Ricardo Abel Ayala Ortega, alias “Cabuyo,” is currently a high-value military target in Colombia, leading the ex-FARC Mafia’s 36th Front in the northwestern department of Antioquia.
Ayala Ortega gained relevance after the implementation of the peace process between the government and the now-defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). He was part of the FARC’s Iván Ríos Bloc but he refused to demobilize, preferring instead to lead the 36th Front of the ex-FARC Mafia, dedicated to drug trafficking and illegal gold mining.
About 50 armed men allegedly report to Ayala Ortega in the municipalities of Ituango, Valdivia, Campamento and Tarazá in the north of Antioquia. This region has a high number of coca plantations and illegal mines, as well as being a nerve center for drug routes out of Colombia through the Urabá Gulf and the Colombian Pacific.
Cabuyo joined the FARC’s 36th Front in 2010, becoming a member of what was considered to be the most active front within the Iván Ríos Bloc.
He reportedly began as an active militiaman in the municipality of Campamento, Antioquia. before becoming a foot soldier within the 36th Front’s Gerardo Torres company in 2011, providing security around coca crops and illegal mines. In 2015, he took on more responsibilities within the 36th Front, such as managing drug trafficking money, conducting select contract killings and recruiting new members.
During the peace negotiations between the FARC and the government of Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, Ayala Ortega initially took part in the demobilization efforts. He handed over his weapons in the village of La Plancha in Anorí, Antioquia before being appointed by the FARC to take part in demining efforts in the village of Orejón de Briceño, Antioquia.
However, he appears to have quickly abandoned the peace process and returned to his criminal ways. Ayala Ortega’s name next appeared in January 2018, when he reportedly extorted businesses associated with the Hidroituango hydroelectric project located along the Cauca River, especially in the municipalities of Briceño and Ituango.
He was also allegedly involved in the murders of three geologists from the Canadian multinational Continental Gold in the village of Ochalí, in the municipality of Yarumal Antioquia, on September 19, 2018. After this incident, the Colombian military increased its offensives against the ex-FARC Mafia’s 36th Front.
Ayala Ortega is recognized as the principal military leader of the ex–FARC Mafia in northern Antioquia and Bajo Cauca.
Under the command of Ayala Ortega, the 36th Front has fought Los Urabeños over territorial control and criminal economies in the region since the end of 2017. This has resulted in an increase in homicides and forced displacements in the region.
In 2019, Yamir Arles Moreno, a key witness in legal proceedings brought against Cabuyo by the Attorney General’s Office, was kidnapped and is believed to be dead.
Additionally, Cabuyo is in control of much of the illegal gold mining in northern Antioquia, a department in which 80 percent of gold is extracted illegally, according to Colombia’s Comptroller’s Office.
Cabuyo began to expand his influence over the municipalities of Ituango, Valdivia and Briceño in northern Antioquia by extorting a number of multinational energy companies.
Similarly, he maintains a presence in the Paramillo Massif, disputing the routes that facilitate drug trafficking from Bajo Cauca in Antioquia to the Gulf of Urabá.
He appears to have been affected by military operations and arrests of some of his collaborators as Ayala Ortega has been seen in northeastern Antioquia, seemingly looking to find new recruits around the municipality of Anorí.
Allies and Enemies
Cabuyo has maintained his position in Antioquia’s criminal landscape through a careful network of alliances. His most important alliances are with Los Caparrapos and the ELN, with the shared objective of expelling the Urabeños from Bajo Cauca and the Paramillo Massif; a strategic point for the production and transport of coca paste.
Meanwhile, the 36th Front also maintains a close alliance with the 18th Front of the ex-FARC Mafia, a structure led by Erlison Echavarría, alias “Ramiro.” He also has ties with ex–FARC Mafia structures led by Iván Márquez, although this does not seem to have materialized into direct military support.
Cabuyo’s relationships within the criminal world are not limited to the north of Antioquia in terms of alliances. In the Valle de Aburrá, which includes the city of Medellín, the 36th Front exchanges weapons for drugs to groups including Los Pachelly, El Mesa and El Tapón.
Cabuyo’s main enemies in the criminal underworld are the Urabeños while he has also come under repeated pressure from the 7th Division of Colombia’s national army, which has led military operations against the 36th Front.
For all his notoriety, Cabuyo appears to have relatively few men under his direct control. Recent arrests of members of the 36th Front along with indications that Cabuyo is looking for new recruits around Anorí, Antioquia, may show that his command is weakening.
Furthermore, military activities in the north of Antioquia and Bajo Cauca have continued throughout 2020 so far, increasing the pressure on the ex-FARC Mafia leader.
Cabuyo’s skill at maintaining alliances regionally and nationally may allow his structure to survive. But in the medium term, it is possible that his 36th Front may merge with its allied 18th Front as Cabuyo is close to that structure’s leaders, alias “Ramiro,” or disintegrate permanently.