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In August 2019, the nature of the ex-FARC mafia changed from a localized nuisance to a national security threat. Iván Márquez and several of the more notorious FARC commanders announced their intention to take up arms again.

In Márquez’s own words, this return to arms was because the state had “betrayed the peace accords.”

Márquez was the second-in-command of the entire guerrilla army. For many years he had led the rebels’ Caribbean Bloc from Venezuela. After the 2011 death of Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas, alias “Alfonso Cano,” many guerrillas thought he should have become the FARC’s leader instead of Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias “Timochenko.”

Márquez was not alone in deserting the process. In the video announcing the return to arms, he had some of the most battle-scarred FARC field commanders by his side.

After Iván Márquez, perhaps the most important of these commanders was Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias “El Paisa.”

El Paisa rose to prominence commanding the Teófilo Forero Mobile Column, one of the FARC’s elite units.

Based in the departments of Huila and Caquetá, the Teófilo Forero column first came into the public eye when it took over the protection of the Secretariat in the 42,000 square kilometer “despeje” (safe haven) granted to the guerrillas to initiate peace talks with President Andrés Pastrana between 1999 and 2002.

*This InSight Crime investigation into the ex-FARC mafia was carried out over four years and involved field trips to 140 municipalities under threat across Colombia. Read the full series here.

El Paisa was responsible for infamous FARC operations, such as the 2001 mass kidnapping from the Miraflores building in Neiva, the hijacking of the commercial plane that ended the peace talks with the government in 2002, and the 2003 car bomb attack at the exclusive El Nogal social club in Bogotá. All of these had tremendous impact, while also demonstrating sophisticated capacity for planning and execution.

His return to arms, coupled with his experience and ability to execute the type of complex and high profile operations, gives El Paisa a privileged place among the new group of FARC dissidents.

He provides yet more credibility to the ex-FARC mafia and will attract other veterans as well as new recruits.

Henry Castellanos Garzón, alias “Romaña,” could also be seen lounging in a chair in the video. He made a name for himself by popularizing the FARC’s random kidnapping strategy known as “miracle fishing” (“pescas milagrosas”).

These kidnappings became a favorite financing tactic of the guerrillas in the late 1990s, when they would set up illegal roadblocks and kidnap any individual they thought was worth a decent ransom.

Romaña’s fierce reputation and loyalty were such that he was sent to Nariño in 2017 to control the chaos created in Tumaco which resulted from the guerrillas’ demobilization process. However, even he was overcome by the maelstrom of violence and criminality. Threats forced him to leave the area in November of that same year.

Despite his reputation as a hardline battlefield commander, Romaña spoke calmly and presented himself as a measured, conscientious leader when InSight Crime interviewed him at the FARC’s 10th Conference in September 2016.

His background and leadership of ex-combatants in Meta and Nariño, in addition to his knowledge of key areas in the Eastern Plains, could allow him to rebuild rebel structures and influence in his former areas of operation.

Another battle-hardened veteran, José Vicente Lesmes, alias “Walter Mendoza,” a guerrilla with 37 years of experience in the FARC, also appeared in the video.

Walter was a tactical visionary within the FARC. He helped found the guerrillas’ Mobile Bloc Arturo Ruiz and pioneered the development of the FARC’s mobile columns, the rebel “shock troops.”

Before demobilization, he led the Libardo García Mobile Column in Buenaventura, then part of his long career in the Joint Western Command (Comando Conjunto del Occidente), which had a presence in the departments of Cauca, Nariño and Valle del Cauca.

In 2016, he was appointed as a pedagogue for the peace process, tasked with explaining the importance of the accords to the FARC rank and file.

Walter’s ability to talk about various guerrilla and political issues was seen firsthand by InSight Crime during an interview in 2017. At that time, the veteran commander discussed topics ranging from the FARC’s political activity, to a discourse on Gentil Duarte position and rejection of the peace process. During this interview, Mendoza insisted he was a “faithful follower of the guerrilla structure,” and would not abandon the peace process.

However, his loyalty to the peace process was always suspect. In 2014, when the peace negotiations were underway in Havana, he was seen in a video aggressively explaining to dozens of suspected guerrillas that “the FARC was never going to hand over its weapons.”

Mendoza’s history on Colombia’s Pacific coast and his position in the peace process as a pedagogue give him an important position in the ex-FARC mafia. He has great credibility as a guerrilla leader and smooth orator, which will likely allow him to influence other ex-combatants. In addition, his extensive experience in the guerrillas’ operational structures and his ability to develop innovative war tactics make him an important asset to the ex-FARC mafia.

José Manuel Sierra Sabogal, alias “Zarco Aldinever,” commanded several guerrilla fronts in the department of Meta. He also has knowledge of Cundinamarca.

Aldinever was in the FARC’s 51st and 52nd and 26th Fronts in Meta, Cundinamarca and Boyacá, and was one of the Eastern Bloc’s senior commanders. Within that Bloc he was responsible for securing financing through drug trafficking, taxing coca and cocaine production and smuggling routes in the zones he controlled. He also became part of the FARC’s Central General Staff as a representative of the same block.

Aldinever could make a significant contribution to ex-FARC financing across the Eastern Plains, although his former areas of operation are now dominated by Gentil Duarte and his group of dissidents.

Also rooted in the military wing of the former Eastern Bloc is Olivio Merchán Gómez, alias “Loco Iván,” who was in the FARC for more than 30 years.

Merchán, who was also present at Márquez’s declaration of a return to war, participated in several guerrilla victories dating back to the early 1990s, and commanded several Eastern Bloc fronts in Meta and Arauca.

He was responsible for logistics at the 10th Conference, the last meeting the guerrillas held as a rebel group, although even there his doubts about the consequences of the rebel demobilization were evident. At the time, he pointed out the possibility that “the state doesn’t comply [and] what happened in the previous processes happens” and “they begin to kill us.”

Loco Iván brings a great deal of experience and extensive knowledge and contacts in Meta and Arauca.

One of the younger generation rebel leaders who left for the dissidents is Nelson Enrique Díaz, alias “Iván Alí.”

Ali was a commander in Guaviare, where he used his knowledge to control key drug trafficking corridors. His skill in communications and public relations put him at the head of the international press and public relations at the FARC’s 10th Conference, where InSight Crime conducted a series of interviews with him.

By 2017, Iván Ali was settled into the FARC concentration zone in San José de Guaviare and was responsible for more than 500 former combatants, setting up productive projects to sustain the demobilized rebels. There, he met with InSight Crime to explain multiple issues facing the implementation of the peace process.

“If we have to return to the mountains, we’ll go,” he told InSight Crime. Iván Ali saw “the peace process with the closed eye of optimism, but with the open eye of mistrust,” and even acknowledged that the ex-FARC rebels led by Duarte had approached him.

Ali is undoubtedly a strong figure within the new dissidents. His charisma, youth, ideology and contemporary thinking give him a great ability to lead, not only among ex-guerrillas in Guaviare, but also with new recruits.

Also joining the dissidents with Márquez was one of the FARC “aristocrats”: Alberto Cruz Lobo, alias “Enrique Marulanda,” a son of the FARC founder Pedro Marín, alias “Manuel Marulanda” or “Tirofijo.”

Enrique operated within the Eastern Bloc and worked with Zarco Aldinever and Romaña, He has a more military background and was a bodyguard to FARC commander Mono Jojoy up until his death in 2010.

During the peace process, he led one of the Mariana Páez concentration zones in Meta, where InSight Crime interviewed him in June 2017. With clear leadership ability and a deep knowledge of guerrilla politics, he explained the many problems facing the peace process and its high risk for failure.

 

Next to Enrique Marulanda in the video was Julio Enrique Rincón Rico, alias “Nelson Robles,” a former commander of the 52nd and 55th Fronts of the Eastern Bloc.

He is a veteran guerrilla who fought in Meta and Cundinamarca alongside legendary FARC commander Carlos Osorio Velásquez, alias “Marco Aurelio Buendía,” in the 52nd Front.[1]

Robles has influence in strategic areas such as Vistahermosa and Uribe in Meta department, both key municipalities for coca plantations and drug trafficking.

 

Francisco Antonio Durango Úsuga, alias “Ariel Rodríguez” or “La Frita,” was a commander in the historic 5th Front in the Urabá sub-region of Antioquia and the 18th Front in the Nudo de Paramillo of Antioquia.

In a 2016 interview, when he was commander of the 5th Front, he explained that if the “government didn’t guarantee they would combat paramilitaries (referring in part to the Urabeños who have a strong presence in the area),” it would be difficult to implement the peace process.

Ariel has extensive knowledge of, and influence around, the Nudo de Paramillo, one of the most strategic rebel areas in northern Colombia. His experience includes not only fighting the security forces, but the AUC and now the Urabeños in this region.

In fact, his influence has already shown itself within the dissident 18th Front, also known as the Román Ruíz Front, to Márquez. It recognized Márquez and his leadership as “the new FARC-EP Secretariat.”

Among the other former rebels worth a mention, is Enrique Muñoz, alias “Villa,” a former member of the 33rd Front and leader of the Antonio Santos Mobile Column.[1]

Since 2018, there have been rumors in Norte de Santander about ex-FARC mafia cells led by Villa. Although he dismissed accusations of operating outside the agreement, insisting that he was “moving the peace process forward collectively and personally,” his appearance alongside Márquez ended any speculation.

In fact, Villa may currently be leading a small group made up of about 20 members of the 33rd Front in Catatumbo, according to InSight Crime field research.

Finally, to the left of Márquez in pride of place in the video and brandishing a rifle (even though he is blind) was Seuxis Pausías Hernández, alias “Jesús Santrich.”

Santrich’s importance to the FARC, and now to the ex-FARC mafia, is as an ideologue and liaison with elements in the Chavista regime in Venezuela.

He came to prominence initially as part of the FARC negotiating team in Havana and was given one of the 10 congressional places reserved for the FARC’s political party, although he never took up his seat. This was due to his 2018 arrest on drug trafficking charges. His detention and threatened extradition were among the factors that triggered Márquez and El Paisa to abandon the peace process.

Márquez’s group, unlike the dissidents under Gentil Duarte, come from many different FARC Blocs, including those of the Caribbean, Western, Eastern, Southern and José María Cordoba fighting divisions, as well as from several mobile columns, with leaders drawn from the Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central) and the Secretariat. This may allow the ex-FARC mafia to create a nationwide network once again.

In his pledge to take up arms again, Márquez announced the birth of “the new Marquetalia” in an effort to seize power from the current government, which he deemed to be composed “outlaws and the mafia of corruption and impunity.”

Márquez went on to explain the new insurgent struggle by describing the Bolivarian Movement for a New Colombia, created in 2000, as its main political instrument. In addition, the ex-FARC Mafia seems intent on reviving tools like the Continental Bolivarian Coordinator, a program created in 2005 to organize clandestine political activity in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, in order to strengthen the Bolivarian Movement for a New Colombia.

InSight Crime was there in the “despeje” in 2000 when more than 2,000 FARC rebels massed for the launch of the new Bolivarian Movement. It was the greatest military parade the FARC had ever put on. Márquez is harking back to the glory days of the FARC, while also seeking to establish the political credentials of his faction of the ex-FARC Mafia.

Can Márquez Unify the Ex-FARC Mafia?

The video announcement was loaded with FARC symbolism. The backdrop had a FARC flag and some of the pantheon of FARC heroes and martyrs. Iván Márquez was seeking to reunite the disparate elements of the ex-FARC mafia under the historic banner, and his leadership. And if anyone can do it, it is Márquez.

However, the current elements of the ex-FARC mafia seem united only in their history. While Márquez played up the ideological struggle, many other elements of the dissidents are driven only by money and control of the criminal economies that sustained the rebel army for five decades.

And while Márquez’s seniority is not in doubt, he is a late arrival to the dissidents, and since he was the principal architect of the peace accord, must shoulder much of the blame for the demobilization and subsequent “betrayal” by the government.

Gentil Duarte, Iván Mordisco and Jhon 40 established the initial dissidents and have built a new criminal syndicate stretching across up to eight departments.

Duarte and his crew have already been seeking to reconnect with different ex-FARC elements across the country, reaching out to former rebel combatants in strategic areas like Caquetá, Nariño and Cauca. This has allowed them to quickly expand out of their home base in Guaviare and Meta departments.

In Cauca, Duarte, Mordisco and Jhon 40 have created alliances with the Dagoberto Ramos Column led by Israel Méndez Quitumbo, alias “Indio.” Made up of former members of the FARC’s 6th Front and the Miller Perdomo and Jacobo Arenas Mobile Columns, the group has reportedly reached an agreement with Duarte’s envoys in Caloto and Corinto, municipalities crucial for drug trafficking and illegal mining.

This growth is being fed in part by the group’s structure, which has moved away from a vertically integrated organization, and now resembles a more horizontal network. Each group in the network divides criminal incomes and territory, and makes agreements to work together without necessarily implying any subordination.

In fact, Márquez seems quite aware of the advantage Duarte and his crew have. He tried to reach an agreement with them, according to military intelligence information, but the response seemed to be negative, with Márquez and his allies reportedly criticized for trying to act as leaders of the dissident movement.

This may have prompted Márquez to seek support from the ELN, despite the fact that the ELN guerrillas and FARC had multiple conflicts in the past. In theory, it seems that Márquez is now dealing with former mid-ranking commanders now, who are reluctant to take orders and give up their newly acquired independence.

An example of this was with Pedro Goyes Cortés, alias “Sinaloa.” He was a junior member of the 48th Front in Putumayo. During demobilization, he and a handful of former rebels “immediately took over the area” and strengthened themselves by controlling drug trafficking, according to InSight Crime’s sources.

Their growth was such that Duarte’s envoys tried to ally with them in 2018 but were rejected, InSight Crime learned during field work in Putumayo. Sinaloa did not want to work under their protection. Consequently a war, that continues today, erupted over control of the area between competing ex-FARC elements.

At the end of the day, military strength and control over lucrative criminal economies are what will ensure leadership among ex-FARC elements. And it is not clear that Márquez has either.

Having experienced military commanders, leadership experience and political credibility mean little in today’s criminal landscape. Without serious manpower, arms and funding, Márquez has little to offer the disparate elements of the ex-FARC mafia and no chance of rebuilding any kind of unity or a nationwide network.

The days of a ruling Secretariat, where orders were obeyed, largely unquestioned, by rebel rank-and-file, are long gone. The ex-FARC will struggle to even build the more horizontal structure of the ELN, where local units have a great deal of autonomy, but a higher level of ideological adhesion and loyalty to the Central Command (Comando Central – COCE.) Indeed, the best the ex-FARC mafia can hope for at the moment is to become a federation of criminal groups with a shared history. However, what is likely to keep that federation together is criminal interests, not ideology or shared history.

*This InSight Crime investigation into the ex-FARC mafia was carried out over four years and involved field trips to 140 municipalities under threat across Colombia. Read the full series here.

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