Armed confrontations between two of Colombia's most prominent criminal groups have broken a three-year period of relative calm in the northern department of Bolívar, despite both groups expressing an openness to possible peace talks with the national government.
More than 600 families have been forced to flee their homes in Bolívar since the beginning of August, following the outbreak of clashes between the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) and the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), El Tiempo reported.
The two groups are heavily involved in drug trafficking in Colombia and have long vied for control of territory and criminal economy.
Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) called on Bolívar’s government to tackle the growing humanitarian situation and warned of the impact on local populations. “The actions of the AGC in the territory have led to confrontations with…the ELN, a situation that has generated panic and anxiety among the civilian population,” it stated in an August 12 announcement.
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The ELN and the AGC previously disputed territory in Bolívar at the end of 2016, following the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) as part of a nationwide peace process with the government.
In 2019, the ELN and the AGC agreed on a non-aggression pact that allowed them both to continue their illicit activities in the south of Bolívar uninterrupted.
Bolívar’s immense mineral wealth, its role as a drug trafficking corridor, and the 2016 FARC demobilization have made it a highly coveted region for criminal groups.
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The resurgence of fighting between the ELN and the AGC suggests the agreement governing the south of Bolívar has broken down.
Though then ELN has historically dominated this area, in 2016 the AGC moved into the void left by the FARC following its demobilization, Luis Fernando Trejos, a political analyst from Colombia’s Universidad del Norte, told InSight Crime in March this year.
After three years, the groups ended their fighting with a pax mafiosa. They became allies in the Bolívar department, jointly keeping actors – both illegal and legal – out of the zone.
"The Urabeños and the ELN made a joint effort to drive the army out of southern Bolívar," Trejos said.
The groups are already engaged in hostilities in the departments of Chocó, Norte de Santander, and Antioquia.
Both groups have also signalled a willingness to enter into peace talks with Colombia's new government, led by President Gustavo Petro. But the flare-ups may threaten the viability of such talks.