The pandemic caused by the coronavirus opened a unique window of opportunity for criminal groups in Colombia to increase their power, taking advantage of changing conditions, state priorities and government distractions.
After five months in quarantine, Colombian criminal actors have moved the country’s criminal board, to return to “normality” with new conditions.
As in the rest of the region, many groups in Colombia imposed their own isolation measures, setting aside those already decreed by the government. From pamphlets imposing curfews and “quarantines,” illegal checkpoints and even homicides, criminal groups have taken advantage of the pandemic to strengthen their control.
Human Rights Watch recorded measures imposed by criminal groups in at least 11 departments of the country, a fact that has allowed them to position themselves in rural areas.
However, these measures do not just mean that the groups are replacing the health authorities. The events in regions such as Nariño, Cauca and Norte de Santander point to disputes triggered by the reorganization of these criminal actors in the country, where criminal governance has progressed alongside the virus in recent months.
InSight Crime reviewed 14 departments in the country where criminal groups received the news of the quarantine and where they continue to exercise criminal control today.
Probably one of the regions where more criminal groups converge is the north of the country, between the departments of Antioquia, Bolívar and Córdoba.
Only in these three departments, Los Urabeños, the ex-FARC mafia, the Army of National Liberation (ELN) and Los Caparrapos divide control of the territory, through alliances among themselves, while the presence of Mexican emissaries also has been detected.
In Antioqueño Urabá, an area where the Urabeños have historically been present and from which they take their name, the measures began early. Since April, a WhatsApp message circulated in the municipalities of Turbo, Apartadó, Carepa and Chigorodó, in which they warned the inhabitants not to leave their homes unless they had just cause. According to the monitoring of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA, for its acronym in English) in Colombia, in the municipality of Caucasia a pamphlet was circulated in which the community was threatened to comply with the mandatory quarantine.
On the other hand, in Ituango and the rural area of Bajo Cauca in Antioquia, towards the end of March a pamphlet signed by the 18 Román Ruíz Front, of the ex-FARC mafia, began to circulate, in which they warned that they would be “forced to act with sanctions for those who fail to comply with the established norms ”.
However, the determinations made by Los Urabeños and the former FARC mafia of the 18 Front are not merely civic in those areas. Ituango and its connection with other departments is one of the places that would come to be disputed by the armed groups due to its strategic passage between Antioquia and Córdoba. Although the presence of the ex-FARC mafia is a reality, the arrival of Los Urabeños in the region is also consolidating. Ensuring the cooperation of the community, on the part of the two groups, could advance an almost announced conflict, in addition to increasing the possibility of resisting the incursions of the public force after the pandemic.
This would serve to contain Los Caparrapos in this area of the country, especially for Los Urabeños, who have been fighting them. The Caparrapos have acted in a similar way to their criminal counterparts, especially in Montelíbano, Córdoba, where they threatened the community through platforms such as WhatsApp, ensuring that whoever did not comply with the quarantine could be killed.
For its part, in southern Bolívar, where the ELN has been the main actor since the departure of the extinct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), threats have appeared in the municipalities of Simití, Cantagallo, San Pablo and Santa Rosa del Sur, located on the banks of the Magdalena River. Control over these populations is crucial to the ELN’s criminal operations. The area has a large number of coca crops and is the entrance to the San Lucas mountain range, where illegal mining is the economy of criminal groups, in addition to offering routes for the transport of drugs from Panama to Venezuela.
In the department of Chocó, on the border with Panama, where the line that divides the two countries is witness to the trafficking of people and drugs, the ELN and the Urabeños face each other for control of the territory; both groups have made displays of authority during the quarantine.
At the beginning of April, the ELN distributed leaflets in the municipalities of Tadó, Litoral de San Juan, San José del Palmar and Atrato, which stipulated various regulations related to the health emergency, such as road closures, curfews, banning of events and meetings, and the mandatory isolation of those who enter the region.
For their part, the Urabeños have sown terror in the Embera indigenous communities settled in the department. There are complaints about confinement, and time restrictions since March. Additionally, they are recruiting minors of these ethnic groups, according to El Tiempo, with information from the Attorney General’s Office.
The clashes between the two groups during the quarantine have not stopped. While the ELN grows stronger and stronger north of Chocó, the Urabeños seek to regain territory that they have lost with the expansion of the guerrillas. This was pointed out to InSight Crime by an investigative source in the field, who asked to omit his name for security reasons, and who also added that, although the Urabeños seem to lose the war, the clashes have left the communities in the middle of the bullets of both. sides.
In the south of Cauca, the ELN and the Carlos Patiño Front of the FARC dissidents are involved in a confrontation that not only translates into combats, but also in the search for control over the population, precisely in municipalities such as Algeria and El Tambo, where one of the main cocaine production enclaves is located, according to the most recent monitoring report of territories affected by illicit crops, from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Demobilized FARC combatants have also been a particular target. Several of them have been killed by armed men in the department of Cauca, with apparent impunity during the quarantine.
Threatening messages have also circulated in which rules are imposed on the population. For example, at the end of March the Jaime Martínez group published a pamphlet in which it establishes hours for the operation of the commercial establishments allowed in the north of Cauca.
In the municipality of Algeria, leaflets signed by the Calos Patiño structure circulated threatening those who breached the isolation. Finally, the ex-FARC group Dagoberto Ramos has threatened merchants for not complying with preventive measures and has painted graffiti alluding to the group on vehicles that move in their areas of influence.
A source from the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca told InSight Crime that they had to remove some of the more than 380 checkpoints established at the beginning of the pandemic, due to the constant attacks, threats and accusations of the ex-FARC mafia.
In the department of Nariño, on the border with Ecuador, in the Western Cordillera region, where several groups operate, including the ex-FARC mafia, Los Urabeños and the ELN, there have been threats and restrictions on mobility . In addition, there have been threats against positive patients for Covid-19, as was the case of a 13-year-old boy in the municipality of Cumbitara.
The strong measures and recent acts of violence in this region, although they occurred within the framework of the quarantine, seem to be related to territorial disputes that were before the arrival of the coronavirus.
In recent weeks, these places have been the scene of clashes between Los Urabeños and the former FARC mafia Carlos Patiño, whose interest is in expanding from southern Cauca to the municipalities of Leiva and El Rosario, which could increase threats by armed groups. The entry of these groups to Nariño would be the trigger for the recent acts of violence in that department.
In the department of Guaviare, the dissidents from Fronts 1 and 7 of the FARC continue to exercise tight control over the population. According to testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch and statements from sources on the ground, the ex-FARC do not allow people to leave their homes, they have installed checkpoints and pressure the communities to control the entry of people into the territories. .
According to the National Army report published by Caracol Radio, the former FARC mafia of the First and Seventh Front have forcibly recruited several minors during the pandemic. According to the media, a member of the dissidence “attends the meetings of the Community Action Board and would be in charge of recruiting for the First Front of the dissidents.”
On the other hand, in the department of Caquetá, in southwestern Colombia, the ex-FARC mafia would have control over curfews and would be pressuring communities to hold checkpoints, according to La Silla Vacía.
A similar situation arose in Putumayo, where, at the end of March, “La Mafia”, an alliance between La Constru and the ex-FARC mafia of the 48th Front, carried out illegal checkpoints in the municipalities of Puerto Asís, Orito, Valle del Guamuez and San Miguel. These two groups have maintained an alliance, despite the fact that several of their leaders have died, and these checkpoints are part of the control over fertile coca-producing sectors.
Homicides were reportedly presented in this department as a form of retaliation for non-compliance with the rules established by the armed groups. This has been an excuse for criminal actors to eliminate their opponents. This is the case of León Pérez, a community leader assassinated in early June, who had previously sent a letter to the department’s authorities to denounce that armed groups were pressuring the community to control the entry of people.
Center of the country
At the beginning of May, in the department of Huila, the authorities learned of a pamphlet in the municipalities of Algeciras, Rivera and Campoalegre, signed by Hermes Suárez, then leader of the Óscar Mondragón dissidence, aligned with the Second Marquetalia. This could have drawn attention to Hermes, who was captured on July 16.
In the statement, several regulations were announced to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, which included curfews, regulations on who and when were allowed to leave and the prohibition of the sale of alcohol, as well as crowds and the entry of strangers to the municipality of Algeciras.
For its part, in the department of Meta, according to early warning 026-20 from the Ombudsman’s Office, the armed groups are “taking measures very similar to those decreed by the State,” since they impose curfews and limit the transit, entry and exit of people in the areas where they have control. This is in order to gain legitimacy within the population by acting as “protectors and guarantors of health security”.
For example, in the municipalities of Mesetas and Uribe, pamphlets of the 40th Front of the dissidents have circulated, in which they impose restrictions on mobility and threaten those who fail to comply with their impositions.
In the municipality of La Macarena, checkpoints were presented by the communities under pressure from the Front 7 of the dissidents, as reported in its monitoring by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Border with Venezuela
The Catatumbo region in Norte de Santander has been hotly contested in recent years. The ELN and the People’s Liberation Army (EPL) have been particularly embroiled in a bloody struggle, in which the EPL has ceded most of the ground.
There it is the ELN that has imposed its own measures in the midst of the pandemic. They have taken advantage of confinement by increasing their criminal activities, violence and threats against social leaders. In addition, they have increased the forced recruitment of minors by conducting “censuses of children from peasant families” and then taking them away by force. In the same way, through social networks they deceive minors into their ranks.
The ELN also used the quarantine to return to its dispute with Los Rastrojos, a criminal gang that controls part of the migrant smuggling and smuggling on the Norte de Santander border with Venezuela. In March, InSight Crime reported that the ELN appeared to be working alongside Venezuelan authorities to expel Los Rastrojos. This war has been growing in recent months, increasing violence in cities like Cúcuta, displacement in Catatumbo, and a rise in homicides.
Other events have also been presented by other armed groups. The PLA urged the population to comply with the measures and said they would contribute to control. The 33rd Front of the dissidents congratulated the community for the controls they had taken against the spread of the virus, given the abandonment of the State.
In the case of this region, the only group that InSight Crime was able to register in its search was the ELN, which used other methods of affiliating with the population. In Teorama, Norte de Santander, a video shows members of the ELN distributing markets and informing about preventive measures against the virus, as other criminal groups have done in other countries in the region.