While the demobilization of the M-19 rebel movement is perhaps the most famous guerrilla peace deal in Colombia’s history, the Popular Liberation Army (Ejercito Popular de Liberacion – EPL), which demobilized in 1991, has been the largest insurgent force to make peace so far.
The EPL, formed just three years after the FARC, in 1967, was Maoist in its thinking. At its height it numbered almost 4,000 fighters and had a presence in the departments of Antioquia, Cesar, Cordoba, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Santander and Risaralda. It signed a peace agreement on February 26, 1991, with 2,556 members turning themselves in, along with more than 800 arms.
However, the group was divided throughout the negotiation process, and a large section of the movement, under the leadership of Francisco Caraballo, refused to take part in talks. A steady desertion of EPL fighters from the radical faction that refused to surrender occurred in the lead-up to the signing of the peace agreement, and these fighters took their weapons with them.
Caraballo was arrested in June 1994, which led to the further disintegration of the EPL groups still in the field. According to analyst Camilo Echandia, there were 13 registered EPL units, comprised of some 400 fighters, in 1995,1 four years after the demobilization. However, only four of these units actually registered any activity that year. One of these was the “Libardo Mora Toro” Front in Norte de Santander, formerly led by Caraballo, which is now the last active EPL force in the country. The front is currently led by Victor Ramon Navarro, alias “Megateo.” Megateo was 15 years old when the EPL officially demobilized, and was part of the EPL’s urban divisions (militias) in San Calixto, Norte de Santander.
Historically, this EPL faction in Norte de Santander had made its money from bank robbery and kidnapping. Today the group, numbering less than 100 fighters, controls much of the coca and cocaine trade running through the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander. Megateo acts as a broker for coca base and cocaine, working with the FARC and ELN2 and supplying criminal groups like the Rastrojos. Megateo is now a significant player in Colombia’s drug trade and is being pursued not only by Colombian security forces, but by international law enforcement agencies.
The relevance of the EPL peace process as a possible precedent for the FARC is not limited to the fragmentation of the group and the establishment of a “criminal” organization like that formed by Megateo. By the end of 2011, the Colombian drug trade was dominated by former members of the EPL.3 The most powerful drug trafficking organization at the time, the Rastrojos, was led by Javier Calle Serna, alias “Comba,”4 a former EPL combatant from Putumayo. He refused to demobilize in 1991 and left Putumayo for the city of Cali, where he was able to put his peculiar skill set to use as a hired assassin, working his way up the ranks of the Norte del Valle Cartel until he became the most trusted lieutenant of Wilber Varela, alias “Jabon”. He later killed Varela in Venezuela, in January 2008, and took control of the Rastrojos.
The Rastrojos’ bitter rivals, the Urabeños, have a central command populated almost entirely by ex-EPL fighters. At the end of 2011, the Urabeños’ top leader was Juan de Dios Usuga, alias “Giovanni” (killed in January 2012 by police). Usuga had been an EPL fighter in Uraba, along with his brother Dario Antonio, alias “Otoniel.” They had demobilized, but found that the FARC began targeting former EPL fighters and members of the EPL political party, “Esperanza, Paz y Libertad,” in the region, so they joined a new paramilitary group forming there. This group became the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Cordoba and Uraba (Autodefensas Campesinas de Cordoba y Uraba – ACCU), the prototype paramilitary force officially constituted in 1994 that was to become the nucleus of the nationwide paramilitary army the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). Giovanni and Otoniel, along with a large number of former EPL fighters, formed a core within the ACCU and used the skills they had learned under the EPL to fight their former allies in the FARC and the ELN.
By the end of 2011, much of the Urabeños’ top command was made up of former EPL fighters. In addition to the Usuga brothers, there was Robert Vargas, alias “Gavilan,” Francisco Morelo Peñata, alias “Negro Sarley,” Melquisedec Henao, alias “Belisario,” and Jacinto Nicolas Fuentes German, alias “Don Leo.” If 20 years after demobilization the underworld was dominated by the EPL, which was only a fraction of the size of the FARC and was never that deeply involved in the drug trade, what can we expect from FARC members in the future of Colombian organized crime?
Another notable former EPL capo was Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna,”5 the successor of Pablo Escobar. He was a key player in the PEPES (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar), which helped take down Escobar, and he later took over Medellin using the Oficina de Envigado, which he built into a highly sophisticated organized crime syndicate. He also became a powerful player in the AUC, taking the title of “Inspector General.” Until his extradition to the US in 2008, he was arguably one of the most powerful drug traffickers in the country.
- C. Echandia Castilla, “Expansión territorial de la guerrilla colombiana: geografía, economía y violencia”, Centro de Estudios Sobre Desarrollo Economico, Documento de Trabajo No. 1, May 1997.
- InSight Crime, “Colombian Conflict Enters New Phase”, 6 April 2012. Available at: /investigations/colombian-conflict-enters-a-new-phase
- InSight Crime, “Colombia’s Forgotten Rebels Now at the Heart of Drug Trade”, 13 August 2011. Available at: /news/analysis/colombias-forgotten-rebels-now-at-the-heart-of-drug-trade
- See InSight Crime, “Comba Profile”. Available at: /personalities-colombia/javier-antonio-calle-serna-comba
- See InSight Crime, “Don Berna Profile”. Available at: /personalities-colombia/don-berna