For the last five years, Gentil Duarte has done his best to reunite dissident groups who refused to join the FARC’s demobilization into a united fighting force. Those attempts appear to have ended in early May in Venezuela.
After widespread reports in the Colombian press, the country’s Defense Minister Diego Molano stated on May 25 that Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” appears to have been killed on May 4 in Venezuela.
The exact circumstances of his death remain murky. But according to Molano, Gentil Duarte was killed “in a clash…between drug trafficking groups and terrorists.” He added that Duarte had sought refuge in Venezuela after a manhunt by authorities in Colombia and this proved that the regime of President Nicolás Maduro “protects” drug traffickers.
According to El Tiempo, he had set up camp six months ago in Casigua-El Cubo, a town a few miles across from the Colombian border. The newspaper further claims that Duarte was killed by explosive devices set up by the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) on May 4.
InSight Crime has not been able so far to confirm whether the ELN killed Gentil Duarte. Howerver, the guerrilla group has been embroiled in a war with one of Duarte's allies, the 10th Front, since early 2022. With much of the fighting taking place along the Colombia-Venezuela border in Arauca and Apure, Duarte may have been a very tempting target.
Here, InSight Crime considers the profound impact Duarte’s death will have on criminal dynamics in both Colombia and Venezuela. He was arguably the best-known drug trafficker still at large in either country, million-dollar bounties were placed on his head and he helped to operate a transnational drug trafficking empire.
SEE ALSO: Profile of Gentil Duarte
How Will This Affect the FARC Dissidents?
Gentil Duarte was chosen by the FARC to be part of the peace talks with the Colombian government in Cuba. A trusted player, Duarte was sent back to Colombia in 2016 to convince another FARC commander, Néstor Gregorio Vera Fernández, alias "Iván Mordisco," not to abandon the peace process. The opposite happened. In December 2016, Duarte took $1.5 million from guerrilla fighters closest to him and fled to Guaviare to join up with Mordisco’s 1st Front, thus deserting the peace process.
From that moment, Gentil Duarte and Iván Mordisco’s futures were intertwined.
Mordisco was the first major FARC dissident. In June 2016, he sent a letter to guerrilla leaders in Cuba, stating that neither he nor his 1st Front would be handing over their weapons, disobeying instructions to do so.
This decision only marginalized him from the FARC’s 10th Conference, where the vast majority of combatants met in September 2016 to accept demobilization. It also cost him his position as official 1st Front commander, a position which was given to Duarte.
For a while, then, the 1st Front appeared to have two leaders: Duarte, appointed by the FARC Secretariat, and Mordisco, based in Guaviare alongside troops he had commanded for years.
Therefore, after Duarte fled, government statements and media coverage named him as the commander of the first dissident FARC front. However, it was far from clear if this was the reality on the ground.
Either way, Gentil Duarte’s popularity grew, eventually becoming one of Colombia’s most-wanted criminals, with a reward of up to $1 million for information leading to his capture.
Authorities feared that Duarte and Mordisco had the momentum to try and bring other ex-FARC Mafia under the same banner, especially those in southern Colombia. Both men sent envoys across the country to rally support for this plan.
However, as the years went by, the expected unification never took place. Gentil Duarte maintained an important role, however, commanding the 7th Front in Meta and overseeing the actions of other ex-FARC fronts in Arauca, Cauca, Norte de Santander, Nariño and Putumayo.
Where Does This Leave Iván Mordisco?
One mysterious figure remains in Iván Mordisco, a fairly middle-rank player within the FARC prior to demobilization who rose to control drug trafficking in Guaviare and has contacts as far as Brazil and Venezuela, as well as commanding a group of around 100 fighters.
In 2017, shortly after being the first major commander to refuse to join the FARC demobilization, Mordisco continued at the head of the dissident 1st Front. “This is someone who spent many years as a commander, he has military, political and financial strength," one public official in Guaviare told InSight Crime at the time.
One year later, InSight Crime learned that Gentil Duarte had joined the dissidents of the 1st Front on the invitation of Mordisco, and was given the task of controlling drug trafficking in Meta with his 7th Front. This would heavily imply that Mordisco was at least Duarte’s equal, if not his superior, in the Joint Eastern Command.
And in 2021, there appears to have been a meeting between different ex-FARC factions, according to a report by El Colombiano. There, the assembled guerrillas allegedly recognized Mordisco as the commander of the 1st Front and Duarte as a business partner, outside the group’s main structure.
At that time, Mordisco came onto the authorities’ radar again, becoming regularly mentioned as the commander of the powerful 1st Front and their allies in southern Colombia.
With Duarte’s death, Mordisco appears to have firmly established as sole leader of their dissident faction, having allegedly already sent a message to loyal fronts in Guaviare, Caquetá, Meta and Putumayo to announce his leadership.
SEE ALSO: Gentil Duarte’s Master Plan to Reunite Colombia's FARC Dissidents
Why Was Gentil Duarte in Zulia?
Questions surround why Gentil Duarte, one of the most powerful and well-connected drug traffickers in Colombia, was forced to take shelter in Zulia. As aforementioned, his dissident allies had drug trafficking operations across large parts of Colombia, seemingly giving him plenty of bolt-holes to choose from.
However, according to El Tiempo, security forces were continually able to track him down.
A report by El Tiempo followed Duarte’s final months. In March 2021, he allegedly escaped from a bombing run by security forces in Colombia’s southern department of Guaviare. In July 2021, Duarte was reportedly forced to flee after security forces found his camp in San Vicente del Caguán, also in southern Colombia. El Tiempo stated that this attack left him severely injured in one arm.
From there, he seems to have found his way to Zulia. According to InSight Crime fieldwork in Zulia, the dissident 33rd Front had drug trafficking operations in the state, specifically in the municipalities of Jesús María Semprún, Machiques and Colón. One of Gentil Duarte’s closest lieutenants, Javier Alonso Veloza, alias “John Mechas,” leader of the 33rd Front, may have been harboring him.
But Zulia was never going to be the safest of places to hide. The most northwestern state in Venezuela, it is at the center of drug trafficking routes running from Colombia’s coca-producing area of Catatumbo to the Caribbean coast. Virtually every major criminal actor in both countries has had a foothold in or around Zulia, including the ELN, the Second Marquetalia, the Rastrojos and Venezuelan groups such as Tren de Aragua and Los Meleán.
It seems the ELN may have found it too tempting to resist eliminating a major rival. The presence of the dissident 33rd Front in Casigua-El Cubo had led to major tensions between the two groups, local residents confirmed to InSight Crime. And the fighting between the ELN and the 10th Front in Apure and Arauca may have only made Duarte an even bigger target.
Impact on Drug Trafficking in Colombia and Venezuela
Since deserting the FARC’s peace process in 2016, Gentil Duarte used his already significant connections to steadily grow his drug trafficking influence. He personally commanded the 7th Front of the ex-FARC Mafia, and had strong direct influence over the powerful 1st Front. His base long remained in the central Colombian department of Meta, where he controlled illicit coca production, cocaine processing and extortion. He then extended his base of operations to the neighboring states of Caquetá and Guaviare, this area providing a steady stream of cocaine and criminal revenue to Duarte and his 7th Front.
A major coup for Gentil Duarte was his alliance with Géner García Molina, alias “John 40.” John 40 and his Acacio Medina Front had long controlled the flow of cocaine and other criminal economies through the Venezuelan state of Amazonas. This gave Gentil Duarte a direct foothold into Venezuela and then onto Brazil.
After announcing his plan to unite the ex-FARC Mafia into a single unit, plenty of dissident groups rallied to his banner. Duarte and Mordisco offered a simple incentive: leaders could maintain control of their own fronts but would ally together in trafficking cocaine across Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. Alliances were finalized with the 14th, 16th, 17th, 27th, 33rd, 40th, 42nd, 43rd and 44th Fronts.
However, this expansion soon stalled. The Maduro government in Venezuela appeared to at least tolerate, if not encourage, the presence of the Joint Eastern Command. But Caracas always seemed closer to the ELN, with officials and military leadership receiving cuts of cocaine profits to allow drug shipments to go through Venezuela unmolested. Another faction of FARC dissidents, the Second Marquetalia, did not rival the size of Duarte’s alliance but proved a thorn in their sides in key trafficking areas. The 10th Front, backed by Duarte and Mordisco, also clashed with the Venezuelan Army in 2021.
And then John 40 turned his coat. In June 2021, García Molina appeared in a video put out by the Second Marquetalia, officially siding with Duarte’s rivals. This cut off Duarte from his connection through Amazonas to Brazil.
The fallout from Duarte’s death is difficult to predict. While he was certainly instrumental in uniting many former FARC fronts, Iván Mordisco may have the leadership and respect needed to keep the Joint Eastern Command united. But the threat of fragmentation remains ever present. And with many of the FARC’s traditional commanders now dead, their criminal descendants may find less and less reasons to remain loyal.