Colombian anti-narcotics police burn drug lab

The FARC have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs. They love the money it brings, funds which have allowed them to survive and even threaten to topple the state at the end of the 1990s. They hate the corruption and stigma narcotics have also brought to the rebel movement.

The agreement signed on drugs this month at peace talks in Havana could have a huge impact on the drug trade in Colombia -- if it were ever to be implemented. The rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are in a position to choke the cocaine trade or to turn themselves into the most powerful drug trafficking syndicate in the country.

Yet there is a lack of clarity on the exact nature of the relationship between the rebels and the drug trade. For more than a decade, the FARC have been regularly described as "narco-terrorists" in communiques spilling out of the Ministry of Defense, but the guerrillas themselves emphatically deny they are drug traffickers.

SEE ALSO: FARC profile

What they do admit to is the "gramaje." This is essentially a system of taxes imposed on the different links of the drug chain in their areas of control, and includes:

  • A tax on the growers (the cocaleros) -- which usually does not exceed $50 per kilo of coca base
  • A tax on the buyers -- up to $200 on a kilo of coca base
  • A tax on production in laboratories in their areas of control -- up to $100 for every kilo of cocaine produced
  • A tax on airstrips and flights that leave from their territory -- again another $100 per kilo.

This means the rebels admit to earning up to $450 from each kilo of drugs produced and moving through their territory. Even if this were their only involvement in the drug trade, it would earn them a minimum of $50 million a year just on the coca base trade in their areas of influence, and up to $90 million on the movement of cocaine.

These numbers are calculated based on the United Nations (UN) estimate for Colombian cocaine production, which was placed at 309 tons a year in 2012, of which the FARC control around two thirds. However, these figures are not only a huge underestimation of cocaine production in Colombia; the rebel involvement in drugs is also far more extensive and is not restricted to cocaine -- it also includes heroin, and a recent and increasingly lucrative development, marijuana. A conservative estimate of FARC earnings from the drug trade would be $200 million.

Outside of the gramaje, other drug trafficking activities are neither recognized nor sanctioned directly by the FARC's ruling body, the seven-man Secretariat. This is the way the rebel high command seeks to maintain deniability in terms of the drug trade. This lack of central control over rebel drug-related activities is also the reason the FARC do not dominate Colombia's cocaine trade.

Security force operations and criminal proceedings have provided glimpses over the years of how deep FARC involvement in the drug trade has extended, and here are a few examples:

"Negro Acacio" and Operation "Black Cat"

Tomas Molina Caracas, alias "Negro Acacio," was the head of the 16th Front, based in Vichada, which sat astride the triple frontier with Venezuela and Brazil. In 2001, the army deployed its newly minted Rapid Deployment Force, which was composed of Special Forces equipped and trained by the United States and shuttled around in shiny new Blackhawk helicopters. The operation was dubbed "Black Cat." The results were the seizures of FARC documents detailing the production, processing and transport of approximately two ton shipments of cocaine, each earning the FARC $2 million. There were details of at least seven such shipments. The second overwhelming piece of evidence was the capture of the principal buyer of the drugs, Brazilian drug lord Luis Fernando Da Costa, alias "Fernandinho Beira-Mar" ("Freddy Seashore"). Da Costa is a member of Brazil's oldest criminal syndicate the Red Command (Comando Vermelho). Indeed, Da Costa may today be the top leader of the Red Command. It was clear that Negro Acacio, until his death in an aerial bombardment in 2007, was the principal fundraiser for the FARC's Eastern Bloc, answering directly to Victor Suarez, alias "Mono Jojoy," the Bloc's commander, Secretariat member and rebel field marshal. It was also clear that money from drugs fueled the growth of the Eastern Bloc, to 6,000 fighters in 2002, making it the most powerful military division of the rebel army.

"Carlos Bolas" and Drugs for Arms

In June 2002, Eugenio Vargas Perdomo, alias "Carlos Bolas" was arrested in Suriname and swiftly extradited to the US. There he was convicted of drug trafficking, on charges of handling more than 200 tons of cocaine on behalf of Negro Acacio and the 16th Front. He served 11 years in a US prison and was deported back to Colombia in June 2013. But Carlos Bolas was more than a simple trafficker. His principal role was as a buyer of arms on the international black market. The currency in which he paid, happily accepted by illegal arms dealers, was cocaine. He is believed to have had a hand in the purchase of 10,000 AK-47 assault rifles which were parachuted into the Colombian jungles in 1999 and provided far and away the biggest injection of weapons to the rebel army in its 50 years.

Alias "Sonia" and the Panama Connection


Anayibe Rojas Valderrama, alias "Sonia," was the head of finances for the FARC's powerful 14th Front, based in Caqueta. I met her in 2001 in the main camp of the 14th Front in Las Peñas Coloradas, on the Caguan River, where she exercised an iron control over the movement of drugs in this traditional coca-growing region. She was captured in Caqueta in February 2004 and extradited to the US. In 2007 she was found guilty by a Washington DC court, of drug trafficking to the US and sentenced to 16 years in prison. During her trial it came to light that she had been responsible for sending tons of cocaine to the US (the Colombian army put the figure at 600 tons, undoubtedly a vastly inflated figure), with many of the deals negotiated by her personally in Panama.

All of these cases refer to the years when the FARC was at the height of its powers, its commanders were seemingly untouchable and huge swathes of the country were under the rebels' undisputed control. That ended in 2002, and by the end of 2008 the FARC had seen the death of its founder and supreme commander, Pedro Marin, better known by his alias "Manuel Marulanda," two other members of the Secretariat had been killed, and the rebel command control structure was in tatters.

The FARC today is a much more fragmented movement, and the rebel fronts enjoy greater autonomy than they had a decade ago. Several units have deepened their involvement in the drug trade and are exporting drugs. The 57th Front moves cocaine into Panama, often working with its former paramilitary enemies, now grouped under the "Urabeños"; the 48th and 29th Fronts, in the border provinces of Putumayo and Nariño respectively, move drug shipments into Ecuador, where many end up in the hands of the Mexican cartels; the 33rd Front in Norte de Santander moves large quantities of cocaine into Venezuela, while the 16th Front is back in business, moving drugs into both Venezuela and Brazil. (For more details on current FARC involvement in the drug trade see Criminal Activities of the FARC and Rebel Earnings).

SEE ALSO: FARC, Peace and Possible Criminalization

FARC involvement in drugs is no longer restricted to coca and cocaine. The rebels are also involved in the heroin business in the departments of Nariño, Cauca and Tolima. The 6th Front in Cauca has become perhaps the major supplier of marijuana in Colombia. This is not only for the domestic market -- a new particularly potent strain, known as "creepy," is now being exported to neighbors as well.

The future of the Colombian drug trade is intimately linked to success at the negotiating table in Havana. Should an agreement be reached with the FARC, the rebels are, like the Taliban were in Afghanistan, the best placed to have a major impact on drug crop cultivation. However, there is also the risk that individual FARC units will go into the drug business for themselves and work alongside the Urabeños and other drug trafficking syndicates, or even start working directly with Mexican cartels.

What is certain is that the rebels and the drug trade cannot be separated. They might now be described as Siamese twins, and the fate of one is now inextricably bound to the other.