities for coca and poppy cultivation, as well as illegal mining.
In fact, a June 2018 massacre in the municipality of Algeria, where seven bodies were found dead, occurred as a result of battles over illegal mining in the area.
The OHCHR’s list also includes Colombia’s Catatumbo region, which consists of 11 municipalities in the department of Norte de Santander near the border with Venezuela, where the ELN and Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación -- EPL) are waging war against one another. Several municipalities have become trenches of this war and, in the process, the scene of massacres and displacements.
In 2018, 10 people were massacred in the municipality of El Tarra in Norte de Santander. Among the victims were several former FARC guerrillas. Although the ELN and the EPL denied responsibility for the carnage, the most credible hypothesis is that the massacre was due to the breakdown of a pact between the two groups regarding drug trafficking activities in the area.
However, the last department included in the OHCHR’s list -- Caquetá in the Amazon region -- came as a surprise.
This is due in large part to the strong control that the FARC had over this strategic drug trafficking area. Caquetá has coca cultivation and cocaine-producing zones, as well as strategic drug trafficking routes into Guaviare, Meta, Nariño and Putumayo departments.
This area had been so important for the FARC guerrillas that it was considered the perfect spot for the birth of the ex-FARC mafia -- dissident factions of former FARC combatants that continued controlling criminal economies after the group’s demobilization.
It is in this context in Caquetá that former members of the FARC’s 40th and 62nd fronts -- led by Euclides Mora up until his 2017 death -- and a group commanded by Edgar Mesías Salgado Aragón, alias "Rodrigo Cadete” -- a key ally until his 2019 death for the 1st Front Dissidence led by Miguel Botache Santillana, alias "Gentil Duarte" -- continued fighting.
This relationship was based on the fact that Gentil Duarte and Rodrigo Cadete shared the intention of creating a single unified structure. The 1st Front Dissidence exerted control in Guaviare and the south of Meta, all the way to Caquetá where Cadete was strong. Such an alliance would allow them to grow stronger and control a large part of the criminal economies in the area.
This is why the massacre of five people in the rural town of Montañita came as a surprise. Simply put, such events are not within the normal actions of the groups there. Much less so due to the 2,500 hectares that Montañita’s used for coca cultivation in 2017, in addition to the drug trafficking routes it posses.
What this massacre seems to show is that criminal dynamics in Caquetá may be changing. This could usher in a new wave of violence, either between the groups that were previously allied, or between those groups and another armed actor wishing to take control of this strategic zone.