April 26, 2018 / 2:14 PM / 6 months ago

Special Report: A fractured peace – violent rivals rush into FARC void in Colombia

TUMACO, Colombia (Reuters) - When President Juan Manuel Santos and leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia shook hands to end a half-century war, residents of towns like Tumaco were supposed to be relieved.

Nineteen months later, people in this gritty port on the Pacific are anything but.

True, most FARC militants, as foreseen by the peace accord, demobilized here and across Colombia, a country the size of France and Spain combined. For decades, rugged terrain and an oft-absent government enabled the rebels to become the de-facto authority in many areas.

But Santos, saddled with a sluggish economy at the end of his second term, has struggled to ensure order of the sort the rebels, albeit murderous, once imposed across parts of the Andean nation.

See an interactive version of the story.

Despite widespread acclaim for the agreement, including a Nobel Prize for Santos, peace remains elusive in this country of 50 million people, still the world’s largest producer of cocaine.

With the FARC disarmed, other militants, criminal gangs and paramilitary groups are jostling into the breach. They are hoisting flags, enlisting members and exacting levies and loyalty in former FARC strongholds. They are also seizing the FARC’s most lucrative rackets – from the drug trade, to extortion, to illegal mining.

“It’s like a devil’s cauldron where all manner of criminal ingredients are being boiled,” said Juan Camilo Restrepo, until recently the government’s chief negotiator in ongoing peace talks with the National Liberation Army, or ELN, now Colombia’s biggest guerrilla group. “They all want their hands on the business and territorial spoils left by the FARC.”

Over the past nine months, Reuters traveled to Tumaco and six other sites in Colombia to understand the advance of armed and criminal groups. Disrupters include splinter FARC factions, enterprising new gangs and veteran rebel rivals, like the ELN, who have used the agreement to reposition.

Among the most violent corners of Colombia is Tumaco, in the southwest, where a network of rivers provides a crucial Pacific outlet for sprawling coca plantations nearby.

Here, new guerrilla corps vie with criminal gangs for the routes. Earlier this month, a small force of former FARC fighters killed an Ecuadorian journalist, photographer and their driver because the neighboring country spurned the guerrillas’ demands that it release imprisoned comrades who had ventured across the border.

Read more from Reuters Investigates.

East of Tumaco, ELN rebels seized turf where the FARC relinquished an illegal gold mine. In the northwestern state of Choco, the ELN is recruiting and expanding control of jungle there.

To win support for the deal, Santos promised to flood areas of FARC control with troops and investment.

As much as $3 billion of annual government spending over the next 15 years is supposed to improve health, education, infrastructure and agriculture in war-torn regions. A cornerstone of the plan is a crop substitution effort for farmers who rely on income from coca.

But a weakened economy makes financing difficult.

Along with tighter budgets, red tape delays the start of roads, aqueducts, schools, power lines and clinics promised to millions living without infrastructure.

The crop substitution program in 2017 reached just 30 percent of its goal and is angering farmers who say the government is leaving their fields bare. The anger boiled over near Tumaco in October, when seven farmers died in a firefight with police and soldiers who pulled up their coca bushes.

“It’s like a devil’s cauldron where all manner of criminal ingredients are being boiled.”

The ascendant threats are dividing Colombians just before they vote on a Santos successor in May. Instead of an asset, the faltering peace is disconcerting an electorate also frustrated by tepid growth, weak public services and still-gaping inequality.

The government said it is doing all it can.

It already deployed 80,000 police and soldiers. In January, it launched its biggest deployment in two decades, sending 9,000 troops to Narino, the troubled state home to Tumaco and other flashpoints along the Pacific coast and Ecuadorian border.

It isn’t enough.

Groups such as the new and little-known United Guerillas of the Pacific are establishing strongholds. “This is happening all across Colombia,” said Joan, the leader of an eight-person squad of heavily-armed guerrillas on patrol late last year in jungle south of Tumaco.

Led by former FARC fighters who rejected the peace, the group is already coercing local families for support. It is not associated with the rebels who killed the Ecuadorians earlier this month, according to government officials.

Joan, who would only give his nome de guerre, said fighting continues because “the same poverty exists and the same drugs exist” that have historically fueled Colombia’s conflicts.

PROBLEMS “MORE VISIBLE”

Luis Carlos Villegas, Colombia’s defense minister, told Reuters the problems with other gangs, guerrillas and criminals aren’t new or worsening. Rather, he argued, they stand out in the void left by the FARC.

“Are there micro-trafficking problems? Are there organized crime problems? Are there problems of gangs that are trying to move into FARC territories?” Villegas asked. “Yes.”

“But are they growing?” he continued. “No, they are more visible because there is no longer a conflict.”

FILE PHOTO: A rebel from Colombia's Marxist National Liberation Army (ELN) poses for a photograph in the northwestern jungles, in Colombia, August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios/File Photo

As many as 70 armed and criminal groups operate across Colombia, according to Ariel Avila, a researcher at Fundacion Paz y Reconciliacion, a security think tank in Bogota, the capital. That amounts to about 5,000 guerrillas, gang members, paramilitary fighters and other criminals, including FARC dissidents who renounced the peace.

In a briefing in late March, General Alberto Jose Mejia, Colombia’s top military commander, said as many as 1200 FARC dissidents are still active, one fifth the rebel force when peace was agreed. While a far cry from the 17,000 rebels at the FARC’s peak in the late 1990s, the figure is four times the number the government had previously recognized.

Some dissidents have set up splinter factions, like the Pacific guerrillas, who are already “taxing” local traffickers and extorting grocery stores and other small businesses. Police believe extortion fuels as much as 20 percent of the income for some groups.

Other dissidents joined gangs with little ideology beyond crime.

The FARC originated in the 1960s, a leftist insurgency against the government and an entrenched elite who even today control most of Colombia’s resources. Initially inspired by communism, the FARC diversified into kidnapping, extortion, the drug trade and other crimes as Cold War credos faded.

For those who now seek to supplant them, there are many opportunities for ill-gotten gains. The resulting turf wars and violence perpetuates one problem, the displacement of noncombatants from homes and entire communities, that totaled more than 67,000 people last year, according to Colombia’s government.

Around Tumaco, where wood and tin shacks rise on stilts above meandering estuaries, the scramble for control spawned bloodshed. Many of its 200,000 residents, most of African and indigenous descent, miss the days before the agreement.

Back then, the FARC controlled local drug routes. Despite frequent clashes with government troops, the rebels ensured that most poor residents and non-combatants were left alone. Today anyone is vulnerable.

There are many reasons a local could become a target – from having the wrong acquaintances, to refusing extortionists, to supporting coca eradication.

Nationwide, murders have declined in recent years. In Tumaco, and other former FARC bastions, homicides are soaring.

At least 211 people were killed in Tumaco last year, according to police, compared with 147 in 2016. That gives Tumaco a homicide rate of about 102 murders per 100,000 people – roughly four times the national rate.

In October, Jose Jair Cortes, a black community activist, was gunned down near Tumaco. No one has been charged in his death, but investigators said he received threats after denouncing crimes by various gangs.

Cortes was one of 121 human rights and community activists killed nationwide last year, up from 59 a year earlier, according to the United Nations.

Among other groups, Mexican cartels are now increasingly present in Tumaco and elsewhere the FARC withdrew. Colombia’s attorney general said recently that Mexican mobs, including the Zetas, Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels, are in at least 10 different regions, ensuring their supply of cocaine through partnerships with local gangs.

“They’re in the entire production chain,” said Carlos Alfonso Negret, Colombia’s public defender. This month, Colombian police arrested a former FARC commander, and senior negotiator in the peace talks, for allegedly conspiring to arrange a ten-ton shipment of cocaine for the Sinaloa cartel.

“This is happening all across Colombia.”

For townspeople in Tumaco, poverty can make life outside the law attractive. City hall calculates unemployment at 70 percent. Few legitimate jobs exist beyond seasonal work on shrimp boats, other fishing and farming of cacao, rice and palm.

The easiest money, then, is cocaine – be it coca cultivation or any of the chemical or logistical activities to export it. Across Colombia, such activities generate about $13 billion annually, according to government estimates, equal to more than 4 percent of the country’s legitimate economy.

In Tumaco’s muddy slums, youth idle on street corners, drinking beer and listening to reggaeton music. Some are awaiting recruitment by local gangs for one lucrative activity – running cocaine in high-speed boats to Central America.

Gangs own or rent the boats, with outboard motors powerful enough to carry as much as three tons to dropoff points in Panama, Costa Rica or beyond. For each voyage, they pay roughly 100 million pesos, or about $35,000, to each runner in a crew of three or four.

Sometimes, the voyages are multi-party enterprises, with small businesses and others investing. Even those meant to thwart the trade, including sailors at checkpoints, sometimes get a cut in exchange for turning a blind eye, locals and police said.

Bribes are a constant challenge, particularly because drug profits allow criminals to pay more than the state.

“They use their abundant capital to corrupt institutions,” said Orlando Romero, the admiral in charge of operations on the Pacific. The Navy, he added, arrested 12 sailors over the past three years for collaborating with drug runners.

The voyages from Tumaco are hardly new. But the rush to participate has accelerated.

“They come to church for blessing before they go,” said Daniel Zarantonello, an Italian priest in Tumaco. “It’s out of control.”

“CONTROL THE EXPANSION”

Farmers are also growing more coca.

The region around Tumaco is now Colombia’s biggest source of the leaf.

Some 23,000 hectares, over three times the area of Manhattan, are planted there, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Cultivation nationwide reached 188,000 hectares in 2016, over twice the area three years earlier.

The increase has various causes, including Colombia’s 2015 decision, for health and environmental reasons, to stop aerial dusting of pesticide on coca plantations. The FARC also sought to maximize cocaine revenues before demobilizing.

Slideshow (4 Images)

The result: Cocaine production capacity reached 910 metric tons in 2016, the highest in over a decade, according to DEA figures.

In Pena de los Santos, a hamlet four hours south of Tumaco by boat on the Rosario River, farmers grow coca and make it into paste. For a spell after the peace agreement, buyers no longer came. Many in the Afro-Colombian community had to scrounge for fruit and fish.

“We had no money,” said Giovanni Narvaez, a wiry 36-year-old father of three, kicking coca leaves in rubber boots to aerate them. Now that buyers returned, he earns enough again to scrape by.

For many farmers, little incentive exists to grow crops the government hopes can blossom through substitution.

A hectare of coca, a fast-growing plant that can be harvested in three months, can reap 44 million pesos a year, about $15,000, according to national police in the area. A hectare of cacao, the slow-growing source of chocolate, generates a tenth as much.

“We need something viable to replace coca,” said Carlos Leonardo Estacio, a 50-year-old farmer, noting the convenience of buyers coming to them in the remote region.

Like others in the area, he noted the lack of order since the FARC left. “The guerrillas had their version of justice,” he said.

That’s where groups like the GUP, as the nascent Pacific guerrillas are known by their initials in Spanish, have stepped in. Their red, green and white flag now flies outside Pena de los Santos, where Reuters saw them patrol.

The GUP, according to various members, charges buyers 100,000 pesos, about $35, per kilo of coca base they take from the area. It is recruiting to augment the 400 fighters it already claims in territory stretching from Cauca, a state north of Narino, to Ecuador.

Meanwhile, it is bracing for incursions by rivals, said patrol leader Joan.

It is most wary of right-wing paramilitaries like those that arose in past decades to fight the FARC and other guerrillas. Often as ruthless as the rebels they opposed, many paramilitaries morphed into drug gangs and death squads known for particularly gruesome slaughters, sometimes with chainsaws and machetes.

“The government won’t protect us or the community,” said Joan, his hair in a mohawk and a pistol in the waistline of his sweatpants. “We will.”

“We need something viable to replace coca.”

Following its first encounter with the rebels, Reuters returned to meet other GUP commanders. One senior member, alias Arbey, said the GUP’s leader is Victor David Segura, known simply as David.

After the October clash between farmers and police, Santos named David the instigator of the uprising and offered 150 million pesos, about $52,000, for his capture.

But even if the GUP disappeared, others are positioned to move in, police and government officials said. If not other rebels, crime gangs are also filling the FARC vacuum.

A handful of big gangs emerged after Alvaro Uribe, Santos’ predecessor, struck a 2006 agreement with paramilitary groups. Instead of disarming, many formed criminal syndicates.

One prominent gang, known as the Clan del Golfo, or “Gulf Clan,” grew to rival the FARC in some rackets. After the FARC deal, it too offered to disarm. But it didn’t – opportunistically seizing FARC territory instead.

In a recent report on the peace efforts, the Organization of American States advised Colombia to “expend the full capacity of the state to control the expansion of the Gulf Clan.” The government, for its part, said it can’t negotiate with the clan as it did with the FARC – which it characterized as a political force, not just criminals.

Such negotiations fail as often as they succeed.

The FARC talks stumbled for four years before the agreement. Santos recently revived talks with the ELN after suspending them when that group, in January bombings, killed eight police.

The ELN, longtime leftist rivals who claimed ideological superiority to the FARC, for five decades have bombed oil pipelines and other targets it deems capitalist infrastructure.

But it is adept at making money, too, especially now that it emerged from the FARC’s shadow.

About 70 kms east of Tumaco, the ELN controls an illegal gold mine, according to national police. The facility, one of many illicit mines across Colombia, was once FARC turf.

During a December mission witnessed by Reuters, police sought to interdict the mine, a bog along the Patia River. Police said it leaks mercury into area soils and generates other crimes, including prostitution and child labor.

But locals were ready.

Dozens of police, wearing body armor and carrying machine guns, landed by helicopter. On the ground, as many as 200 miners were waiting, armed even with rocks and machetes.

Police sprayed tear gas, but some of the miners had gas masks. Reluctant to escalate, the police retreated. “These missions are in the hands of the gods,” said Colonel Alvaro Cardozo, one of the police.

About 1000 kms to the north, in the northwestern state of Choco, ELN fighters said they will continue their activities, no matter the peace talks.

“We’ll reach everywhere we can,” said Yerson, commander of a mobile unit on the San Juan River, amid some of the wettest rainforest on the planet. Yerson would only identify himself by his nome de guerre.

The unit, he said, often clashes with enemies on former FARC terrain through which the ELN moves cocaine and illegal gold and timber. “The paras tried to take their territory,” Yerson said, using slang for paramilitaries. “We fought them back.”

Now believed to number roughly 1,500 fighters, down from as many as 5,000 in the 1990s, the ELN said it is growing again. There remains no shortage of poor, rural youth who have historically built guerrilla ranks – not to mention plenty of dissatisfied former FARC fighters.

“The FARC are already joining us,” Yerson said.

Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta. Editing by Paulo Prada.

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