Continued threats by criminal groups have led park rangers in Colombia's protected areas of the Amazon rainforest to abandon their posts, leaving these territories to fall under the control of gangs.
In February 2020, at least 20 rangers left their posts in the national parks of Chiribiquete (Caquetá and Guaviare), Cahuinarí (Amazonas), Yaigojé Apaporis (Amazonas), La Paya (Putumayo) and Puré (Amazonas) after reportedly receiving threats by dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), also known as the ex-FARC Mafia, Colombian media reported. The groups warned the rangers to leave these territories or be killed.
"Your presence is not needed because we will take care of the environmental controls. We already have the respective manuals on resource management, fishing, hunting and felling of timber. We do not want national parks here," was the message that members of the ex-FARC Mafia's Carolina Ramírez Front delivered to park rangers in Chiribiquete national park, Semana reported.
And these are not hollow threats. Yamid Silva, a ranger in the El Cocuy Park in the department of Boyacá, was murdered in early February.
According to a November 2019 report by Mongabay, armed groups pursue a range of criminal economies in these protected areas, especially illegal logging. Since 2017, legal and illegal groups have led deforestation campaigns in the departments of Meta, Magdalena, La Guajira, Cesar, Norte de Santander, Antioquia, Córdoba, Valle del Cauca and Nariño.
But criminal groups are not the only ones carrying out this activity. According to Colombia's Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, "the protected areas and their respective buffer zones are subject to illegal burning and logging by rural farmers who are no longer stopped by an armed actor in the zone, nor by regulation."
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The rangers are left all the more vulnerable by the lack of a state presence in many of these remote parks. As InSight Crime has reported, other criminal activities in these parks include growing crops such as coca and marijuana, illegal mining and deforestation in order to build roads to facilitate the movement of illicit goods.
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With the rangers gone and other authorities unlikely to act in the parks, criminal groups can operate in these protected areas with increasing impunity, putting Colombia's under-pressure natural wealth at risk.
Park officials in Amazonas — who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons — told InSight Crime that since the peace agreement with the FARC was signed in 2016 and the group demobilized, drug trafficking has spiked.
The Cotué, Amacayacu and Putumayo rivers, all of which traverse the parks, are mainstays for moving drugs and smuggled gasoline, used in drug processing and illegal mining.
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In response, President Iván Duque's government has launched a series of special operations, such as Operation Artemisa that deployed troops to take on these criminal networks and halt deforestation.
But while Artemisa, according to a government review in September 2019 cited by Caracol, has destroyed over 400 coca processing labs and arrested a number of gang members, it has not landed a real blow to the presence of criminal groups in national parks.