An escalating rivalry between former FARC groups for control of cocaine production has ended a brief period of tranquillity in Colombia's southern department of Putumayo.
Acts of violence have been unceasing in recent weeks. On April 25, a former guerrilla of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) was reportedly killed in Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo. Three brothers were shot dead on April 18 in Puerto Leguízamo, a municipality from which hundreds have been displaced.
Yet the event that sparked most controversy came on March 28, when Colombia's Defense Minister announced on Twitter that public security forces had killed nine FARC dissidents and arrested four others, also in Puerto Leguízamo. The next day, President Iván Duque stated the number of criminals reportedly killed had been raised to 11.
The operation, however, has come under severe scrutiny, with even the United Nations demanding a full inquiry.
According to Colombian military command, the operation was intended to target Carlos Emilio Loaiza Quiñones, alias “Bruno,” the chief financial operative of Border Command (Comandos de la Frontera), an important criminal group which forms part of what has become known as the ex-FARC Mafia.
However, security forces did not capture Bruno, who is believed to have left the area a day early, nor did they seemingly manage to weaken the dissident group. In fact, a range of Colombian and international human rights organizations have questioned whether several of the dead were connected to the Border Command at all. The entire operation has come under severe scrutiny and has recalled some of the worst abuses committed by Colombian security forces.
This has also raised the question: Why did the Border Command warrant such a heavy-handed security response in the first place?
The 2016 demobilization of the FARC raised some hope that Putumayo, one of the epicenters of the global cocaine trade, would be calm at last. But in 2018, as several major FARC fronts returned to their criminal ways, the dissident 48th Front emerged in Putumayo. It was not alone in wanting to control the coca-rich fields and drug trafficking routes of the department. The dissident Carolina Ramírez Front, an ex-FARC Mafia group based in neighboring Caquetá, also moved in. Violence between the two sides, both veterans of the FARC, raged for years.
According to a 2020 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Putumayo has almost 20,000 hectares of coca and produces just over 10 percent of Colombia's total cocaine yield.
After carrying recent field work in Putumayo, InSight Crime dives into the ongoing criminal fractures in the department.
The Struggle Between FARC Dissidents
The Border Command and the Carolina Ramírez Front are at each other's throats, with the latter making ever greater efforts to claim territory and control drug trafficking in Putumayo.
The Carolina Ramírez Front belongs to the leading faction of the ex-FARC Mafia, led by Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” and Néstor Gregorio Vera, alias “Iván Mordisco.” It is made up of approximately 500 members, among them some former combatants in the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo, according to public officials in these departments.
The group exerts influence along the banks of the Caquetá River and moves drugs along it towards municipalities such as Puerto Leguízamo, a flashpoint for violence. This town sits at the narrowest gap between the Caquetá River and the Putumayo River, and has easy connections to where Colombia, Peru and Ecuador meet.
But although the Carolina Ramírez Front outnumbers and outguns the Border Command, its rival is more entrenched in Putumayo, understanding the territory and having greater influence over residents. Additionally, one public official in the department, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, told InSight Crime the Border Command has a deeper level of support from within local government structures in Putumayo, allowing it to operate with ease.
The Border Command was created by members of two ex-FARC Mafia groups, the dissident 48th and 32nd Fronts, as well as La Constru, a splinter group from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC). Under the command of Giovanny Andrés Rojas, alias "Araña,” it has approximately 200 members, according to government estimates.
Two government sources in Putumayo, who also spoke anonymously, told InSight Crime that La Constru used to be dedicated to contract killings while the 48th Front negotiated cocaine deals, committed kidnappings and blew up oil pipelines. Since working together, the two sides have increased their dominance of wide swathes of Putumayo, especially in rural areas.
InSight Crime confirmed during field work in Putumayo that the Border Command has focused on controlling the almost 23 kilometers of the Puerto Vega-Teteyé corridor, a strategic area for the production and trafficking of cocaine to Ecuador. Oil companies also have a presence there, and are forced to pay extortion to the criminal group in order to operate there.
The group has set up its center of operations in the municipality of San Miguel, just 21 kilometers from Ecuador, according to information collected in the field by InSight Crime. Area inhabitants also said that the group has military training centers for new recruits in Ecuador and its leaders are constantly moving from one country to another.
Border Command Amplifies Social Control
Seeking to stave off forays by the Carolina Ramírez Front, the Border Command has enhanced its social control within communities in Bajo Putumayo, specifically in the municipalities of Orito, Valle del Guamuez, Puerto Asís, Puerto Caicedo, San Miguel and Puerto Leguízamo.
InSight Crime learned that, in urban centers, residents become informants, forced to tell the Border Command who is entering and leaving the area.
In rural areas, the situation is even more tense. The groups use civilians as informants, who must report to the group on who enters and leaves the territories. “They are kidnapping, threatening and tying up people who don't follow their rules. There has even been talk of murders where [the corpse] is left with one hand out of the earth so that it is clear that there is a dead person there,” one resident told InSight Crime.
Additionally, local residents told InSight Crime that the Border Command is checking the IDs of residents and that it has taken over local community groups who must approve anyone seeking to enter the territory. Those coming in without being on the approved lists runs the risk of being killed. Additionally, a strict curfew is set for 6 p.m., with nobody allowed out after that time.
Although disappearances and recruitment of minors have also occurred, there are no official figures and few reports about such occurrences
, due to fear of reprisals. “Here, the way to handle things is fear,” a public official from Puerto Asís told InSight Crime.
Military Response to the Chaos
As evidenced by the most recent operation in Puerto Leguízamo, the military does not seem to be taking into account the extent to which these criminal groups dominate the daily lives of communities. Acting against these groups has increased the risks faced by the civilian population in Putumayo, who end up caught in shootouts between public forces and criminal factions.
“What happened in Puerto Leguízamo is what is happening across Putumayo. Communities are increasingly being permeated by armed actors due to the absence of the State and they have no choice other than to submit to what the armed groups have to offer. Meanwhile, the State subdues the communities and manipulates the evidence,” a human rights defender told InSight Crime.
And despite all these operations being framed as part of the fight against drug trafficking, coca cultivation in Putumayo has not dropped by much. The army continues with manual coca eradication campaigns but leaves no room for options, leading to potentially new clashes between rural farmers and the military.
Ultimately, the situation in Puerto Leguízamo will happen elsewhere in Putumayo as long as warring ex-FARC Mafia factions and security forces persist in their violent stalemate.