Walter Patricio Arizala, alias “Guacho,” was one of the most wanted criminals in both Colombia and Ecuador, after military forces made him a priority target. Guacho led a group of dissident members from the now largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) known as the Oliver Sinisterra Front. The dissident front is alleged to have been behind the deaths of three Ecuadorean journalists and the massacre of eight coca farmers in the Colombian department of Nariño, located on the border with Ecuador.
While the Oliver Sinisterra Front may define itself as an active FARC guerrilla group, its criminal structure can be better described as ex-FARC Mafia, controlling drug trafficking in one of Colombia’s most successful coca producing territories.
Guacho was born on November 9, 1989, in Ecuador’s Esmeraldas province along the border with Colombia. He ran a small business before joining the FARC and engaging in a decade of combat with the group.
The FARC’s Daniel Aldana Mobile Column (CMDA), which operated on the Pacific coast of Nariño department, recruited Guacho in 2007. Its activities took place along the upper and lower Mira River, where the greatest number of Colombia’s illicit crops are concentrated.
In the FARC, Guacho served as a community organizer, financial chief and explosives expert. He was a favorite of CMDA commander Gustavo González Sánchez, alias “Rambo,” who already had 30 years of guerrilla experience. Under Rambo’s mentorship, Guacho learned much of what was required to be involved in both war and the drug business.
In 2016, the FARC signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government and demobilized. Guacho took part in this process, moving to an outlying village in Tumaco, a port city on the Pacific coast. He spent four months there in a local transitional zone for normalization, which helps demobilized FARC members reintegrate into society. However, he decided to leave because he believed only top guerrilla leaders would benefit from the peace agreement.
Thus, Guacho created the dissident Oliver Sinisterra Front, named in honor of the third in command of the CMDA, which by then had disbanded. The front started out with 250 armed members, adding to an already existing collection of militias in the area. Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office has said that the group currently numbers over 300, and the Ideas for Peace Foundation (Fundación Ideas para la Paz – FIP) think tank has reported that there are 500 current members. The weapons they carry include Colt AR-15 and M16 rifles, M-4 carbines with grenade launchers and Pietro Beretta pistols, which are believed to come from Central America and Ecuador.
“We are not dissidents; we are still active guerrillas,” Guacho has said. While there is no evidence of activity resembling an insurgent struggle, since rearming, the Oliver Sinisterra Front has managed to seize control of the old routes, illicit crop farms, laboratory networks and transnational contacts that the CMDA used for trafficking drugs.
This enabled the group to gain control of drug trafficking routes exiting Colombia from the south towards Central America and southern Latin America. It is also suspected that the front uses the port city of San Lorenzo in Ecuador’s northern coastal province of Esmeraldas as a transit point and logistical center. Guacho allegedly orchestrated a 2018 car bombing attack on the city’s police station, an indication of the importance the region holds for the dissidents.
Eventually, the Oliver Sinisterra Front became the main cocaine supplier to the Sinaloa Cartel, conducting operations that amounted to as much as $25 million per week.
But government pressure increased on the group as well. In response to persistent criminal acts occurring along Colombia’s Pacific coast, former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos launched the Atlas military operation in 2017 with 9,000 soldiers and police to attack every link in the group’s drug trafficking activities and their connections.
In September 2018, recently inaugurated Colombian President Iván Duque stated that Operation Anguila, which was carried out in a coastal region of Nariño department called the Telembí Triangle, may have left Guacho wounded. However, that information could not be confirmed by then-commander of the Colombian military, General Alberto José Mejía.
The Oliver Sinisterra Front took a series of blows with the declaration of Guacho as a primary target, disputes for control over drug trafficking routes with other criminal groups such as the United Guerrillas of the Pacific (Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico – GUP), and the loss of various drug shipments. The dissident leader was left spending his last days isolated and in hiding on an indigenous reservation in the village of Llorente within the municipality of Tumaco.
Finally, on December 21, 2018, the leader of the Oliver Sinisterra Front was killed in a joint operation between Colombian military forces, the National Police and the Attorney General’s Office.
It is believed that Guacho lost 40 percent of his men to arrests and killings during security force operations. Additionally, 130 of his laboratories were destroyed, two of which were underground. He also lost a semi-submersible submarine belonging to the Sinaloa Cartel, and authorities seized more than 50 tons of cocaine from his organization.
Guacho spent 10 years committing crimes with the CMDA, a structure that victimized a large part of Nariño department’s population through homicides, displacements, landmines, illegal taxes and drug crop and laboratory seizures. Its military and financial prowess led the public to see the CMDA as one of the most feared FARC guerrilla units in Colombia.
As a member of the former guerrilla movement, Guacho underwent special forces training abroad, which gave him experience in handling explosives and later set him up to coordinate several attacks against security forces in the south of Colombia.. By 2012, he was squadron head and finance commander of the CMDA, according to authorities.
After joining the FARC dissidence, Guacho decided to take control of the border territory with Ecuador, which gave him access to hundreds of farms producing illicit crops as well as drug laboratories. It also gave him his start in the international market.
With every expansion into rural towns and indigenous reservations, he also victimized an increasing number of local populations. Several area residents told InSight Crime that by 2017, the Oliver Sinisterra Front had already recruited many of the region’s children and teenagers.
Unlike its predecessors, the actions of Guacho’s group had little to do with a subversive struggle in defense of political ideals; they were instead based on protecting drug trafficking territory. As such, the Oliver Sinisterra Front’s violent actions have been aimed at hindering the security forces’ counternarcotics operations and undermining the Colombian government’s illicit crop eradication and substitution programs agreed upon as part of the FARC’s peace deal.
In April 2017, Guacho was identified as the primary suspect in the 24-hour kidnapping of 12 policemen who, along with 43 other officers, participated in an aggressive coca eradication operation in Llorente, known for its high rates of drug trafficking.
Guacho was also considered to be responsible for a massacre that took place in the hamlet of Puerto Rico, a rural area also within the Tumaco municipality. Six people were killed and 52 were injured in the confrontation between the Oliver Sinisterra Front and security forces, the point of contention being the use of forced eradication to combat illicit crops instead of substitution.
On the Ecuadorean side of the border, Guacho’s group has been accused of crimes such as forced recruitment and carrying out a car bomb attack against the San Lorenzo Police Station in Esmeraldas province, which injured 28 people.
But two other incidents earned Guacho and the Oliver Sinisterra Front most of their international notoriety. One was the kidnapping and murder of three Ecuadorean press workers. The other was the murder of an Ecuadorean couple.
Guacho’s criminal life with the CMDA was centered around Tumaco in Colombia and certain border areas in Ecuador’s Esmeraldas province.
As leader of the Oliver Sinisterra Front in the ex-FARC mafia structure, he continued to dominate the Colombia-Ecuador border, especially along the Mira and Mataje rivers in the village of Llorente and the hamlets of El Azúcar, Vallenato, Los Cocos, El Playó, La Corozala, La Aduana and Yarumala. Guacho also attempted to expand into other municipalities besides Tumaco, such as Roberto Payán, also on Colombia’s Pacific coast in Nariño department. In Ecuador, he and his criminal group operated in San Lorenzo, in Esmeraldas province.
Allies and Enemies
Among Guacho’s allies, the Sinaloa Cartel bears mentioning as it has been the Oliver Sinisterra Front’s main international commercial partner. Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” commander of the 1st Front FARC dissident group, was also an ally.
In contrast, Guacho had significantly more enemies. Both Ecuadorean and Colombian security forces focused much of their military might on the border to neutralize Guacho and his men. The main criminal groups that fought Guacho over territory and control of the region’s drug trafficking included the GUP and a smaller drug trafficking group called Renacer (Rebirth).
Other possible rivals, by virtue of the fact that their territory may overlap with that of the Oliver Sinisterra Front, include the Gulf Clan, Los Negritos, El Nuevo Grupo, La Empresa, La Gente del Orden and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).
Although at the time of his death Guacho still controlled the drug trafficking routes and illicit crop farms operating between Tumaco and Esmeraldas, it is clear that the state’s response to his criminal activity had diminished his military capacity, freedom of movement and finances.
Guacho’s exit from the criminal landscape represents a risk for the Oliver Sinisterra Front because other criminal organizations likely see his death as an opportunity to seize control of the group’s strategic territory and take over the drug trafficking connections Guacho established with the Sinaloa Cartel.
However, this is no indication of a future reduction in the drug trafficking business. On the contrary, neutralizing Guacho will translate into less pressure on the Colombian government to continue showing results for its efforts against an activity that currently produces the country’s highest economic returns.