Paramilitary-derived criminal organizations have increased their presence in areas of Colombia where leftist guerrilla groups FARC and ELN have been pushed out, keeping violence indicators high in key areas throughout the country, according to a new NGO report.
After reviewing the results of a 2012 military campaign to weaken 11 key FARC and ELN strongholds throughout the country, the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP) found that organized neo-paramilitary crime syndicates have been filling power voids left by the guerrilla groups, which have significantly decreased in military capacity.
These findings throw a pall on the prospect of guerrilla disarmament, according to political scientist and investigation coordinator Carlos Prieto. Prieto is calling on the government to make a close study of areas throughout the country where multiple armed actors fight for control over mobilization routes, arms and drug trafficking, and extortion.
FIP’s findings echo a report released by the national ombudsman on Tuesday warning that paramilitary successor groups are active in approximately 15% of the country’s national territory, spread out over 27 of 32 states. According to the ombudsman, the presence of these groups has been registered in some 168 municipalities throughout the country.
There are over 30 criminal gangs in Colombia, all but one of them with roots in the AUC, the paramilitary group demobilized in exchange for reduced sentences in 2007 under former president Alvaro Uribe. In an attempt to politically distance the emerging paramilitary groups from the Justice and Peace deal, Uribe re-branded them as “bacrim,” or “bandas criminales.”
According to the FIP report, “bacrim” have increased their presence in Norte de Santander, Putumayo, and Nariño, where military campaigns have succeeded in pushing FARC and ELN to the periphery. Between 2013 and 2014, Los Urabeños gained strength to emerge as Colombia’s strongest transnational crime syndicate, absorbing factions of the weakening Rastrajos. Called “Clan Usaga” by the government, Los Urabeños currently have around 2,650 members.
The report makes special note of the challenge presented to the military by small and middle-sized criminal groups with no ties to national bacrim, whose identification are more complex.
Worst areas encountered during fieldwork
For the purposes of this investigation, FIP focused on the 11 areas covered by the government’s military campaign. However, in the process of conducting fieldwork, researchers noted areas of extreme concern due to the presence of multiple armed actors.
In the port city of Buenaventura on the Pacific coast, violence indicators have reached alarming levels due to disputes between Los Rastrajos and La Empresa over control of narco-trafficking, extortion, and micro-trafficking.
In Choco, to the south of Buenaventura on the Pacific coast, violent clashes continue between armed groups fighting for control of the territory, among them FARC, ELN, Los Rastrajos, and Los Urabeños.
In the northern state of Magdalena, Los Rastrajos, Los Urabeños and most recently Los Botalones, seek control over illegal activities such as trafficking in drug and arms, gasoline smuggling, extortion, and micro-trafficking.
Los Urabeños continue to have a strong grip in northern Antioquia, where they exude “social control over residents, putting land claimants and community leaders at high risk.”
According to the FIP report, the military now has advantage in six of the 11 of the areas targeted by the government’s 2012 “Sword of Honor” campaign. While FARC remain stronger in Meta, Caqueta, Valle de Cauca, and two regions of Antioquia, attacks in 2013 and 2014 show a decrease in military strength. According to Carlos Prieto, coordinator of the investigation, the army “managed to pull guerrillas out of the most important centers of the country, but they moved to areas where their presence still generates impact.”
“While guerrillas are no longer able to reach the center of the country and take power, they have not lost control in some areas where [government] initiative has not been strong,” concluded Prieto.
FARC, ELN’s weakening military power
FIP found that both FARC and ELN currently lack the ability to perform actions of large military scale, and now operate under a principal of “economy of force.”
There has also been an overall decline in ELN’s territory and personnel, despite an uptick in armed activity in Arauca, Norte de Santander, Choco, Nariño, and Bajo Cauca, Antioquia. According to FIP, membership has also decreased from 4,700 to 1,330 in the past 12 years.
While the ELN has increased the frequency of its attacks in the past year in an apparent effort to strengthen its position in negotiations with the government, attacks on oil infrastructure have decreased nationwide, going from 122 in 2013 to 73 in 2014. According to Ecopetrol, ELN was responsible for all 22 oil pipeline attacks in Arauca in 2014. In Norte de Santander, ELN was found responsible for 70% of the 18 attacks between January and July of 2014, wheres in 2012 all attacks were attributed to FARC.
FIP notes that the attacks did not reach the level they were at in the 1990s.
Concentration of armed conflict
Reports of armed activity were concentrated in 272 municipalities in 2013, down from 490 municipalities between 1992 and 2002.
This decrease in the number of municipalities has been accompanied by the concentration of the intensity of conflict in a few states. FIP found that 57% of armed activity in 2013 was concentrated in six states, compared to eight between 1999 and 2002. Current guerrilla activity is focused in Cauca, Putumayo, Antioquia, Nariño, Arauca and Norte de Santander.
Confrontations with the ELN alone were concentrated in 40 municipalities in 2013, down from 140 municipalities between 2003 and 2007.
In the areas of Tolima, Meta, and Caqueta, former guerrilla strongholds are now mostly dominated by military and law enforcement, and FARC has retreated to border areas of Catatumbo, Putumayo, and Nariño, where guerrilla actions have increased despite strong military presence.
“This can be interpreted as a reaction by FARC to retreat and focus its efforts on control of strategic areas for its finances and mobilization corridors for troops and commanders,” concluded FIP.
- Seis tesis sobre la evolución reciente del conflicto armado en Colombia (Fundación Ideas Para La Paz)
- Inteview with Carlos Prieto, Ideas for Peace Foundation