A targeted campaign by Colombian armed forces has left the 18th and 36th Fronts of the ex-FARC Mafia struggling to regroup in the northern department of Antioquia, a strategic drug trafficking corridor contested by a number of criminal groups.
The army has made regular reports about its progress in the region, especially in the municipalities of Ituango, Valdivia and Tarazá. The latest, posted by a division commander on Twitter, said four suspected guerrilla fighters from the 18th Front were killed in Ituango on April 17. The ex-FARC Mafia are groups of dissident guerrillas from the now demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), not to be confused with the now legal political party formed following the 2016 peace agreement, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común – FARC).
In late March, the alleged second-in-command of the 18th Front, Francisco Antonio Holguín Builes, alias “Piscino,” was killed in the village of El Castillo in the municipality of Ituango, El Colombiano reported.
Piscino was not in this role for long as he had only taken over responsibility for the 18th Front’s recruitment and finances in February after the death of Elías Monsalve Palacio, alias “Patoso.”
The 36th Front has also suffered from the Colombian Army’s recent offensive. In mid-April, two men were arrested who were reportedly part of the security team of 36th Front leader, Ricardo Abel Ayala, alias “Cabuyo.”
Sources within the Colombian Army’s Seventh Division told El Colombiano that recent military operations had reduced the 36th Front’s manpower by more than 50 percent since 2019.
And in August 2019, the Colombian government increased rewards for information leading to the capture of Cabuyo and 18th Front commander, Erlison Chavarria Escobar, alias “Ramiro.”
Prior to the army’s intervention, this part of Antioquia had been hotly contested among a number of criminal groups, particularly Los Urabeños and a criminal alliance of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), Los Caparrapos and the ex-FARC Mafia’s 18th and 36th Fronts.
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The Colombian Army regularly reports the capture or killing of “commanders” within armed groups, making it sometimes tricky to ascertain the importance of these figures. But the repeated blows suffered by the ex-FARC Mafia’s 18th and 36th fronts suggest a decline in their military and organizational capacity.
This is a significant development in this part of Antioquia, given the complex network of criminal actors fighting for control of the Bajo Cauca region and the Nudo de Paramillo mountain range, strategic points along drug trafficking routes to the Pacific Ocean.
The alliance established between the ex-FARC Mafia, the ELN and the Caparrapos to hold off Los Urabeños relied on each group providing a credible armed threat. The weakening of the 18th and 36th Fronts puts this alliance in jeopardy.
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A number of variables will determine these fronts’ survival. The most pressing concern is whether they can resist the army’s continuing push. The capture or killing of their top leaders, such as Cabuyo or Ramiro, could threaten the very existence of these structures as independent armed groups.
The second issue is whether they can somehow maintain their alliance with the ELN and the Caparrapos to keep enemies at bay. The 18th Front may be helped in this since they pledged loyalty in October 2019 to former FARC commander, Luciano Marín Arango, alias “Iván Márquez,” giving them at least the appearance of belonging to a larger dissident force.