The Colombian government has blamed drug trafficking for three massacres in the south of the country, but violence in the region is likely spurred by armed groups, who sow terror among civilians as a means of expanding control.
The latest massacre to send shock waves through Colombia was the August 15 killing of eight youths – seven men and one woman all between the ages of 17 and 28 -- in Nariño, a southwest department bordering Ecuador, El Tiempo reported. Hooded men gunned down the group of friends enjoying a party at a ranch in the mountain municipality of Samaniego, according to the news outlet.
About a week earlier, two teenage high school students were murdered in the Nariño town of Leiva, Blu Radio reported. And on August 18, three members of an indigenous community were killed in the awá de Pialapi Pueblo Viejo reserve, near Nariño’s Ricaurte, according to El Espectador.
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Though there were reports alleging that the Samaniego massacre occurred because one of the friends was a gang leader who operated under the protection of National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN) guerrilla group, family members rejected those claims, saying they have not come up with an explanation for the tragedy.
Colombia’s Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo told Radio Caracol that the recent violence in Nariño, a coca growing hotspot, provides all the more reason to enact aerial fumigation of crops.
“There is no question that drug trafficking has a grand presence in that zone where the killing occurred,” he said, adding that the “illicit cultivations are a threat to the community.”
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While Nariño is an epicenter for coca crops and drug trafficking, the recent massacres there are likely the consequence of a criminal power vacuum in the region.
The ELN currently has three fronts in Nariño: Comuneros del Sur, Camilo Cienfuegos and Compañía Toño Obando. The group has denied that it participated in the killings, blaming paramilitaries, according to a letter alleged to be from the ELN’s representatives in Cuba.
Former members of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) have also come to occupy the region, expanding southwest from Cauca department through its Comando Coordinador de Occidente cell. This group – one of many criminalized FARC groups known collectively as the Ex-FARC Mafia -- are also absorbing former fighters from what remains of the Estiven González front.
Adding to this volatile mix are the Urabeños, the paramilitary and drug trafficking group that calls itself the Gaintanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC) but which the government refers to as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo).
This month, the Urabeños killed two ex-FARC fighters in the Nariño municipality of Magüí Payán. A video of the brutal killings circulated among residents, sending the town into a panic.
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The Urabeños stronghold is in the mountainous region encompassing the municipalities of Leiva and El Rosario in central Nariño. The killings were likely part of group’s efforts to retain power after repeated assaults by the ex-FARC from Cauca, according to an alert by the Ombudsman’s Office published on August 12. The quick expansion of the Ex-FARC Mafia has created a volatile situation for remote communities, which are often caught in the crossfire.
While the irregular armed groups are battling over control of drug trafficking, the extreme violence serves less as criminal message than an attempt to impose control through terror.
Juan Carlos Garzón, director of the conflict dynamics and peace negotiations area at the Bogotá-based Ideas for Peace Foundation (Fundación Ideas para la Paz - FIP), said on Twitter that too often the focus is on drug trafficking, when regions like Nariño require a “legitimate” and “efficient” government presence, not just an ephemeral one.