The governor of Colombia's central department of Meta has survived back-to-back assassination attempts, a rare case of a continued targeted assault against a senior public official by Colombian guerrillas.
On October 10, a sniper fired at the car that Governor Juan Guillermo Zuluaga was driving as he toured various towns in the south of Meta, an area that has seen repeated violence between government forces and the ex-FARC Mafia, dissidents from the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). The car was struck by one bullet but nobody was hurt.
The next day, an explosive device was detonated as the governor's convoy drove past in the municipality of La Macarena. Two people were injured, including a six-year-old child. One of the police vehicles accompanying Zuluaga was damaged.
Zuluaga was touring the municipalities of La Macarena, Mesetas and Uribe, where dissident guerrilla forces under the command of Miguel Botache Santillana, alias "Gentil Duarte," have long had a strong presence.
"FARC dissidents, clearly, are those operating in this area. There is a confluence of several issues, drug trafficking, deforestation, common criminality but the FARC dissidents want to have territorial control," Zuluaga said in an interview with Colombian news outlet, Caracol, after the attacks.
In late September, one Colombian soldier was killed and another injured after walking in a minefield reportedly planted by Duarte's forces in La Macarena, according to army sources. A week earlier, three gunmen loyal to Gentil Duarte were arrested in La Macarena after allegedly killing farmers and merchants who refused to make extortion payments, army officers told the Colombian media.
And in November 2020, armed men threw a fragmentation grenade at the police station in La Macarena, injuring two police officers.
InSight Crime Analysis
The department of Meta is vital to the criminal economies controlled by Duarte and his dissident guerrillas. La Macarena and surrounding municipalities are home to coca plantations, cocaine production facilities and deforestation, showing why Duarte is willing to attack a senior official to maintain control of the area.
While Meta did show a 16 percent decline in coca crops between 2019 and 2020, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Sierra de la Macarena National Park has one of the highest concentrations of coca crops in the country, with 1,008 hectares.
Duarte is reportedly trying to stimulate further cocaine production in the area. In September, InSight Crime reported that Duarte's guerrillas were offering up to 5 million Colombian pesos ($1,400) to farmers for every hectare cleared for coca cultivation in the Tinigua National Park, which sits next to La Macarena.
This, in part, led to the department of Meta being the worst place in Colombia for deforestation in 2020, losing 35,556 hectares of forest cover.
Illegal logging is essential to clear lands to plant coca, while criminal groups also profit from illicitly selling off the timber. Duarte and his allies have been accused of orchestrating large-scale deforestation since the FARC demobilized, with arrest warrants issued against them for illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest between La Macarena and San José del Guaviare
The Meta department was historically controlled by the FARC, prior to rebel group's 2016 peace agreement with the government, but much of the area is firmly in Gentil Duarte's hands and is critical to funding his attempts to reunite disparate ex-FARC units into a cohesive group.
While attacks on soldiers by Colombian guerrillas remain commonplace, targeting a governor represents an escalation rarely seen since the FARC demobilized. It remains to be seen if this will lead to a more focused attempt to go after Duarte, who has so far resisted all attempts to capture him.