While a Colombian court handed down the first sentences for members of neo-paramilitary group ERPAC who surrendered in December, remnants of the gang are fighting for land and drug routes in the Eastern Plains, and may be teaming up with bigger criminal interests.

Some 267 members of the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC) surrendered in December, led by Jose Eberto Lopez, alias "Caracho." Colombian officials were caught off guard, unprepared to process them legally, so the vast majority were released hours after they turned themselves in.

About 80 percent of them have since been recaptured, but most are facing charges no more serious than criminal conspiracy, which carries sentences of between eight and 18 years, despite the fact that Caracho and his group could be responsible for 1,200 murders in three Colombian provinces. Because most have confessed to lesser crimes, their sentences could be halved.

On May 30, 43 members of the ERPAC were sentenced to four years and five months in prison and ordered to pay a fine of 900 million pesos (about $500,000) each, after pleading guilty to criminal conspiracy. Other similar convictions are expected to follow.

When Caracho, who presented himself as the ERPAC’s top leader following the 2010 death of Pedro Oliverio Guerrero, alias "Cuchillo," offered to demobilize with his men, he was seeking the same benefits that had been granted to paramilitary fighters under the Justice and Peace process. This offered suspended sentences, monthly stipends and vocational training to the rank and file. But the government of Juan Manuel Santos declared that its policy for the new illegal armed groups that emerged after the paramilitary demobilizations between 2003 and 2006, such as the ERPAC, was to deal with them solely through the courts, without offering any benefits for laying down their arms.

This means that many of the convicts, disgruntled by the lack of benefits, and who could actually be released from prison before serving their full sentences, with time off for good behavior and studies, may be prime candidates to return to the ranks of the remaining ERPAC factions.

In fact, the men who demobilized with Caracho apparently represent only a fraction of the total fighting force of the ERPAC. The remaining estimated 560 members have split into two groups: the Meta Bloc and Libertadores de Vichada, according to a report by the International Crisis Group (see pdf, below).

The Meta Bloc, according to the report, is led by Rubber Antonio Navarro Caicedo, who goes by the alias “Flaco Fredy” and operates mainly in the Ariari area of Meta province. The Libertadores del Vichada, which operates in Cumaribo, Vichada and parts of northern Meta along the border to Casanare, is led by Martin Farfan, alias Pijarbey, who was Cuchillo’s second-in-command until his capture in 2009. Pijarbey served three years of his four-year sentence before returning to the Llanos at the beginning of this year to take up leadership of the ERPAC faction.

See InSight Crime's map of ERPAC's area of influence

The two factions are fighting over territory as well as drug-cultivation and trafficking zones in Meta and Vichada provinces, the International Crisis Group says, possibly as proxies for the broader national interests of more powerful groups.

The Libertadores del Vichada are suspected to have the backing of Carecuchillo, Cuchillo’s brother, and Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias “Don Mario,” the founder of the Urabeños criminal group. The ICG reports that Don Mario is currently in a dispute with Manuel de Jesus Piraban, alias “Pirata,” the imprisoned former leader of the Heroes del Llano Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Pirata is said to support the ERPAC’s Meta Bloc, which has maintained the group's ties to long-time ally Daniel "El Loco" Barrera who, in turn, is linked to the Rastrojos.

In late May Colombian authorities seized a shipment of 150 rifles in Meta province which they said Barrera was sending to the ERPAC remnants. Although police did not specify which faction, it could be assumed, given the alliances, that they were going to the Meta Bloc.

The splintering of the remaining ERPAC elements and their alliances with competing forces is a clear sign that the surrender orchestrated by Caracho did next to nothing to dismantle the criminal networks in the Eastern Plains, and instead opened the door for national players to take over.