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Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

  • Written by Jeremy McDermott
  • Monday, 20 May 2013

When considering the possibilities that the FARC may break apart, the Ivan Rios Bloc is a helpful case study because it is perhaps the weakest of the FARC's divisions in terms of command and control, and therefore runs the highest risk of fragmentation and criminalization.

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This bloc, also known as the Northwestern Bloc, operates mostly in the Antioquia, Cordoba and Choco departments. It has been commanded from Venezuela by Ivan Marquez (who leads the FARC negotiating team in Havana) since the death of Jose Juvenal Velandia, alias "Ivan Rios," in March 2008, at the hands of his own bodyguard. Ivan Marquez cut his military teeth as a front commander in Antioquia before being promoted to the Secretariat.

The day-to-day command of the bloc is in the hands of Luis Carlos Usuga Restrepo, alias "Isaias Trujillo," who, though having almost legendary status within the bloc, is now in his seventies and in delicate health. As a result, there is little coordination between the different fronts in this bloc, although they do maintain a high level of hostilities, mainly targeted at infrastructure and transport companies, as well as attacking army patrols with explosives.

If the ideological aspect of their activities was removed, the FARC units in the Ivan Rios Bloc could immediately become one of the most sophisticated and most powerful organized crime syndicates in the region.

Finances of the Bloc

The FARC in this region earn money from drug trafficking, extortion, and gold mining. On the drug trafficking side, the FARC not only deal in coca base, selling much of this to the BACRIM (Urabeños,1 Rastrojos2 and Oficina de Envigado3), but also crystallize cocaine, which they sell a percentage of to the BACRIM, and run their own export routes, principally via Panama. This latter part of the business is handled mainly by the 57th Front, which sits astride the Panamanian border.

This is the FARC bloc that earns the most from gold mining. Much of this income comes from a "tax" levied on heavy digging machinery and dredges used to extract gold by the informal, and largely illegal, gold miners. The taxes on each machine range from 3 million pesos (US$1,600) to 10 million pesos (US$5,500), depending on the amount of gold being extracted. To give an idea of the scale of illegal gold mining, in the Bajo Cauca region (between Antioquia and Cordoba) interviews with local mining associations indicated that up to 1,000 mechanical diggers were operating in nine municipalities,4 with this machinery generating over $2 million per month in extortion payments. Though not all these mines are in FARC territory, InSight Crime estimates that the Iván Ríos Bloc makes over $3 million a month from gold mining.

Coca Crops and Ivan Rios Bloc

5th Front

This front has a presence principally in the Uraba region of Antioquia, although it also reaches into Cordoba and Choco. Founded in 1971, it was the first FARC front in the region, and gave birth to several of the others, including the 18th, 47th and 58th Fronts. This was the founding front of what is now the Ivan Rios Bloc.

The risks of elements of this front criminalizing have grown significantly recently, with the deaths of two of the front's leaders. In August last year, alias "Valenciano" was killed in combat with the army5 and in February 2013, the front commander, Luis Carlos Durango, alias "Jacobo Arango" was killed in an aerial bombardment.6 Jacobo Arango had spent 37 years in the FARC ranks, and was one of the most respected commanders in the Ivan Rios Bloc. His death leaves a vacuum in the command structure of this bloc.

Another blow to the front occurred when security forces attacked the camp of the front's second-in-command, María Elda Ramírez, alias "Mayerly," who had barely escaped with her life a month before. Mayerly was apparently identified and located by undercover police agents masquerading as drug traffickers. She allegedly handled drug sales for the 5th Front, and a notebook found in her camp detailed sales of up to 800 kg of coca base a month, which generated over $1 million a month for the front.7

The area in which the 5th Front operates is also one of the heartlands of the Urabeños, and the 5th Front has close ties with this BACRIM group, as well as carrying out complex business negotiations. Intelligence seized from Mayerly's camp indicated that she had direct dealings with Dario Antonio Usuga, alias "Otoniel,"8 the head of the Urabeños. It is believed that Jacobo Arango, whose family name is Usuga, was Otoniel's cousin, and that family middlemen facilitated business with the Urabeños. Another Usuga in the FARC, and apparently part of the same clan, is the operational head of the Ivan Rios Bloc, Luis Carlos Usuga Restrepo, alias "Isaias Trujillo".9 Family connections with BACRIM leaders also raise the risk of criminalization.

9th and 47th Fronts

These fronts have been all but dismantled. Situated in the southern extreme of Antioquia, where it borders the Caldas department, these fronts have been hit hard by the security forces, and their leadership has either been killed or has deserted. Gabriel Arcangel Galvis Montoya, alias "Eliecer," the 9th Front's second-in-command, was killed in July 2012. The 47th Front never recovered from the desertion of its commander, Elda Neyis Mosquera Garcia, alias "Karina," in May 2008. The FARC do have ambitions to retake the area once dominated by these two fronts, but so far have had little success.10

FARC-Ivan Rios Bloc Front Leaders

18th Front

This is probably the strongest front, in military and political terms, in the Ivan Rios Bloc, with around 250 fighters and at least 300 militiamen. It is led by Alfredo Alarcon Machado, alias "Roman Ruiz," perhaps the most politically active commander in the entire bloc. Despite enduring constant security force offensives, by not one but two military Joint Task Forces, the 18th Front is still relatively intact, perched in its mountain eyrie of the Nudo de Paramillo.

This front makes its money from the sale of coca base and from extortion, principally of gold mining. It is very active militarily, and is conducting a constant harassment campaign to inhibit the construction of a hydroelectric dam in Ituango, one of the municipalities it dominates.

The front has links to the BACRIM, selling coca base to Rafael Alvarez Piñeda, alias "Chepe," the leader of the Paisas, who now works with the Urabeños.11 This connection has existed for many years, and intelligence sources indicate that the relationship between Chepe and the FARC is a strong one. However, there have also been clashes between the FARC and other Urabeños factions in Cordoba, making it appear that no comprehensive agreement with the Urabeños high command exists.

Should Roman Ruiz die or be killed in combat, it would be a serious blow to the ideological component of the Ivan Rios Bloc. It is Ruiz who runs the regional elements of the Clandestine Communist Party of Colombia (PC3), the FARC's clandestine political network, which apparently reaches all the way into the city of Medellin.

34th Front

This front was founded and led by Isaias Trujillo, but he was promoted to operational head of the bloc, and Ancizar Garcia Ospina, alias "Pedro Baracutado," now commands it. The front once numbered over 400 members, but current estimates put its strength at around 150. While it still operates in western Antioquia, its main strength is now hidden deep in the jungles of Choco. It makes money from drug trafficking, arms smuggling, extortion, and illegal mining. This was one of the fronts that openly violated the FARC's two-month ceasefire, declared between November 2012 and January 20, 2013. According to police, there were at least three blatant violations of the truce during December 2012 by this front alone.12 One source told InSight Crime that an attack on the police station in Murindo in December was intended to distract security forces from the movement of a drug shipment on its way to a departure point in Choco.

There are elements of three BACRIM operating in Choco: the Urabeños, Rastrojos and Renacer. There is no hard evidence of a relationship between the 34th Front and these groups, but nor are there any reports of clashes, which suggests that at the very least there are territorial agreements between them to avoid conflict.

The 34th Front maintains a steady stream of attacks on the security forces and has managed to impose an armed stoppage on the road linking Antioquia and Choco, preventing any movement. In March 2013, the front attacked police protecting a land restitution commission, suggesting that the rebels may have seized land in the region. Security force presence is weak in Choco and criminal activity (drugs, gold, arms smuggling and illegal timber) rife. The presence of multiple BACRIM and transnational criminal groups makes criminalization here very likely in scenario three (after demobilization).

36th Front

This is perhaps the most active front in the Ivan Rios Bloc, and may lead the entire FARC in the use of explosives. Under the leadership of Ovidio Antonio Mesa Ospina, alias "Anderson," this front has conducted a constant campaign against electricity infrastructure, transport companies and the security forces. Anderson has had a checkered past with the FARC, almost being shot by a "revolutionary tribunal" in 2002, after his girlfriend was killed in combat and he turned to drink. He was previously a fighter in the Aurelio Rodriguez Front. However, Ivan Rios saw his potential, and moved him into the 36th Front, where he became indispensable, taking over its leadership in 2003.13

Under Anderson, the 36th Front has become a pioneer in the use of explosives. These improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are used not only against infrastructure targets, but against military foot patrols and even vehicles. Anderson is not known to be very active politically, and does not get on well with the political chief of the front, alias "Olmedo."

Anderson is not a member of the general staff of the Ivan Rios Bloc, which means that, despite turning the 36th Front into the most belligerent and one of the richest units in the bloc, he is still only a junior commander. Local sources in the municipality of Anori suggested to InSight Crime that the first violation of the FARC ceasefire in November 2012, when the 36th Front blew up two electricity pylons, was a message from Anderson to the Secretariat, warning them to pay attention to him. Anderson is the perfect example of how difficult it could be to bring certain field commanders into the legal sphere. He does not have a senior position in the FARC hierarchy and is not well educated or political, meaning he would have few legal opportunities in any post-conflict scenario. However, he does command a large number of fighters, have close relations with local communities, earn a great deal of money, and may even have contacts with Mexican cartels.

The 36th Front earns money from gold mining, extortion, and coca base. Field research in the municipalities where the 36th Front is active suggests that Anderson earns $350,000 a month from gold mining, another $150,000 from extortion and at least $200,000 from the drug trade, principally the sale of coca base. That is $700,000 a month for a front that numbers just over 100 fighters and up to 600 militiamen.

Anderson, then, has a great deal of money to play with, does not appear especially ideological in his outlook, and feels neglected by the FARC high command. All of these factors indicate a risk of criminalization.

Mario Vélez

This was initially a Mobile Column and offensive unit for the Ivan Rios Bloc. However, due to a lack of coherent command within the bloc, the Mario Velez has become just another front, based around the municipalities of Caceres and Valdivia in Antioquia. It makes its money from coca base and extortion, again principally from the illegal gold mines. It is led by Duberney Tuberquia, alias "Remorado," whose partner is the daughter of Isaias Trujillo, and it has around 70 fighters. It sells coca base to the BACRIM. This front works very closely with Anderson of the 36th Front and might well follow his lead if required to make a decision on how to respond to a peace deal.

57th Front

The 57th is one of the FARC's richest units. It sits astride the border with Panama, has access to both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and runs cocaine directly to Mexican cartels. Military intelligence intercepts reveal constant radio traffic between the fronts in the northern case study area and the 57th in Choco, clearly indicating that they are intimately linked in the interests of the drug trade. While coca base travels towards the 57th, arms and munitions move in the opposite direction towards Bajo Cauca.14

This front is led by Gilberto de Jesus Torres, alias "El Becerro," who handles much of the Bloc's drug trafficking. Sources in Panama stated that El Becerro is believed to spend most of his time on the Panamanian side of the border and even stays occasionally in Panama City, which has long been a negotiating centre for FARC drug deals (Anayibe Rojas Valderrama, alias "Sonia," used Panama City to finalize deals.15 She was extradited to the US and convicted of drug trafficking in 2004).

El Becerro has long had an agreement with the Urabeños, forged by their first leader Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias "Don Mario" (arrested in April 2009). This agreement is believed to include not only delineation of territory and movement of drug consignments, but may also include pooling drug shipments. There are no reliable estimates on the earnings of this front, but InSight Crime estimates them to be very high, over $50 million a year. This front is believed to have international drug trafficking connections, including with Mexican cartels, and is not very active militarily. This group could easily criminalize if the right conditions presented themselves.

58th Front

The 58th Front operates where the Nudo de Paramillo drops into Cordoba. It has 120 fighters. Its leader is Jhoverman Sanchez, alias "Manteco," an aggressive military commander who does not look for agreements with his BACRIM counterparts. This front has traditionally fought the hardest with the Urabeños and their AUC predecessors. Sustained battles have taken place between this front and the Urabeños in the Tierralta municipality in Cordoba.16 

While this front does not appear to be very politically active, Manteco hates the BACRIM and would not be interested in any alliance with them, no matter what the financial benefits might be. This front is not a rich one, but does earn money from coca crops and extortion. This front is not at high risk of criminalization, though this could change if Manteco were to be killed.

Aurelio Rodriguez Front

Once based in Risaralda, this is another front that has been driven into the jungle of Choco and much weakened. Led by Martin Cruz Vega, alias "Rubin Morro," for whom the government recently offered a 425 million peso (US$ 230,000) bounty,17 this front numbers perhaps 60 fighters, down from over 200. Rubin Morro is a member of the Bloc's General Staff and is one of the more senior commanders in the Ivan Rios Bloc. He is from the more traditional wing of the FARC and likely to remain loyal to any decisions made by the Secretariat.

Footnotes

  1. See InSight Crime, "Urabeños Profile". Available at: http://www.insightcrime.org/groups-colombia/urabenos
  2. See InSight Crime, "Rastrojos Profile". Available at: http://www.insightcrime.org/groups-colombia/rastrojos
  3. See InSight Crime, "Oficina de Envigado Profile". Available at: http://www.insightcrime.org/groups-colombia/oficina-de-envigado
  4. InSight Crime carried out field research in the region for more than five weeks during 2012.
  5. Univisión, "Muere en combate jefe de las FARC que participó en masacre en 2002", 8 August 2012. Available at: http://noticias.univision.com/america-latina/colombia/article/2012-08-08/muere-en-combate-jefe-de#ixzz235grGGsg
  6. El Tiempo, "Farc reconocen muerte del jefe guerrillero alias 'Jacobo Arango'", 8 February 2013. Available at: http://www.eltiempo.com/justicia/farc-reconocen-muerte-de-jacobo-arango_12584602-4
  7. Semana, "Golpe a las Farc: La bomba de año nuevo", 5 January 2013. Available at: http://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/golpe-farc-la-bomba-ano-nuevo/328517
  8. See InSight Crime, "Otoniel Profile". Available at: http://www.insightcrime.org/personalities-colombia/dario-antonio-usuga-otoniel
  9. El Tiempo, "Alianza 'Urabeños' y Farc no es más que un negocio de familia", 28 January 2012. Available at: http://www.eltiempo.com/justicia/ARTICULO-WEB-NEW_NOTA_INTERIOR-11022007.html
  10. El Colombiano, "Farc querrían retomar zona del Oriente", 19 February 2013. Available at: http://www.elcolombiano.com/BancoConocimiento/F/farc_querrian_retomar_zona_del_oriente/farc_querrian_retomar_zona_del_oriente.asp?CodSeccion=211
  11. See InSight Crime "Chepe Profile". Available at: http://www.insightcrime.org/personalities-colombia/rafael-alvarez-pineda-chepe
  12. Caracol, "A la guerrilla de las Farc no se le puede creer: Policía del Urabá", 30 December 2012. Available at: http://www.caracol.com.co/noticias/judicial/a-la-guerrilla-de-las-farc-no-se-le-puede-creer-policia-del-uraba/20121230/nota/1817585.aspx
  13. InSight Crime interview with Colonel Diego Luis Villegas Muñoz, Commander of 25th Mobile Brigade, 6 September 2012, Tarazá, Antioquia.
  14. InSight Crime interviews with military officials, Tarazá, Antioquia, 6 September 2012.
  15. InSight Crime conducted interviews in Panama City in December 2012.
  16. InSight Crime field research, Cordoba, October 2012.
  17. El Espectador, " Millonarias recompensas por cabecillas de las Farc en Chocó", February 1, 2013. http://www.elespectador.com/noticias/judicial/articulo-402428-millonarias-recompensas-cabecillas-de-farc-choco
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