One of Colombia's most important criminal groups is set to begin "demobilizing" today, according to El Espectador. About 450 members of the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC), a trafficking organization made up largely of former paramilitaries, have agreed to turn themselves in. The first group, reportedly numbering 150, is set to meet with state prosecutors Friday in Villavicencio, the largest city in Colombia's Eastern Plains.
[See InSight Crime's profile of ERPAC]
ERPAC's leader, Jose Eberto Lopez Montero, alias "Caracho," had insisted in recent months that he was keen to surrender and dismantle his organization, and implied that he would not demand concessions in return. The question now is whether the Colombian state has offered Caracho and his organization some kind of incentive. So far authorities have denied giving the ERPAC any concessions, though·it is safe to assume that 450 fighters do not hand themselves in without any guarantees.
The ERPAC was among the first of the new criminal groups to emerge from the ashes of paramilitary army the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The ERPAC's name, with its reference to fighting "terrorists," placed them in the political tradition of the AUC, which was set up to combat guerrilla groups. However, ERPAC has not adopted the AUC's policies towards the country's biggest guerrilla force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Instead, the ERPAC was one of the first of Colombia's post-AUC groups to establish an alliance with the FARC, buying coca base from the guerrillas, and agreeing to respect each other's territory.
The demobilization of the ERPAC will leave a power vacuum in the Eastern Plains, their stronghold. It could yet inspire other new generation criminal groups, which the government has labeled "bandas criminales" (BACRIMs), to follow suit. The leader of another powerful criminal organization, the Rastrojos, is reportedly seeking to turn himself into US justice. That leaves another BACRIM, the Urabenos, whose founder originally fought in the Eastern Plains. It is unlikely that the Urabeños have the contacts needed to establish a foothold here, as their base of operations is along the Caribbean Coast. But there is no doubt that they have an interest in moving into the ERPAC's old territory.
Other players on the Eastern Plains include "Emerald Czar" Victor Carranza, a landowner and businessman long dogged by accusations that he organizes paramilitary groups in the region, although he has never been convicted of anything. Another one of the ERPAC's longtime rivals, Hectar Buitrago, alias "Martin Llanos," could also emerge from hiding to rebuild his paramilitary organization.
For now the group best positioned to take advantage of the power vacuum left by the ERPAC is the FARC. Under the terms of their alliance, the FARC sells coca base to the ERPAC, who then process it into cocaine and ship it abroad. With ERPAC out of the picture, the FARC have another chance to rebuild their international cocaine trafficking routes in east Colombian provinces like Vichada and Guaviare.
The ERPAC's surrender calls to mind the demobilization of the AUC. This process was mired in problems and failed to prevent the rise of the BACRIMs to take the place of the paramilitaries, after mid-level AUC commanders who did not demobilize simply kept on fighting and trafficking drugs. Given that ERPAC has an estimated 1,200 members, one question is what will happen to those who have not surrendered. They fight for another faction of the group which is not loyal to the current leader, Caracho, so there was probably little chance of them surrendering anyway.
The Colombian government has long maintained that their policy is to dismantle the BACRIMs through pressure from law enforcement. The ERPAC's reported surrender may be one sign that in some cases, it is more convenient for large groups of drug traffickers to demobilize all at once, rather than having the police or military track them down one by one.
Caracho only took over the ERPAC last December, after the group's head Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias "Cuchillo,"was killed in a raid by the security forces. Caracho had a tough time keeping the group together. In a interview and photo spread with Semana magazine in November, he spoke of his desire to dismantle the group if they were charged only for "what we've done, not for what we haven't done." For Caracho, this means only taking responsibilty for the homicides, kidnapping and mass displacements committed after December 2010, when he assumed control of the group.
A version of this article appeared on the Pan-American Post.