As ideological differences become irrelevant, Colombia’s illegal armies and drug traffickers are now working together, united against the government. Nowhere is this clearer than in the province of Norte De Santander, on the border with Venezuela.
Norte De Santander is a new center of Colombia’s civil conflict. It is here that the commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) directs his 8000-strong army. It is here that the National Liberation Army (ELN) have one of their strongholds. It is here that the last remaining faction of the People’s Liberation Army (EPL) still holds out. It is here that the drug cartel of the Rastrojos funnels much of its cocaine into Venezuela. None of these groups are now fighting each other. On the contrary there is evidence that they are all working together. Welcome to the new face of Colombia’s civil conflict as the fighting enters its 48th year.
Norte De Santander is home to all these illegal actors for three main reasons: the presence of coca crops, the minimal control of the state, and its proximity to Venezuela, now the principal transit nation for cocaine heading to the US and Europe.
All three rebel groups in the province or department make most of their money from drug trafficking. They protect drug crops, engaging the spray planes that fumigate the coca, and taking on the manual eradicators that seek to uproot the plants. They protect the drug “kitchens” that turn the coca leaves into coca base, and the laboratories that crystallize that base into cocaine. In March alone the security forces dismantled 11 such laboratories, all mobile, all able to produce up to 500kg of cocaine a month. All the rebel groups have their own smuggling routes into Venezuela. They also sell coca base and cocaine to other drug trafficking organizations, principally the Rastrojos, a group that dominates the departmental capital and border city of Cucuta.
The department is home to the FARC’s Magdalena Medio Bloc, one of its seven fighting divisions. This bloc has historically been led by Rodrigo Londoño, alias “Timochenko.” In November last year, the FARC’s ruling body, the seven-man Secretariat, voted in Timochenko as guerrilla commander-in-chief. His predecessor, Guillermo Leon Saenz, alias “Alfonso Cano,” was killed in combat in the western department of Cauca.
Norte De Santander has another strategic significance to the Marxist rebels. It is through here that one of the country’s principal oil pipelines passes. So far this year there have been 15 attacks on pipelines, as the rebels of the FARC and ELN step up their war of economic attrition against the government, and seek to undermine foreign investment and oil production, two of the current motors of the economy.
So thanks to the presence of Timochenko and the oil industry, Norte De Santander, long abandoned by the Colombian state, has become a government priority. The government has set up a special task force, codenamed “Vulcan,” to hunt down Timochenko and hammer space for other institutions of the state to begin to operate in the department. Made up of 7,000 troops, among them some of the most battle-hardened the Colombian army can call upon, Task Force Vulcan is now engaged in near daily combat. Timochenko, keen to prove his military credentials to the rest of the organization, and be seen to be leading from the front, has moved several hundred more fighters into the region. Last year 250 hostile actions were registered in Norte De Santander. At the current rate of combat, 2012 could see double that number.
What the security forces had not counted on was having to face the FARC, the ELN and the EPL all working together. However that is exactly what they are facing. Intelligence officers have indicated that units of the ELN have worked alongside their FARC counterparts to protect Timochenko and conduct joint operations against the army. The EPL, while much smaller, with perhaps 50 fighters, does have excellent intelligence and penetration of the provincial apparatus, combining its forces with its larger revolutionary cousins.
All three rebel groups have coca crops in the areas that they operate, areas clearly delineated between them to avoid any conflict. Here the EPL commander, Victor Ramón Navarro, alias “Megateo,” has become a huge broker of coca base and cocaine, running a kind of drug “stock exchange” in the department. He is being hunted not only by the Colombian government, which placed a $1 million bounty on his head, but by the United States, which wants to extradite him to face drug trafficking charges.
The violence, like the movement of the illegal armed groups, is not restricted to the Colombian side of the frontier. All the illegal actors move with ease into Venezuela. It is not hard to obtain a Venezuelan identity card, and many of the Marxist rebels have been captured in possession of one, meaning they can move and live within Venezuela without being molested.
In January this year a massacre occurred on Venezuelan side of the border, in the municipality of Pedro Maria Ureña. The Venezuelan authorities attributed the four bodies they picked up, two Venezuelan and two Colombian, to a fight between the Colombian rival groups of the Rastrojos and Urabeños. Venezuelan groups are also stepping up their role in international drug trade, increasingly taking control of transit and international routes, and buying drugs directly from Colombian rebels and other criminal organizations. At the forefront of this is the so-called “Cartel of the Suns,” so named after the stars that Venezuelan generals wear on their outlets. This cartel has its tentacles into many different institutions of the Venezuelan state, allegedly with senior military officers at its head.
The situation in Norte De Santander of all the illegal armies and criminal organizations beginning to work together, united in the drug trade and resistance to the government, is beginning to be replicated in other parts of the country. Agreements between rebel groups and what the government call BACRIM (‘bandas criminales’ or criminal bands), like the Urabeños and Rastrojos can also be found in Antioquia, Cordoba, Cauca, Chocó, Nariño, Putumayo, Meta, and Vichada. These agreements are no longer the exception, but rather the norm. A new chapter in the Colombian civil conflict has begun.