Authorities have captured what they say is the maximum leader of the EPL narco-guerrilla network operating in Colombia's coca heartland of Catatumbo, a move that could cause further upheaval in an already volatile region.
On September 15, Colombian security forces arrested Guillermo León Aguirre, alias "David León" or "Juan Montes," in a raid on his hideout in the city of Medellín, reported El Tiempo.
Authorities have identified Aguirre as the head of the drug trafficking network formerly led by Víctor Ramón Navarro, alias "Megateo," who was killed by security forces in October 2015.
The group is generally considered to be a criminalized faction of the demobilized Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) guerrillas, but also operates under the name Los Pelusos.
Police believe the organization is one of the principal drug trafficking networks in the region of Catatumbo, near the Venezuelan border, and maintains close links to Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel and the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación – ELN), reported La Opinion.
Although Aguirre has been widely touted as the successor to Megateo, prosecutors had previously stated they believed he was already the network's maximum leader, and that Megateo was second-in-command and the public face of the organization.
InSight Crime Analysis
The region of Catatumbo last year emerged as Colombia's primary coca growing hub after an 84 percent increase in coca cultivation, according to US monitoring.
In 2016, Catatumbo has seen a spate of organized crime related murders, and according to reports in local media, much of the killing has been linked to an internal purge of Los Pelusos members who were seeking to capitalize on the death of Megateo to set up their own operations.
The region is now set to face further upheaval with the coming demobilization of the FARC, presuming the peace deal struck between the guerrillas and the government is ratified in an October 2 public vote.
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While it remains to be seen whether all elements of the FARC will lay down their arms or whether some will criminalize and seek to continue in drug trafficking, the official withdrawal of the FARC will likely lead to shifting power dynamics in the region, creating an opportunity for other actors to stake a claim to Catatumbo's criminal economies.
Los Pelusos' close connections to local FARC factions mean they are poised to benefit from this process, as they are in an ideal position to take over FARC interests and receive FARC fighters that do not want to demobilize. However, the loss of their main leader could create a power vacuum or spark a conflict of succession, potentially leading to more chaos and violence for Catatumbo.