Peace talks in Cauca hang by a thread after the killing of a Colombian soldier by the ex-FARC mafia, underlining the threat that armed groups in this strategically important drug trafficking department hold for the country’s Total Peace aims. 

Authorities announced the death of Dinolberto León Martínez, a soldier of the Colombian armed forces, on October 11. He was shot dead that morning while guarding a polling station in Balboa, in the Pacific department of Cauca, ahead of local elections.  

They stated that the attack was carried out by the Carlos Patiño Front, an armed group affiliated with the Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central – EMC) of the ex-FARC mafia, themselves dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) that abandoned the peace process in 2016. 

SEE ALSO: Colombia Restarts Peace Talks With Ex-FARC Mafia, but Violence Persists

Three days earlier, on October 8, peace negotiations between the government and the EMC had been scheduled to begin in Tibú, Norte de Santander. However, following a day of tense debate between representatives of both parties, the sides announced that both the talks and the bilateral ceasefire set to accompany them would be delayed until October 16, though an agreement to stop offensive operations was reached.  

With the killing of the soldier, negotiations are now in doubt once again. The Colombian government has yet to comment on whether it will suspend the planned peace talks, which form an important part of President Gustavo Petro’s Total Peace initiative to end Colombia’s internal conflict. 

Arriving to this point had not been easy. The beginning of communications between the state and the EMC, led by Néstor Gregorio Vera Fernández, alias “Iván Mordisco,” to move towards formal peace negotiations began in September. However, the talks were marked by an increase in violence by the armed group, especially in Cauca. 

Days before the October 8 ceasefire was due to begin, the EMC announced that it would end preparations for the cessation of hostilities due to the government’s “inability to stop the war” in Cauca. However, the next day the group retracted their statement and in an official communiqué reiterated their commitment to the ceasefire. 

Cauca is crucial drug trafficking real estate, and the EMC is seeking to link the coca-growing highlands with the departure points along the Pacific Coast, tapping into plentiful income from the cocaine trade. A series of attacks by the EMC on police and military installations in the towns of Suarez, Santander de Quilichao, and Buenos Aires in late September led the army to reinforce its military offensive in the Cañón del Micay, an adjacent strategic region for drug trafficking, which includes the municipalities of El Tambo, Argelia, and López de Micay, in western Cauca.  

The previous attempt at a truce between the government and the EMC ended abruptly in May, after the Carolina Ramírez Front, affiliated with the EMC, killed four indigenous children in the neighboring department of Caquetá. 

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The most recent killing has put peace talks in doubt once again. But prior to the killing, violence in Cauca due to the ex-FARC mafia’s battle for control of illicit economies had exposed fractures in the president’s Total Peace plan.   

In northern Cauca, there is a sense of unease similar to that experienced in many parts of Colombia during the most difficult times of the conflict.  

Barricades close off the street where the police station is located in the town of Santander de Quilichao. The station’s façade is riddled with bullets, a stark reminder of the wave of violence that plagues the region.  

SEE ALSO: Colombia’s ‘Total Peace’ 1 Year On: Less State Violence, Stronger Criminal Groups

Here, the police are the frequent targets of the region’s armed groups. The EMC-affiliated Jaime Martinez Front imposes strict rules on the predominantly Mestizo and Indigenous communities, recruits minors, and earns profits from the coca industry.  

Communities in the area, battered by violence, have little hope for the successful outcome of peace negotiations.

“After the peace agreement [with the FARC] things changed. They [the armed groups] no longer have clear political objectives, they are very criminalized. Before, the guerrillas had ideals, they built roads and respected the community,” said a social leader from a rural community in Cauca. 

EMC graffiti appears in each of the hamlets that dot the Pan-American Highway, which crosses the department. It serves as a constant reminder of the group’s pervasive presence in the region. “Bolivarian Movement for the New Colombia Present – FARC-EP,” reads one. There are also simpler announcements from the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), who have unsuccessfully attempted to access the zone.  

Graffiti in a town along the Pan-American Highway. Credit: Sergio Saffon.

But for criminal groups, the jewel in Cauca’s crown is in the Cañón del Micay to the west.

Cañón del Micay is an area of high value to armed groups because of its strategic location connecting the western region of Cauca with the Pacific Ocean. Here, several key stages of the drug trafficking chain are found. There are abundant coca crops, cocaine production laboratories, and several drug trafficking routes to the Pacific, though the coca-growing sector is currently undergoing a severe crisis due to a lack of buyers.  

The municipalities of Argelia and El Tambo, where violence has been concentrated in recent months, are located in the heart of Cañón del Micay, and have the highest concentration of coca crops in Cauca. Over ten thousand hectares grew there in 2022, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).  

“Argelia is a highly strategic municipality because its jungle connects to Guapi [another Cuaca municipality], and serves as a corridor for the movement of troops and cocaine to the Pacific,” an NGO spokesperson in Popayán, Cauca’s capital, told InSight Crime.

The area is also the stronghold of the Carlos Patiño Front. Despite competing for control of this strategic territory with the ELN and another former FARC faction, the Second Marquetalia, the Carlos Patiño Front has managed to establish itself as the main criminal actor in the area. Disputes between these groups have been a persistent threat to Total Peace.

Another threat was the Colombian army’s Operation Trueno, a new phase of which was launched in August 2023, aimed at flushing out armed groups from Cauca.

The operation left nearly 20 dissidents dead, captured 17 others, and dismantled nine encampments, among other results. Yet the groups persisted.

With the events of October 11, the EMC factions in Cauca have shown they might be unwilling to sacrifice such strategic territory as the Cañón del Micay, even as negotiations with the government are taking place at a national level. 

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