The recent arrest of an Argentine businessman, accused of financing the ELN in Colombia between 2011 and 2015, has brought the ongoing ties between criminal groups and companies into the spotlight.
Roberto Jorge Rigoni, who had been a fugitive from Colombian justice since 2015, was arrested on May 9 in the Argentine city of Campana, El Tiempo reported. The executive is facing charges in Colombia of conspiracy and financing terrorism.
Rigoni held an important managerial role in the Italian-Argentine company SICIM, which was hired in Colombia by Ecopetrol to build the Bicentenario pipeline in the department of Arauca.
According to Colombian authorities, Rigoni coordinated the sending of funds to the National Liberation Army's (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) Eastern Bloc through a fake services company subcontracted by SICIM.
And Rigoni is accused of helping the ELN extort other SICIM executives and engineers by providing them with lists of personnel and the location of machinery to be burned by the guerrilla group if its demands for payment were not met.
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This is far from the only case where businessmen have collaborated with criminal actors, either for direct profit or to allow their company to keep functioning.
in February, the Colombian army arrested Jhonny Alexánder Bello Ortega, one of the main public works contractors in Arauca, also on charges of financing the ELN's Eastern Bloc.
Bello Ortega's company, Coinsac J&Y Ltda., had obtained 47 public works contracts from the state government and various municipalities, El Espectador reported.
Bello Ortega is reportedly the nephew of Luis Felipe Ortega Berna, alias “Garganta,” one of the leaders of the Eastern Bloc, which led the Attorney General's Office to begin investigating whether public funds had ended up in the hands of the ELN.
Such scandals have not only involved local firms. The US multinational Chiquita Brands, the German conglomerate Mannesmann and the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht have all been investigated for allegedly making payments to criminal groups.
InSight Crime Analysis
While payments to illegal armed groups by Colombian companies had been registered since the 1980s, the cases of Rigoni and Bello Ortega show just how sophisticated these relations have become.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of Colombian and international firms paid off paramilitary groups in exchange for protection. This was the case of banana companies, such as Chiquita Brands, which financed guerrilla groups in Urabá during the 1990s to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, Verdad Abierta reported.
Extortion or "tolls" have also been a regular tactic for the ELN and the now demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia –FARC) for decades, especially targeting oil companies in the Eastern Plains. These often corresponded to 10 percent of the contract being operated.
SEE ALSO: ELN Profile and News
But there have been signs of illicit ties between companies and illegal groups being on the rise once again.
The use of front companies to hide the payments made to armed groups and the use of these groups to intimidate, kidnap and extort employees of one's own company, as in the case of Rigoni, is a new type of dynamic.
The cases of Rigoni and Bello Ortega also show that the ELN is not content with extorting companies or covering "protection" fees. The group has been able to potentially receive public funds by helping its financiers through extorsion of competitors, for example, providing it with a worrying new source of funding.