Colombia Enters Next Phase in Tragic Trafficking Saga

January 26, 2017

 

As the holiday season descended upon Colombia the beautiful South American country began the anticipated shift towards a new stage in the evolution of the ongoing and tragic militarized social conflicts that have plagued it since its inception. This evolution has seen the rise and fall of governments, the dismantling and re-birth of rebel and paramilitary groups as well as the expansion and retraction of organized criminal syndicates; such periods of ongoing dystopian misfortune belie Colombia’s astounding natural beauty and incredible economic potential, if the perennial security situation could be altered. Underlying this long history of unrest and strife is Colombia’s paradoxical economic reliance upon cocaine and the devastation that trade has wrought, an association Colombia now shares with the neighbouring coca-producing countries of Peru and Bolivia as well.

This new stage will be defined by the planned demobilization of Colombia’s largest and most effective rebel organization – Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. However, while the dismantlement of FARC is being heralded as a crucial step in Colombia’s ongoing development, the true question becomes what will become of the FARC fighters once the guns are silenced by the impending ratification of the recently signed peace deal? Will Colombia move towards truth and reconciliation with the rebel group and its supporters, or will the years of violent service, lack of economic opportunity and, most importantly, access to and control over vast coca-producing regions drive the fighters to re-hash their movement as, what would immediately become, one of the World’s wealthiest and most powerful a drug trafficking organizations (DTO).

Prefacing these potential developments is the recent peace deal that was signed and then ratified between FARC and the sitting Colombian government. After four years of negotiations in Cuba the first version of the agreement went to Colombia’s populace for ratification through a highly politicized and, at times, controversial referendum, which took place on Sunday, October 2, 2016. While the referendum was rejected by an incredibly slim margin of 50.2% against to 49.7% for, the Colombian government felt that its interests and those of the Colombian people were best represented by continuing on with the peace process. This process culminated with the formal ratification of the deal on November 30, 2016, in a move that has been both lauded and criticized by certain participants, victims and observers.

The final ratification occurred only after last-minute negotiations took place that guaranteed that FARC would contribute some of its income to assist with helping victims of the conflict and their families, it also ensured that no FARC members would be investigated or tried by foreign courts or officials. The FARC, for its part, held firm in its desire to ensure that none of its fighters were faced with mandatory prison sentences. And, while the ratification is an important step, the rebel group has repeatedly stated that its fighters would not begin the legislated hand-in of their weapons until a general amnesty was signed that freed the some 2000 imprisoned FARC combatants. If this amnesty clause is adopted and does occur, the FARC are expected to assemble in designated zones protected under United Nations’ mandate and begin the transferring of their weapons to the Colombian military for destruction in six months time during the rains of the Colombian wet season.

But what happens next?…

In the British province of Northern Ireland, where 30 years of sectarian violence came to a relative end in 1998 with the much praised Good Friday Agreement, a general amnesty was often seen as a crucial and necessary component of any lasting peace deal. Yet, 18 years after the deal was signed, dissident factions of both Republican and Unionist paramilitary groups continue to wage a low-intensity conflict against each other as well as the British government. In Colombia, where 53 years of conflict appear set to end or enter a similar low-intensity stage, other variables continue to influence and undermine the lasting goals for peace.

There are many differences between Northern Ireland and Colombia that make direct comparisons between these ongoing social conflicts problematic, if not impossible. However, there are several similarities in the methodology of the peace that can speak to the chances of its success, be they positive of negative. The most important element of this process that will influence its outcome remains the economic ability of the country to provide economic opportunity for the fighters once the conflict is over. Northern Ireland, being a long-standing province of Great Britain, possessed the economic clout and capacity to pump substantial capital into local businesses and subsidize investments to stimulate economic activity and thereby provide employment opportunities for the combatants and the greater society as a whole. Colombia, despite its natural wealth, cannot do this, a fact that has been made apparent by several previous major failures to integrate insurgents and fighters in a post conflict scenario – a reality which will be expanded upon shortly. With the average Colombian earning less than $10 CAD per day, the country simply does not possess the economic ability to seamlessly absorb so many combatants and displaced persons. Disagreement between various government actors and the militants themselves over the extent and duration of an amnesty clause provides yet another significant hurdle for the process to overcome. While in Northern Ireland, despite the length and intensity of “the Troubles,” consensus amongst the major participants about it being the appropriate time to end the violence seemed to overwhelm the various barriers to peace that such a history of social dissonance placed before the peace process.

Clearly, comparisons with the successes and failures of the Northern Ireland peace process can have shed some light on the complexities facing the Colombian combatants moving forward; however, the fact that Colombia is a primary production point for the World’s most sought after narcotic makes Colombia different than almost every other post-conflict society. In fact, Afghanistan, in this sense, is perhaps the best possible comparison. Serving as the primary point for the farming of the poppy plant – the active narcotic ingredient in opioid drugs – Afghanistan’s pre-eminent role in the drug trade has meant that the actors in this conflict have been able to move from a multi-faceted civil war financed by drug production and sales to simply enriching themselves through this same trade they have plied in support of their cause for the last three decades. A description of the macro issues facing Colombia could read essentially the same way in many respects.

In fact, even more than Afghanistan, the various actors in the Colombian social conflicts that spawned and drove the FARC and its allies as well as enemies were always dependent or rapidly became dependent on the production and sale of illegal narcotics (cocaine) to foreign markets to preserve their ability to wage their military campaigns. While the roots of the social conflict are not the topic of this piece, it should be noted that political competition between two distinct groups of elites within the Colombia actively vied for power and patronage throughout the early 20th Century, at times coming to blows or launching coups d’etat to promote, protect or cement their power. More than any other one cause, it was the chaos, violence and venality practiced by these groups that produced the economic malaise and social disruptions that gave rise to the urban and rural poor – the tragic foot soldiers in this ongoing drama.

By the 1970s the voices of the urban poor, who unfortunately found their means of expression in the political violence waged by the elite groups and criminal syndicates, soon became the property of the urban cocaine kingpins who based themselves in the major centres of Medellin and Santiago de Cali, the Pacific and Caribbean coastal cities, and even the capital region of Bogota. Even today, despite the comprehensive destruction of these 1st generation DTOs during campaigns waged by the Colombian and American governments, various Oficinas (largely 3rd generation urban organized criminal groups that developed out of the enforcement units of larger 1st and 2nd generation cartels) continue to dominate various favelas and neighbourhoods in the cities and towns. Arguably the most powerful of these groups, the Oficina de Envigado, originated as one of Pablo Escobar’s premier assassin squads and continues to periodically battle the pre-eminent post-cartel Colombian criminal organization – los Urabenos – for control of distribution points and shipment routes in Medellin.

These shifting fortunes and evolving networks of criminal groups are the norm in the Colombian criminal landscape, and contribute further evidence as to the chances of the ultimate success of the recent FARC peace deal. The first manifestation of the Colombian Surrender – a label that describes a rebel group voluntarily surrendering to the government in order to achieve greater organizational stability within their own organization before continuing on as a criminal entity (see more on Colombian Surrender here) – began with El Padron himself. In a move that has been immortalized in film and on television, in 1991 Pablo Escobar turned himself into the Colombian government in order to undermine the campaign to allow extradition to the United States and to reduce the mounting pressure on his organization. Soon after retiring to the prison – El Catedral, which he in fact built – Escobar disappeared into the jungle surrounding the facility.

Unfortunately for Colombia, Escobar’s specious surrender to government control was not the only instance of this planned faux capitulation. In 1967, the Communist Party of Colombia founded the Ejercito Popular de Liberacion (EPL), known as the Popular Liberation Army. At one-time a major player in the aforementioned social conflicts that rippled through Colombia during the middle of the 20th Century, the EPL arranged an amnesty and agreed to surrender to authorities in the same year Escobar went to his self-constructed prison. This demobilization was carried out by some 2,500 of the group’s fighters, leaving about 200 who splintered and continued to fight under the EPL’s name. Not only did this group continue to fight on, but it was also rumoured to have delved deep into the lucrative drug trade centered on the Venezuelan-Colombian border in Norte de Santander department in order to fund their campaign. In 2015, the remnants of the EPL under their new leader Megateo (nom de guerre) were largely wiped out and Megateo killed, although it is believed that several fighters continue to combat the Colombian state and traffic in coca base to this day. However, beyond the campaign of the splinter faction, the eventual actions of the supposedly demobilized members are perhaps more telling. After serving short nominal prison sentences or, in some cases, no prison time at all, many former EPL fighters retook to the jungle with their primary goal being their personal enrichment through the trafficking of cocaine. The story of Javier Calle Serna, who began his career in the EPL as a rebel soldier, provides a perfect examination of this transition from ideologue to trafficker. Serna (alias “Comba”), following the 1991 demobilization, became a key player in the Norte de Valle cartel (a 2nd generation organization), whose leadership itself sprung from the ashes of the once-prominent Cali Cartel following an attempt at negotiating a surrender with the United States’ Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The attempt itself would fail, with Cali boss and Serna mentor Wilber Varela being the victim of a failed assassination attempt leading to a destructive war between factions of the Norte de Valle cartel that left over 1,000 people dead. Ironically, Serna and fellow former Norte del Valle fighter Diego Rastrojo would go on to found the paramilitary group and 3rd generation trafficking group Los Rastrojos until they themselves would reportedly surrender the DEA many years later.

Ex-EPL fighters would also go on to help found Colombia’s current premier drug trafficking network, los Urabenos. Juan de Dios Usuga (“Giovanni”) and Dario Antonio (“Otonio”) would rejoin the trafficking scene following a campaign launched by FARC to assassinate leading demobilized EPL members and those deemed traitors to the socialist cause in the aftermath of the 1991 EPL demobilization. Los Urabenos have waged several successful wars against rivals throughout Colombia, including the Oficina de Envigado and Los Rastrojos, and have firmly cemented their brand as the paramount DTO in Colombia today.

The Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) or the United Self-Defenders of Colombia provide yet another example of the Colombian Surrender phenomenon and further evidence of what to expect once the expected demobilization of the FARC occurs. The AUC began around 1997 as paramilitaries who supposedly formed to protect indigenous and rural communities from the depredations of FARC, their leadership having cut their teeth as members of Los Pepes (People Against Pablo Escobar) movement. However, their blood-thirsty tactics and their growing role in the cocaine trade soon made them a headache for the government they were ostensibly helping to protect. In order to do away with the growing power of this group, whose criminality grew exponentially during of their lifetime, the Colombian government of Alvaro Uribe established a demobilization and amnesty program. From 2003 – 2006 at least 17,000 of an estimated 20,000 AUC combatants surrendered their weapons under the confirmed deal.

Yet, despite the apparent success of this initiative, many of the fighters who had begun utilizing the drug trade to support their campaign simply returned to what they knew. Specific prominent members of the AUC were indicted and extradited to the United States to face serious trafficking charges, yet the vast majority of the paramilitaries who surrendered, including important senior members and dangerous middle management, soon returned to the street (read: jungle) and used their newly acquired skill-set to become even more effective and prolific traffickers. In fact, their re-emergence initiated the third generation of Colombian traffickers – groups known as Bandas Criminales (BARCIM), or criminal bands. These criminal bands, so labeled as to give the impression that they were somehow less violent and sophisticated than their predecessors, quickly filled any criminal vacuum that existed in the narcotic supply chain while simply moving into their old stomping grounds, at times under new brand names yet offering the same deadly, efficient and easily accessible services. Each of these organizations, such as the Meta Block, los Aguilas Negras, los Paisas, ERPAC, los Machos and, of course, los Rastrojos and the current paramount group los Urabenos, established firm control over specific territories, extracting extortion on all criminal and legal activities in their zone of control but also becoming increasingly focused transnationally on the sale of their illicit wares.

Each of these previous examples adds fuel to the evidentiary conclusion surrounding what will happen after the end of the FARC conflict. But, perhaps the greatest piece of support for what may transpire comes from the last time FARC attempted to enter into a formal arrangement to halt the fighting. Begun in 1998, the first agreement lasted until 2002, when it became clear that FARC, in true Colombian Surrender fashion, had used the cessation of hostilities to re-arm and reorganize. President Andres Pastrana oversaw this first stab at peace with the group, which granted FARC a 42,000km2 demilitarized zone where, if they sheltered their forces there, rebel units would be safe from attack by security forces. Incidentally, and somewhat unforgivably, these regions – designed to be isolated in jungle locales that were the least intrusive on regional population centres – affected by the demilitarized zone were comprised of some of the most lucrative coca-growing districts in the country. Although this development by no means started FARC’s involvement in the drug trade, it only further cemented the group’s reliance on the sale of coca base and cocaine to fund their campaign.

The years spent away from the battlefield provided the rebel group with the opportunity to sort out the issues years of ongoing war had created in their command and control structure, promote their cause within their rural base, as well as rest their veteran units and replenish their ranks with new recruits. It is estimated during this period that FARC’s membership rose to almost 30,000, with over 15,000 being dedicated, hardcore fighters. Following 2002, the Colombian military and security forces, utilizing aggressive tactics – including: targeted assassinations of senior leadership; large-scale coca field eradication; and, the long-term occupation of previously rebel-held territories and towns – launched a full-frontal assault on FARC and its sources of illegal revenue. Over the next decade the rebel movement suffered repeated defeats, such as the deaths of several key leaders, and is currently thought to have approximately 8,000 soldiers in the field, a significant reduction from their previous strength levels. Perhaps more significantly, in 2008 senior leader Pedro Antonia Marin (nom de guerre: Manuel Marulanda) was killed, as was FARC’s chief spokesman, Luis Edgar Devia Silva (nom de guerre: Raul Reyes). By November, 2011 the one of the final central figures many believed capable of re-energizing FARC and definitively maintaining the group’s structural unity throughout any peace process, Guillermo Leon Saenz Vargas (nom de guerre: Alfonso Cano), was also killed by Colombian security forces.

While the military campaign was undoubtedly a success in demonstrating the government’s new sense of resolve and consequently brining the rebels to the negotiating table, it is also another factor that may drive elements of the rebel movement to return to the drug trade once a final peace is confirmed and ratified. According to Insight Crime, the pre-eminent and most knowledgeable news site dedicated to this issue, the organization’s remaining 6 Blocks and 30-odd Fronts and columns are somewhat fractured given the loss of strong, unifying leadership and it is doubtful that any current leader has the clout and experience to unify the movement and guarantee that all members abide by any peace agreement, let alone refrain from returning to the drug trade.

The fourth generation of Colombian narco-trafficking will be defined by the government’s success in bringing FARC to the negotiating table and offering enough carrots of opportunity to facilitate the majority of the organization’s membership re-entering society and earning a legitimate living. While the current Colombian administration appears to recognize the dangers associated with their plan and those involved also look ready to provide as much support as the developing country can afford, their abilities have limitations. Colombia has seen vast improvements in its quality of life over the previous few decades, even in spite of the endemic violence; yet, whole regions and departments continue to be isolated from the country’s economic and political centres of power, providing a steady stream of disenfranchised and impoverished recruits for the remaining rebel groups, established DTOs and oficinas. Government venality and outright corruption also continue to undermine the rule of law and the populace’s faith in Colombian society. Given these challenges, any hopes that FARC will demobilize and disarm in a wholly unified fashion will likely be dashed on the rocks of the economics of the cocaine trade.

As alluded to earlier, the sheer volume of coca produced in the country and the incredible amounts of money derived from this trade mean that their will likely always be organizations dedicated to meeting the demand for this product. Isolated FARC columns as well as whole blocks have become dependent on the wealth they’ve obtained from supplying the drug to market, with some estimates stating that FARC earns as much as $500 million annually. As Insight Crime notes, the cost of coca base reaches around $1,000 per kilogram, if sold in Colombia. However, if sold abroad, the wholesale price can jump to as much as $15,000 in Mexico, $25,000 in the United States and $60,000 in Europe. And, while there is disagreement on the amount of cocaine produced in Colombia annually – the United Nations states it is roughly 375 tons while the American State Department estimates production at 270 tons – as FARC is thought to control 60 percent of all coca base and cocaine production through extortion of any of the product moving through their territory or by direct sale, it is clear that multiple Blocks and Fronts are so ingrained in the trade that it will be impossible for those units to make a clean break with it following any peace agreement. It also appears that these specific groups, such as FARC’s Eastern Block, are preparing themselves for any eventual deal through the establishment of relationships with other trafficking groups, including local BACRIM, the ‘Nrangheta in Calabria, Italy and various Mexican cartel groups. The Southern Block, specifically, is now specifically rumoured to supply product to both Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation.

As the fourth generation of Colombian narco-traffickers emerge from the ashes of the FARC, forged in the crucible of decades of constant warfare, it is hard to imagine a future where significant numbers of FARC fighters do not succumb to the pressure of rejoining the drug trade. A long history of Colombian Surrender practices by armed groups across the political and criminal spectrum has left a lasting legacy that many of the mid-level commanders of the group are likely to follow – surrendering to authorities as part of a demobilization process and then immediately returning to the fold as traffickers, minus any ideological motivations. The good news remains that a war that has lasted since 1964 appears to be in its final stages and, while elements of the conflict will continue inflicting damage on their communities through trafficking activities, their loss of apparent legitimacy along with their continued use of violence to compel the loyalty of populations within coca production areas will eventually lead to further fragmentation of the group and, if the government maintains its pressure and legitimacy, reductions in the supply of cocaine available for shipment to other communities. The loss in legitimacy for the armed campaign is crucial to achieving a permanent peace in any scenario, but is especially important for weaning indigenous Colombian farmers off of the income associated with coca farming.

While the road to a complete and lasting peace for Colombians is likely many years away, the demobilization of FARC is an important next step. What remains to be determined is whether this demobilization will accelerate progress or present yet another road block in the drive to undermine and destroy the cocaine economy and the facilitators of violence that plague both Colombia and populations that purchase its most profitable product.

 

By: Scott Paulseth

 

Generations of Colombian Trafficking Groups:

Generation: Time Period: Associated Groups:
1st 1970s – 1980s Medellin and Cali Cartels; FARC; ELN; EPL
2nd 1990s – Early 2000s Norte del Valle Cartel; AUC; FARC; ELN; EPL
3rd 2000s – Present BACRIM; Oficinas; FARC; ELN; EPL
4th Future Remaining BACRIM; Oficinas; Post-FARC; ELN

 

Sources:
“Colombia’s Government Formally Ratifies Peace Deal,” The Guardian, December 1, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/01/colombias-government-formally-ratifies-revised-farc-peace-deal

“Colombia Referendum: Voters Reject FARC Deal,” BBC News, October 3, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-37537252

“Insight Crime’s 2016 Homicide Round-up,” Insight Crime, http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/insight-crime-2016-homicide-round-up

McDermitt, Jeremy, “EPL and Megateo: the Future of FARC?” Insight Crime, May 20, 2013, http://www.insightcrime.org/investigations/epl-megateo-future-farc

McDermitt, Jeremy, “The Bacrim and their Position in Colombia’s Underworld,” Insight Crime, May 2, 2014, http://www.insightcrime.org/investigations/bacrim-and-their-position-in-colombia-underworld

“Mapping Criminal Organizations: Bandas Criminales,” Stanford University, http://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/607

McDermitt, Jeremy, “Could Colombia’s FARC Rebels Break Apart,” Insight Crime, May 20, 2013, http://www.insightcrime.org/investigations/could-colombia-farc-rebels-break-apart

McDermitt, Jeremy, “Criminal Activities of the FARC and Rebel Earnings,” Insight Crime, May 20, 2013, http://www.insightcrime.org/investigations/farc-criminal-activities-income

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One thought on “Colombia Enters Next Phase in Tragic Trafficking Saga

  1. Pingback: The North American Hammer and Sickle – panamericancrime

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