FARC Play Dominoes as Drug Cartels Occupy Colombian Villages

  • ‘Tortoise-like’ Colombian army loses grip on key cocaine zone
  • Cartels offering former FARC rebels $600 per month to enlist

A UN-monitored camp in northern Colombia.

Photographer: Matthew Bristow/Bloomberg

Within days of Marxist guerrillas leaving the area around Pascuita, a village in the north of Colombia’s Andes mountains, a new group of armed men appeared.

The gang of about 15, after ordering the villagers into a meeting, said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who had controlled the area for decades, were a thing of the past. From now on, they were in control of the region’s cocaine trade, and they laid down the law -- no fighting, no stealing, and no snitching.

“There was fear from the first moment,” said one local man, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. “Even though they didn’t want to, some people let them stay in their houses.”

The army’s failure to occupy former FARC areas left a power vacuum that has been filled almost immediately by criminal gangs, threatening the much-vaunted peace dividend following an accord to end a half-century of Marxist insurgency. If the government doesn’t deliver on pledges to help the guerrillas adapt to civilian life, former combatants may be persuaded to abandon their UN-monitored camp and join them.

While the army moved slowly, the cartels did not, occupying strategic points immediately after the guerrillas’ withdrawal. The takeover was led by the so-called Gulf Clan, according to the attorney general’s office. This cocaine-trafficking organization, also known as the Urabenos, began life in the region near the Panamanian border, but has since spread across the nation.

Read more on Colombia’s peace accord with FARC here.

“While the state mobilizes in the territory at the speed of a tortoise, criminal organizations, and particularly the Gulf Clan, are coming at the speed of a train,” Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martinez said during a recent trip to the area. His office isn’t responsible for how troops or police are deployed.

The cartel is offering guerrillas a monthly wage of 1.8 million pesos ($600) to switch sides, according to Martinez -- more than twice what the government agreed to give them once they’ve handed over their weapons to the United Nations.

“They’ve said they’ll take in those who see their economic and security situation at risk due to the government’s supposed failure to meet its side of the bargain,” the head of the FARC’s 18th Front, known by his alias, Augustin Rivera, said in an interview.

Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, signed the peace deal with the FARC last year, with Congress ratifying the accord in November.

Empty Rifles

Rivera’s 250 fighters, who controlled the region until a few weeks ago, are camped out by a stream in a canyon, with their rifles unloaded. They spend their days playing cards, dominoes and chess, and hanging out in Santa Lucia, a hamlet of a couple of dozen houses a few minutes’ walk from their camp.

Farther down the valley, the slopes of which are strewn with homemade land mines as well as coffee bushes and cattle farms, the army and UN monitors are building bases. The guerrillas are still sleeping in tents because work has barely started on the living quarters pledged under the peace agreement.

“We’re not asking for a five-star penthouse,” said Cristian Guevara (also an alias), a commander with the 18th Front. “Just a small room where every fighter has a bed and small table to put his things, and can relax in privacy. We need classrooms, kitchens, a dining area where we can sit and eat, and a football pitch for recreation.”

Communal Space

Carlos Cordoba, the government official in charge of the 26 temporary zones across the country, said in a phone interview that the communal areas, kitchens and classrooms will be completed by the end of February, while the guerrillas themselves will build their own sleeping quarters once the ground has been prepared. The FARC are scheduled to hand over their weapons to the UN over the next months, and leave the zones at the end of May.

The National Police and the Defense Ministry didn’t reply to e-mails seeking comment.

In the makeshift camp, the habits of military discipline forged during 50 years of conflict still hold, even though the punishments that underpinned it, which included death by firing squad for desertion, do not.

Despite this, desertions in recent months have been a trickle rather than a flood, with many fighters saying they want to stay with the group after it converts itself into a legal political party.

This region of northern Colombia is strategic for the cocaine trade, since it is here that the mountains where much of the coca is grown give way to the flatter coastal region where the drugs are shipped to Mexico and elsewhere.

Local Recognition

Three local people said they had seen new armed groups in the area, with one resident saying he had recognized a former FARC member among the gang intimidating Pascuita.

Juan Carlos Carcamo, a human-rights official with the local government, said police and local authorities are still investigating the reports of the armed groups. The 18th Front, which still has informants across the region, has denounced dozens of incidents involving the new gangs.

For the region as a whole to have peace, programs contemplated in the agreements to persuade farmers to switch from coca to legal crops are of “primordial” importance, Rivera said. The Gulf Cartel, however, is doing its best to sabotage such programs and, according to the attorney general, is murdering farmers in the region for cooperating with authorities.

Fear of reprisals deters some local people from providing information to the armed forces, said Colonel Oscar Tovar, who commands an army unit in the region. Soldiers are holding meetings with local communities and that intelligence work on the new groups is ongoing, he said.

“To create panic is easy,” Tovar said in a phone interview. “To bring a sense of security isn’t easy, because you’d need a man every square meter.”

— With assistance by Oscar Medina

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