Colombia's organized crime groups are preparing to take over FARC-held territory once the rebel group withdraws from a decades-long conflict, but the country's looming peace deal is not a wholly positive development for these criminal organizations.
Investigations by Colombia's Attorney General's Office found that the Urabeños, Rastrojos and other neo-paramilitary groups known as BACRIM (from the Spanish, "bandas criminales") are eyeing territory currently in the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), reported El Espectador. The FARC, who control some 70 percent of all coca-growing territory in Colombia, have agreed to enter designated concentration zones in the event of a final peace agreement with the government.
The FARC "are leaving and deserting very important drug trafficking and illegal mining territories, and that is when illegal groups arrive," said Juan Carlos Acevedo, director of the Attorney General's organized crime division. Acevedo said this is principally happening in the departments of Putumayo, Chocó, Cauca and Nariño.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of BACRIM
The Urabeños began fighting for control of FARC territory a little over two years ago, according to El Colombiano. The majority of the fighting has occurred in the same departments where Acevedo says the BACRIM are now looking to occupy FARC territories.
Meanwhile, community leaders in the department of Córdoba who were providing educational workshops on the FARC peace process reported receiving threats on June 26 from individuals who self-identified as members of the Urabeños. The following day, armed men shot at the house of one of the leaders and left a threatening pamphlet on his doorstep, reported La Silla Vacía. (See below)
After referencing the FARC peace process, the letter reads "the next bullets will be put in [your] head this is another warning."
InSight Crime Analysis
The recent events encapsulate both the unique opportunities and dangers facing Colombia's criminal organizations as a final peace agreement with the FARC approaches.
The Attorney General's investigation confirms what InSight Crime has found during recent field research: illegal armed groups are looking to take over the criminal economies the FARC will presumably leave behind once a peace deal is signed. For this reason, the BACRIM could be one of the principal criminal beneficiaries of the FARC withdrawing from the conflict. In addition to rebel group the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), the BACRIM are well-positioned to acquire a share of the FARC's illicit revenue streams that stem from their involvement in the drug trade, illegal mining and extortion.
At the same time, the reported threats against community leaders in Córdoba underscore the new challenges a peace accord would present the BACRIM. According to La Silla Vacía, the community leaders are convinced the threats are a response to last week's ceasefire agreement, which included language that suggested criminal organizations will come under greater duress from the security forces.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile
Of course, it's possible the motive behind the threats was more financial than political. Ariel Ávila, an investigator at Colombia's Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation (Fundación Paz y Reconciliación) recently told El Colombiano that the Urabeños and other neo-paramilitary groups are often hired to carry out assassinations of social leaders.
It is also worth noting Colombia's criminal groups -- especially the Urabeños -- are already facing heavy security pressure. Earlier this year, the government commissioned an elite unit known as the Search Bloc to combat the BACRIM, and security forces have mounted an operation to hunt down Urabeños boss Dario Antonio Usuga, alias "Otoniel."
The government has nonetheless indicated the BACRIM will become an even greater security priority once a peace agreement is signed with the FARC. The military, which has traditionally been used against Colombia's guerrilla groups, has also proposed taking a more active crime-fighting role should the FARC and ELN lay down their weapons.
The possibility of the FARC leaving the field provides new opportunities for the BACRIM to expand their operations, but it also puts them in greater danger. How this situation plays out will help shape the future of Colombia's organized crime landscape.