A power void has emerged in Colombia's Eastern Plains, where guerrillas and paramilitaries have long ruled in lawless tracts of territory, and traffickers fight for control of the primary exit points for drug shipments headed to Venezuela.
Colombia has three primary zones where drugs are produced and sent abroad: the Caribbean coast, currently the base of operations for drug-trafficking gang the Urabeños; the Pacific coast, controlled by the Rastrojos; and the Eastern Plains. This sparsely populated region is a major producer of coca and cocaine, and criminal group the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC) was once the primary mover of the product there.
But after the group's top command surrendered en masse to the government in December, the question now is whether an outsider group like the Rastrojos or Urabeños will try to move into the territory, or whether an offshoot of the ERPAC will step up and reassert themselves. The other scenario is that rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), once the ERPAC's primary supplier of coca base, will use this opportunity to reoccupy their former territory.
The ERPAC followed a predictable trajectory after police killed founding leader Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias "Cuchillo," in December 2010. The group splintered, with one faction reportedly defecting to work as mercenaries for the FARC guerrillas. The largest faction surrended to the government in December, demonstrating the inability of Guerrero's successor to hold the ERPAC together. In December, 269 alleged members of the neo-paramilitary group turned in their weapons to authorities, although only 21 were arrested at the time, including the group's top command.
Now, police say they have identified another ERPAC faction poised to take over where Guerrero left off. According to El Tiempo, this is a group of just 100 fighters based in Vichada, an impoverished province which borders Venezuela and has no paved roads. The region has one of the highest rates of cocaine production in Colombia, according to a 2010 United Nations report. The ERPAC faction still based here is reportedly trying to recruit the gang members who went through the motions of demobilizing in December, but were released by the government.
The ERPAC were once the dominant group in four of the five provinces that make up Colombia's Eastern Plains (see InSight Crime's map of ERPAC's area of influence). The question now is whether there remains a member of the ERPAC with the ambition, business connections, and manpower to take over operations in all four provinces. It is unlikely that the faction in Vichada will be able to do so, without a strong leader who is able to convince many of former members to return rather than attempting to strike out on their own and establish new drug smuggling networks.
One deciding factor will be whether the ERPAC splinter group has the backing of one of Colombia's most wanted drug entrepreneurs, Daniel Barrera, alias "El Loco." Barrera has been trafficking drugs from the Eastern Plains since the 1980s, connecting the suppliers of coca with traffickers who can process and transport cocaine. He brokered the business alliance between the ERPAC and the 16th Front in Vichada, once one of the FARC's richest units, and the 43rd Front, based in Meta. It will be difficult for any remaining offshoot of the ERPAC to step up and control the drug market without Barrera's blessing.
The FARC, meanwhile, have been pushed to the periphery of the Eastern Plains. In Vichada, the group is limited to the southwestern corner of the province and sits at the bottom of the drug supply chain, selling coca base to the ERPAC, who process it into cocaine and send it abroad. Even though the splintering of the ERPAC would appear to give the guerrillas ample opportunity to assume control of the entire supply chain, the reality is that the FARC cannot reoccupy this territory if they do not have the manpower.
Regaining influence over the drug trafficking networks in the Eastern Plains will not be easy as sending another FARC unit into the area. The guerrillas need commanders who have knowledge of the ground: contacts in the security forces and the support of the local population. At the moment, the FARC unit best poised to challenge the ERPAC in Vichada, the 16th Front, has none of these things.
The same challenge faces the other criminal organizations, the Rastrojos and the Urabeños, who could be looking to gain a foothold in the Eastern Plains. But now could be opportune a time as any for an outsider group to make a move.