Drug wars and alliances between left-wing rebels and armed, criminal groups threaten stability along Colombia’s Pacific coast, says the commander of Colombia’s Navy in the Pacific.
“In the Pacific operate “Los Urabeños“, “Los Rastrojos“, ELN and FARC. These groups are only interested in controlling drug trafficking routes, this is what generates conflicts between them and also alliances. For example, in the north, Rastrojos and FARC have allied to get drugs. FARC produces it and Rastrojos get it out of the country. In the south, there are constant encounters between armed gangs and the guerrillas over the control of routes,” Naval commander Rodolfo Amaya told Colombian newspaper El Pais.
Colombia’s Pacific coast, the Choco, Cauca, Valle and Nariño departments, are home to left-wing guerrilla groups FARC and ELN, the drug-trafficking gang Rastrojos and the neo-paramilitary group Urabeños. Loyalties between these groups are constantly shifting, with reports of certain FARC and ELN fronts making alliances with Urabeños and Rastrojos alike to facilitate the trade of illegal drugs and firearms.
Colombia’s Ombudsman, Jorge Armando Otalora Gomez, on Wednesday denounced battles between Urabeños and Rastrojos over crucial drug trafficking routes in the western Choco department. The fighting left some 100 families displaced.
The Pacific coast is mainly populated by Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. It is considered one of the poorest regions in the country and is also the main exit route for the 140 tons of cocaine produced yearly in western Colombia. Drug traffickers use speedboats and semi-submergible vessels to get the cocaine to Mexico and Guatemala. Cocaine is also leaving the port city of Buenaventura on an almost daily basis, hidden in legal transport ships.
“The Pacific is a region with many social problems. The criminals therefore use the population. Imagine they pay a person close to [$5,700] to carry the drugs to Central America. This is a very high amount if you take into account what people there earn from fishing. But they are not in the middle of the fire, because normally there aren’t many [armed] encounters. These groups are constantly looking for un-militarized places where they can realize their activities,” said Amaya.
Colombian government officials claim the “Bacrim,” political-speak for criminal bands, have abandoned the ideological roots of their paramilitary AUC ancestor, in order to more easily buy coca from the left-wing guerrillas.
In September, Colombian conservative senator Juan Carlos Velez formally demanded that the FARC “publicize” their collaboration with the Bacrim.
“It is evident in zones of the country,” said the senator, specifying the drug-running collaboration between the FARC’s 57th Front and Los Urabeños in the Pacific part of the Choco department.
Claims like these have been denied by the FARC. “Andres Paris,” one of the senior FARC negotiators in the ongoing Havana peace talks with the Colombian government, said in an interview with conflict-monitoring website Verdad Abierta his organization did not cooperate with “paramilitaries.”
“I do not think a FARC guerrilla would ally with a paramilitary and kill peasants, this can simply not be. It is obvious we in some zones have to talk to sectors related to business, where we have a presence and where we take some taxes…but these do not configure alliances,” said Paris.
Along Colombia’s Pacific coast, however, the reality of the conflict leads to temporary alliances between former enemies. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Pacific part of the southwestern Cauca department, where the FARC’s 8th, 29th and 30th Fronts intersect with several Los Rastrojos members. Between them, they oversee the coca fields of Timbiqui, Lopes and Guapi, considered some of the world’s most productive according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. This logic has at times led to intense turf wars between the FARC and Los Rastrojos, but also led to reports of alliances between the two groups in the area.
Displacement numbers have followed suit, according to Codhes, an NGO tracking internal displacement. Many municipalities along Colombia’s Pacific coast have seen forced displacement increase since 2009, as the battle for crucial drug routes (and increasingly, gold mining) becomes more brutal.
Andres Paris, however, claimed the FARC would not directly engage in close collaboration with the Bacrim.
“It would be necessary to differentiate between organizations and groups of civilians who we do not know if they are [Bacrim] or not. What is known is that they are basically businesses between FARC and traders, they are not alliances with organizations nor compromises with paramilitaries.”