The hijacking of 11 vehicles loaded with contraband by ex-FARC Mafia along the border with Ecuador has revealed a new form of criminal financing for the former guerrilla fighters and exposed the lack of effective state controls in the area.
On May 8, a group of dissident members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) seized the trucks that were smuggling contraband along the border between Carchi, Ecuador, and Nariño, Colombia.
The group then tried to extort the drivers and the owners of the vehicles, demanding between $3,000 and $5,000 per vehicle to allow them to cross the border, according to Oswaldo Forero, the police commander in charge of the operation which retrieved the trucks.
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The passage between the province of Carchi in Ecuador and the department of Nariño in Colombia is extremely porous. One local police commander said that over 70 illegal border crossings had been found near the Ecuadorian city of Ipiales alone, where cigarettes, cattle, gasoline, drugs and electrical appliances are all smuggled.
Contraband in the area has also grown exponentially in recent years, with seizures between Carchi and Nariño going from $3.9 million in 2016 to $8.8 million in 2017, according to information from Ecuador's customs office.
It is believed that several illegal groups control contraband in this border area. In Nariño and Carchi, dissident offshoots of the FARC have led efforts to extort smugglers.
InSight Crime Analysis
The revelations of ex-FARC criminal groups shaking down smugglers on the Colombia-Ecuador border showcases once again their ability to adapt to new potential sources of financing.
The 11 trucks seized in this instance are likely just a drop in the water, especially since Colombian authorities have largely focused on drug trafficking. In the first four months of 2019, Colombia has seized 192 tons of drugs, 11 percent more than in 2018, Blu Radio reported.
They also enjoy extensive knowledge of the area. Prior to the 2016 peace agreement, the FARC already used this section of the border for smuggling and contraband.
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On the Ecuadorian side, extortion is also carried out by local criminal groups subcontracted by the ex-FARC Mafia.
During recent fieldwork by InSight Crime in Ecuador, the Ombudsman of Manta, a city in the coastal province of Manabí, said that "cases are known of vehicles worth $12,000 but where an extortion rate of $4,000 is being charged."
Authorities in Colombia and Ecuador have committed themselves, on numerous occasions, to take more actions to guarantee security at the border. The murder of three Ecuadorian journalists in 2018 led the two countries to roll out a joint security strategy but this has not been implemented across the entire border.
The sheer size and difficulty of controlling this extensive frontier, combined with the historical strength and reach of the criminal groups operating there, make it unlikely that smuggling and criminal economies tied to it will soon drop.