Colombia Hunts 300 FARC Dissidents Doing ‘Pure Organized Crime’

  • Breakaway faction took root amid uncertainty after peace vote
  • Armed forces seized weapons cache they said belonged to group

Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia at the 'Alfonso Artiaga' Front 29 FARC encampment in a rural area of Policarpa, in southwestern Colombia, on Jan. 17, 2017.

Photographer: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images

Dissident Colombian guerrilla fighters refusing to lay down their arms have morphed into “pure organized crime” dedicated to cocaine production in the nation’s southern jungles, according to the government.

Confusion and hold-ups in the implementation of a peace accord after voters rejected the initial deal may have undermined commanders’ control over their troops, allowing the 300-strong faction of former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to get established, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said.

“If the command and cohesion of the FARC is weaker today, one of the causes is because of those two months of delay,” Villegas said in an interview Wednesday in Bogota. “In the uncertainty, they preferred the easy money from drug trafficking.”

The pro-treaty majority of the FARC, which Villegas says represents about 95 percent of the total force, are deploying to zones where they’ll hand over their weapons to a United Nations mission. The government has estimated that the ending of the conflict will boost economic growth by 1 percentage point or more per year.

For now, Villegas said a military offensive against the dissidents is ongoing and that troops this week captured a cache of explosives and weapons. They have also found one ton of cocaine they said was linked to the group, which is led by mid-ranking former FARC commanders known as “Gentil Duarte” and “John 40”.

These leaders are motivated by cocaine profits rather than any ideological difference with the main bloc of the FARC, according to Villegas. Earlier this month, authorities said they were investigating reports of a fatal clash between loyalist and dissident FARC groups in the south of the country.

Biggest Challenge

Preventing former FARC areas from being taken over by other armed groups is “the biggest challenge of the post conflict” era, Villegas said. Much of the production of coca, the raw material for making cocaine, is concentrated in former FARC areas, and the group used money from the trade to finance its insurgency, which began in 1964.

The government reached a new agreement with the FARC in November, after voters unexpectedly blocked the previous deal in an Oct. 2 plebiscite. The amended agreement was passed by Congress without being put to a second national vote.

Production of coca, the raw material for making cocaine, probably rose last year, Villegas said, though he declined to speculate on the size of the increase. Among other reasons, this was caused by the FARC encouraging farmers to grow coca in the hope that this would bring forth subsidies and government programs when the conflicted ended, he said.

Colombia produces more coca than Peru and Bolivia combined, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and is the biggest supplier of cocaine to the U.S. Output rose in 2015 to its highest level since 2007.

Losing Control

Even with production running at its highest in a decade, crime associated with drug trafficking has continued to fall after Colombian cartels lost control of some of the most lucrative drug trafficking routes to cartels from Mexico and elsewhere. Seizures of cocaine rose to 376 tons last year, from 250 tons in 2015, Villegas said.

Villegas said he doesn’t believe U.S. aid to Colombia will be cut unless there are across-the-board reductions in aid to the region, since Republicans, who now have majorities in both houses in Congress, have historically been strong defenders of the co-operation with the South American nation. Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson said he would review Colombia’s peace deal to determine how much the U.S. should continue to support it, according to a report this week by the Associated Press.

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