The government of Colombia has deployed thousands of troops to one of the country’s most hotly contested cities to combat organized crime just as a three-month ceasefire with the ELN guerrilla group ends, raising questions about the timing of the deployment.
On January 8, the Colombian Air Force deployed 2,000 armed troops to the city of Tumaco, an important port city on the Pacific coast in the southwestern department of Nariño, as part of an operation dubbed "Exodus 2018" aimed at combating drug trafficking and organized crime groups operating there, according to a military press release.
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The military deployment comes just as a temporary three-month ceasefire with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) comes to a close. The ceasefire halted confrontations between the ELN and government security forces, but InSight Crime field research found that the ELN has continued fighting criminal groups for control over drug trafficking routes in Nariño during the break in hostilities.
As InSight Crime noted last year, Nariño is ground zero of Colombia’s cocaine trade. Many criminal groups, including the ELN, dissidents from the demobilized Revolutionary Army Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and “bandas criminales” (BACRIM) or criminal bands, among others, operate there. The department also suffers from extreme poverty and a severe lack of state presence.
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Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos appears to have deployed the troops in an effort to curtail high levels of violence in Tumaco related to conflicts over the drug trade. It is possible that security forces were deployed as a preventative measure against a possible surge in violence following the end of the ceasefire.
However, judging by the past failures of similar operations, it is unlikely that the deployment will help achieve lasting security gains in the key trafficking hub. Indeed, thousands of military personnel have been deployed in Tumaco for years, yet homicide rates have increased as criminal groups battle for control of drug trafficking routes following the FARC's departure amid surging coca production.
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President Santos deployed 9,000 police and military to Tumaco in October 2017, but this decision has yet to produce any significant security gains. Indeed, sending in even more troops may further fan the flames by introducing another armed actor into an already volatile environment.
As InSight Crime has previously reported, the Colombian government may benefit more from investing resources in less heavy-handed measures, including reintegrating demobilized FARC fighters back into society and improving a crop substitution program that continues to face substantial obstacles.
*This article was written with assistance from Javier Villalba