FARC dissident commanders 'Gentil Duarte' (left) and 'John 40' (right)

Colombia's FARC have expelled five of their commanders, some of whom are powerful historical figures, a revealing indication of the guerrilla group's ongoing fragmentation as more elements criminalize despite the government's best attempts to get a rocky peace process back on track.

On December 13, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) announced the expulsion of five commanders from their ranks: Miguel Botache Santanilla, alias "Gentil Duarte;" Géner García Molina, alias "John 40" or "Jhon 40;" Luis Alfonso Lizcano Gualdrón, alias "Euclides Mora;" Ernesto Orjuela Tovar, alias "Giovanni Chuspas;" and Miguel Díaz San Martín, alias "Julián Chollo."

"This decision is motivated by their recent conduct, which has brought them into conflict with our political-military cause," the press release reads.

All of the former FARC commanders apparently operate in Colombia's Eastern Plains, a vast lowlands home to numerous armed drug trafficking groups.

According to security officials, Gentil Duarte and John 40 have been making contact with two local representatives of the Urabeños criminal organization known as "Sebastián" and "Costeño," El Tiempo reported. Sources in the Eastern Plains' Guaviare department also told El Tiempo that up to 300 FARC members have abandoned two pre-concentration zones in the area. Guerrillas have been gathering in these zones in anticipation of a final peace deal between the government and the FARC.

SEE ALSO: FARC News and Profile

Gentil Duarte is perhaps the most important of the five commanders to leave the guerrillas' ranks. A historical member of the organization, he was part of the FARC's General Staff (Estado Mayor), the leader of the 7th Front and, in 2013, he joined the group's peace delegation in Havana, Cuba. Gentil Duarte later returned to Colombia to also assume the leadership of the FARC's 1st Front, after elements of that unit declared themselves against the peace process and were subsequently expelled by the organization.

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Gentil Duarte, c/o Interpol

Gentil Duarte's expulsion was apparently decided after the commander stole a vehicle loaded with a stash of weapons in Guaviare and fled along with his security detail, El Colombiano reported.

Another key figure is John 40 -- one of the FARC's most notorious drug traffickers and former head of the 43rd Front who had acquired a reputation for a lavish, excessive lifestyle. For a while, the drug revenues kept the guerrilla leadership satisfied, but he was eventually tried and punished before one of the FARC's rebel tribunals. Still, by 2013 he had reportedly returned to operating in the Eastern Bloc.

One of the other expelled commanders, Giovanni Chuspas, reportedly managed drug trafficking activities for the Eastern Bloc and was a leading member of the 16th Front. Julián Chollo was reportedly the head of the 40th Front and coordinated drug hauls into Brazil. Euclides Mora had reportedly also been a FARC peace delegate in Havana, and was the commander of the 62nd Front. All former leaders were long-standing members of the insurgency.

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InSight Crime Analysis

The expulsion of such high-ranking members of the guerrilla group is one of the starkest displays of the FARC's slow and certain unraveling, which has been exacerbated by the instability of the peace process underway with the Colombian government.

The four-year-old process has hit numerous road bumps over the past few months, the biggest -- and most shocking -- coming when the public rejected an initial peace deal with the FARC in an October referendum. On December 13, the re-negotiated agreement received legal approval to pass before congress as quickly as possible under special conditions (pdf). Nevertheless, the months of judicial limbo following the referendum may well have pushed more FARC members to return to the relative stability of their criminal activities. Desertions have been occurring in several parts of the country, including in the department of Antioquia and on the northern coast.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of FARC Peace

What is perhaps most worrying about these recent expulsions is that they are of historic, high-ranking members of the FARC, and involve some of the richest factions of the organization.

The 16th Front was historically one of the biggest money-makers for the entire FARC organization, with ties to transnational drug trafficking. And security officials have told InSight Crime that John 40 may currently be in Venezuela with the "Acacio Medina" front, which would give him influence over a huge swath of territory from Guaviare to Amazonas department in the neighboring country. This department has become a storage center for illegal drugs, where they are either trafficked northwards to the Caribbean coast or south into Brazil. Like the 1st Front, John 40's unit also appears to be involved in the illegal mining of gold and coltan -- also highly lucrative trades.

Another serious concern is that dissidence within the FARC has been strengthening other illegal groups in the process. Not only are non-compliant rebels switching ranks to join their guerrilla cousins in the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), but they appear to be forging alliances with Colombia's most powerful criminal organization, the Urabeños.

Despite their right-wing counter-insurgent roots, neo-paramilitary groups like the Urabeños have long been collaborating with guerrilla organizations to coordinate drug trafficking operations across the country. However, in the lead-up to the FARC's demobilization the Urabeños have been consolidating their presence in areas that are being evacuated by the guerrillas. This expansion seems to have been facilitated by both FARC dissidents and former guerrilla allies. In the Eastern Plains, where the FARC have a strong presence, the Urabeños' incursion was apparently made possible by the collaboration of Gentil Duarte. Further west in Nariño and Putumayo departments, rumors have emerged that the Urabeños are allying with local trafficking groups formerly at the service of the FARC.

Still, these allegiances will probably not prevent outbreaks of violence in areas of traditional FARC control. Despite Putumayo being an historic FARC stronghold, around 600 guerrillas are apparently refusing to move to the zones where they will be demobilizing due to the "paramilitary" threat in the area.

Colombia's Defense Ministry has furthermore reiterated its intention to carry out a military offensive against FARC dissidents, increasing the risk of the armed conflict intensifying against these breakaway units. Yet these groups may have even more to fear from the FARC itself, which recently exterminated unruly former members of the insurgency in several parts of the country.

Investigations

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