For the first time, Colombia has elected a leftist president in Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla fighter who has pledged a clean break with what he sees as the confrontational, violent policies of his predecessor. However, the country’s security landscape will not change overnight.
Colombia has voted for change in Petro. But, in terms of the fight against organized crime, what shape will this change take?
Deforestation appears unstoppable. The production of cocaine continues virtually unabated. Major criminal groups, such as the ELN and the ex-FARC Mafia, pose severe threats across Colombia while a newer generation of urban gangs threaten cities. And finally, what of the relationship with Venezuela, which Gustavo Petro has pledged to repair, despite the regime of President Nicolás Maduro having harbored and even aided guerrilla groups.
Here, InSight Crime analyzes five security challenges awaiting the new president-elect head-on once he enters the Palace of Nariño in August.
The Beating Heart of the Global Cocaine Trade
Despite a slight decline in total coca crops in 2019 and 2020, Colombia remains far and away the world's largest cocaine producer.
According to figures from the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), while crops have decreased for four years in a row, crop yields and overall cocaine production are at an all-time high. What’s more, about half of all coca is being farmed in protected areas, such as environmental reserves, Indigenous reservations or Afro-Colombian communities. Furthermore, little to no progress has been made in changing the dynamics in traditional hotspots for coca crops, such as the southern department of Nariño, or Norte de Santander, along the border with Venezuela.
Eradication efforts have shown little long-term impact. According to the UNODC, half of all cleared areas quickly showed signs of replanting and 37 percent of such areas saw new coca crops planted within 500 meters. Additionally, the use of forced eradication remains controversial and the National Crop Substitution Plan, which was supposed to encourage coca farmers to voluntarily move away from the trade by supporting them in developing alternative crops, has stagnated. This has all generated deep mistrust of government policies in coca-growing areas.
Furthermore, the process of extracting cocaine hydrochloride is becoming more effective, with crystallizers able to produce more cocaine than ever. The potential production of cocaine increased from 6.7 kilograms per hectare in 2019 to 7.9 kilograms in 2020, according to the UNODC. This means that approximately 1,228 tons of cocaine can be produced in Colombia every year.
This naturally has had a major positive effect for organized crime groups. More cocaine means a more constant flow of weapons and money, which in turn means an ability to secure control and expand their territory. The presence of Mexican, Italian and Balkan cartels has also had a direct impact on the demand for more cocaine hydrochloride.
Petro cannot solve the problem alone. Relations with Venezuela will remain the most pressing international obstacle to solving drug trafficking, while shipments to Ecuador have become a huge driver of violence in that country. Cocaine connections to Brazil, Panama and the Caribbean will also require a multilateral approach.
Is the FARC Peace Deal Still Salvageable?
The peace agreement reached in 2016 between the government and the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) is in real trouble. Coca substitution plans have stalled, violence in certain parts of Colombia has worsened and former FARC fighters are regularly threatened and killed.
At a purely legislative level, the Kroc Institute for Peace Studies has estimated that 37 percent of the provisions of the peace agreement have seen only minimal progress. Access to land and viable economic projects for those who laid down their weapons remains difficult.
At the 2021 UN General Assembly, outgoing president Iván Duque highlighted progress made on the agreement during his tenure, although recognizing that criminal groups remained a major obstacle.
The figures do not show much progress. According to figures from the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz), 21 former combatants and 86 social leaders and human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia this year alone. During the Duque government to date, at least 930 people belonging to these categories have been assassinated. Not all of these can be directly associated to organized crime. But a large portion of these slain activists were directly working on the implementation of the FARC peace deal, including crop substitution and land restitution.
According to Mateo Gómez, a researcher at Barómetro quoted by the newspaper El Espectador, caring for ex-combatants and those forcibly displaced by violence will be an urgent issue for Gustavo Petro's incoming government.
The Expansion of Colombia’s Criminal Groups
Of Colombia’s roster of criminal groups, three present the largest problems.
The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) is arguably in the best position to be a major thorn in the side of Gustavo Petro. While its major enemies have been decimated by criminal rivalries and government action, the ELN has consolidated its presence in Venezuela, taking over many of the spaces left behind by the FARC, and is particularly strong in the border area.
Figuring out how to deal with the ELN will be one of Petro’s foremost priorities. Since the collapse of peace talks in January 2019, after the ELN bombed a police training school, the group has expanded rapidly. While its leadership has expressed itself ready to return to the negotiating table, it showed its strength in February 2022, by paralyzing large parts of the country with a series of coordinated strikes. Any conciliation will be made more difficult by the fact the ELN appears to have at least the tacit approval of Venezuela's President Maduro to continue its criminal activities in exchange for a cut of the profits.
The dissident FARC, known as the ex-FARC Mafia, are in a precarious state. They remain powerful but fractured and leaderless after a series of targeted strikes has killed many of their commanders in the last 18 months.
Both the major factions of FARC rebels have suffered heavy losses, with the Second Marquetalia in particular now severely weakened. Its commander, Luciano Marín, alias "Iván Márquez,” has not been heard of for many months and could either be in hiding or trying to rebuild his group.
But the ex-FARC Mafia remain strong, especially in the south and the Pacific, commanded by Néstor Gregorio Vera, alias "Iván Mordisco.” However, a series of new leaders have emerged, with less loyalty to the FARC’s political ideologies and more focus on criminal income.
And the Urabeños, also known as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) or the the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), have been battered but still have potential to cause nationwide problems.
After their leader, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” was extradited to the United States in May 2022, the group’s cohesion has been in doubt. While the Urabeños have always allowed franchise gangs to operate with some degree of autonomy, recent actions by said franchises have not seemed aligned. This risks forcing Petro to deal with highly active, smaller gangs, who will fight tooth and nail to defend their small part of an overall criminal economy, such as a drug trafficking route.
A similar scenario is already taking place in cities where smaller gangs are fighting for control of microtrafficking and international routes. In the north, the Pachenca have been terrorizing Santa Marta and the Costeños have been fighting for control of drug trafficking in Barranquilla. The Mexicanos and the Local have been staking claims to parts of the Colombian Pacific, the Cordillera has tried to extend its dominance from the southern state of Nariño and La Oficina as always has had a part to play in Medellín.
The Border with Venezuela
For Gustavo Petro, Venezuela may seem like a multi-headed hydra. The ELN and ex-FARC Mafia have grown rapidly in the country. Homegrown Venezuelan gangs are making their mark on Colombian soil. The government of President Maduro has revealed itself to be, if not a facilitator, at least a regulator of the cocaine trade. Human smuggling, contraband and environmental crimes are also rife between the two countries. And there is little to no communication set up between Caracas and Bogotá.
In Norte de Santander, on the Colombian side of the border, the ELN has made itself the dominant criminal actor in the coca-growing enclave of Catatumbo, while continuing its expansion into the interior of Venezuela. The Urabeños are actively trying to establish control of Cúcuta, arguably the most vital criminal crossroads along the border. They also control remote trails between Puerto Santander and San Antonio del Táchira, along which migrants are extorted. And the Venezuelan gang, Tren de Aragua, is clinging on to control of its own cross-border trails, despite facing a war with the ELN.
Further south, outbreaks of violence in Apure and Arauca continue to affect the civilian population. In 2021, during a prolonged fight between the Venezuelan government and the dissident FARC 10th Front, an estimated 6,000 people were displaced and fled into Colombia. Continuing violence in the area, now involving the ELN, has seen this figure continue to increase, placing a humanitarian crisis into Petro’s hands.
Migration, in general, will be a vital issue for Petro to deal with. Around 2 million Venezuelans have fled to Colombia, many of whom live in economically precarious situations and have been preyed on by criminal groups for recruitment, extortion and more.
The Advance of Environmental Plunder
Successive Colombian governments have stalled in their duties as custodians of the Amazon. Since 2017, 220,000 hectares of forest cover have been lost.
Petro will have to learn from this recent political history. Government initiatives to curb deforestation have been tried. None have lasted for long.
And while specific areas have shown reductions in deforestation, the problem has worsened elsewhere. In 2018, although the total number of hectares deforested fell to 197,159 ha, rates increased drastically in the departments of Meta and Putumayo.
Same story in 2019 when, despite another overall drop, the northern departments of Chocó and Norte de Santander saw deforestation increase. This was heavily linked to the spread of other criminal economies, such as illegal mining and coca cultivation.
According to Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, this will be one of Petro’s main environmental challenges. Instead of a national approach, Botero suggested that the new government should measure deforestation rates in terms of the forest cover remaining in highly vulnerable areas.
Even in 2022, deforestation is concentrated in similar places. National parks and other protected areas in Meta, Caquetá and Guaviare account for the bulk of deforestation, according to Colombia’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Instituto de Hidrología, Meteorología y Estudios Ambientales - IDEAM).
The new government will also have to tackle both the legal and illegal drivers of such deforestation. As extensively explored by InSight Crime, the likes of the ELN and ex-FARC Mafia encourage the burning of forests and building of illegal roads through the jungle to further drug trafficking and illegal mining.
However, cattle ranching and palm cultivation remain by far the largest causes of deforestation in Colombia. While legal, these are fed by the illegal appropriate of land, a crime that has received little visibility to date and benefits certain political and business elites.
This practice sees large parcels illegally occupied and the communities living there forcibly displaced. The forest is then cut down and turned into land for pasture. Extortion of nearby communities and money laundering through the forestry trade are common.
A recently created Law for Environmental Crimes, passed in 2021, marks such land appropriation as a crime. But the new president will have to actively confront this criminal economy often hidden in plain sight.