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After 2002, under increasing pressure from security forces, the FARC moved much of their leadership, logistics and funding outside of Colombia, particularly to Venezuela. The same is true for the ex-FARC mafia and the fate of the Maduro regime and that of the FARC dissidents may be inextricably linked.

Venezuela: Familiar Territory for FARC Dissidents

Beyond being a place of refuge, the ex-FARC mafia have a perfect operations center in Venezuela. From here the FARC dissidents have a firm grip on the transnational reins of drug trafficking and illegal mining, having seemingly been welcomed by the senior leaders of the Chavista regime.

Hugo Chávez’s arrival to power in 1998 marked a before and after in the evolution of irregular groups in the country. The ideological similarities and open declarations of support received by the members of the now demobilized FARC guerrilla, turned Venezuela into an open-door territory that initially offered the rebel army refuge from Colombian authorities.

*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.

This relationship was the source of numerous allegations that pointed to Venezuela as a criminal launching pad, harboring Colombian rebel groups within its territory. The height of these compromising revelations involving the Chavista administration and FARC occurred in 2008, with the files seized from computers of Luis Devia Silva, alias “Raúl Reyes.” Reyes was the FARC “foreign minister,” killed in an aerial bombardment of a FARC camp in Ecuador. These documents revealed a long-standing relationship between the rebel army and Chávez’s home of the Miraflores Palace.

With the long history of FARC presence in Venezuela, it was inevitable that the ex-FARC mafia would inherit some of this territory and the links with members of the Maduro regime. The southern Venezuelan state was one such place and it now lies at the heart of the power of the ex-FARC mafia elements led by Miguel Botache Santillana, better known as “Gentil Duarte.”

 First Outpost: Acacio Medina Front and Jhon 40

The state of Amazonas, as the name suggests, makes up part of the Amazonian basin, dense triple canopy jungle, with rivers the only highways. It borders two Colombian departments, Guainía and Vichada, separated only by the Orinoco River. Dissidents of the Acacio Medina Front, led by Géner García Molina, alias “Jhon 40,” are present in this region.

At first, their position within Venezuelan territory was in response to the former FARC guerrilla’s territorial expansion strategies. After a meeting attended by former leaders of the Eastern Bloc, including Gentil Duarte and Jhon 40, the creation of the Acacio Medina Front was agreed upon, with its objective being to strengthen the border efforts being developed by the 16th Front in this sector.

As former governor of Amazonas, Liborio Guarulla Garrido, explained to InSight Crime, activity by this structure has been reported since 2012 in a town near the San Miguel River in the Venezuelan municipality of Maroa. There, they set up camp along the banks of the river and built airstrips that received and dispatched aircraft loaded with drugs.

Once the demobilization of the former FARC had begun, Jhon 40 convinced his men not to participate in the peace process. According to intelligence sources, the attractive illicit revenues produced by illegal mining and drug trafficking were the main motive for continuing operations.

Since then, the dissident Acacio Medina Front has managed to secure a firm presence along the border, controlling river and land corridors that allow for the constant flow of arms, drugs, minerals and money.

In Apure, a state to the north of Amazonas, the stage has been set with similar characteristics.

Apure and the Arauca Border

Across the border from the department of Arauca in Colombia is the state of Apure in Venezuela. An alliance exists in this territory between the dissidents of the 1st Front and the 10th Front, whose articulation is a product of Gentil Duarte’s strategy in eastern Colombia.

Heading these illicit activities is Noé Suárez Rojas, also known as “Germán Briceño Suárez” or “Grannobles,” who was not on the Colombian government’s list of former combatants of the now-demobilized FARC as there were rumors that he was dead. According to recent information published by Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Grannobles was in charge of financial management and communal meetings on the Colombo-Venezuelan border.

Behind Grannobles’ command is Jorge Eliécer Jiménez, alias “Jerónimo” or “Arturo,” who is believed to be the direct link with the 1st Front dissidents, under the orders of Iván Mordisco. This alliance is responsible for coordinating cocaine shipments by means of the routes and corridors controlled by the ELN on the border between Venezuela and Arauca.

SEE ALSOFARC Dissidents and the ELN Turn Venezuela Into Criminal Enclave

While the nature of the agreement between ex-FARC mafia and the ELN is still not clear, the profits from drug trafficking, contraband and extortion are divided between both illegal groups.

Their cooperation could be the product of a non-aggression pact, negotiated during a meeting between the senior commanders of each organization, that took place in a sector known as Tres Esquinas, in the state of Apure, at the end of 2018. The meeting and any agreements reached is crucial in understanding not only the relationship between the ELN and ex-FARC mafia, but any relationship with the Venezuelan state.

While this alliance appears to remain under the terms of a criminal fraternity, there is a likelihood of relations breaking down given the fractious history between the FARC and ELN in this area. It might also be relevant in the Catatumbo region in Norte de Santander department, where no clashes have been reported so far, where there is also a risk of confrontation between them.

Territorial Expansion in Venezuela

While FARC presence in the Venezuela border states was established long ago, the ex-FARC mafia seem to be pushing deeper into Venezuela territory. According to field work conducted by InSight Crime in Venezuela, the ex-FARC mafia are now present in a total of eight states.

Zulia, Táchira, Apure, Bolívar, Guárico, Barinas, Amazonas and Mérida have been identified as states where the dissident groups managed to establish a foothold and are earning money from a combination of illegal mining, drug trafficking, extortion and contraband. Likewise, these regions have served as recruitment camps.

Ecuador

One of the ex-FARC structures with the most transnational influence in the south of Colombia is the Oliver Sinisterra Front (FOS). It has reach into Ecuador, including Mataje and San Lorenzo, in Esmeraldas province. Her,e former FARC militia and logistics networks are now at the service of the ex-FARC mafia. They provide the same services to the FOS: providing intelligence, moving drugs, chemical precursors and weapons, as well as protection collection and shelter points.

Sources consulted by InSight Crime in Ecuador confirmed the existence of agreements between the local authorities and the now-dead FOS founder, Walter Patricio Arizala, alias “Guacho,” fed by mutual profit from drug trafficking and the illegal arms trade. There are various rumors of failures on the part of Ecuadorian public security forces to uphold their part of these agreements, leading the FOS to an escalation of violence along the border region.

One example was the January 2018 attack with explosives on the main police headquarters in San Lorenzo, that left 28 injured. Ecuadorian authorities attributed the attack to the FOS. These forms of harassment have been accompanied by the displacement of several local communities and landmine incidents.

SEE ALSO: Ecuador: A Cocaine Superhighway to the US and Europe

The aforementioned situation destroyed the relationship between dissident elements and Ecuadorean authorities on the other side of the border. This led to Guacho being declared public enemy #1 on both sides of the border. The criminal status quo was re-established after his death at the hands of Colombian security forces in December 2018.

The other department bordering Ecuador is Putumayo, once home to the FARC’s 48th Front, and the third-largest producer of coca in Colombia. Before the 2016 FARC demobilization process, the first dissident elements of the 48th Front formed an alliance with “La Constru,” a feared criminal group in the region. This alliance, known on the ground as “La Mafia,” is in charge of coordinating drug trafficking along the border.

The dissidents of the 48th Front are responsible for the protection and regulation of coca producing areas and of the drug-producing laboratories located on the banks of the Putumayo and San Miguel Rivers. Meanwhile, La Constru is responsible for ties with Mexican cartels and for the logistics of the drug shipment routes.

However, they are not the only dissident element in the region. Since the end of 2018, men from the 1st Front established a presence in the municipality of Puerto Leguízamo in order to negotiate with the 48th Front dissidents. No agreement was reached and the two groups are disputing the control of border crossings.

Midst the social and political crisis currently facing Ecuador, the government is not paying much attention to the Colombian border. This is allowing the dissident groups free rein to further strengthen their presence in Ecuadorian territory.

Border with Brazil

Amid the waterways of the Amazon Rainforest, Jhon 40 coordinates drug trafficking operations. One of the region’s most important drug corridors has been set up there, which sees tons of cocaine pass through on its way to supply Brazil’s domestic market and the ports that connect with Europe and Africa.

In Vaupés department, men from the 1st Front under Iván Mordisco’s orders have come from Guaviare, along the Guayabero and Apaporis Rivers. In this territory, the ex-FARC mafia controls the region of Taraira, on the border with Brazil, where they regulate the exploitation of minerals and control a drug trafficking corridor. Mordisco’s interest in this territory is to secure the corridor coming from Miraflores, Guaviare, connecting Vaupés with the neighboring country.

Information obtained by InSight Crime in Amazonas department confirmed the arrival of dissident groups at the end of 2017, focusing on the Tarapacá border crossing, intending to secure drug trafficking routes. In this sector, armed men oversee transit along the Putumayo River, whose channel transports shipments of cocaine and marijuana coming from the departments of Putumayo, Caquetá and Cauca, headed towards Brazil.

The business deals with Brazilian drug traffickers controlled by former FARC drug czar, Tomas Molina Caracas, alias “Negro Acacio,” (killed in 2007) were inherited by Jhon 40. Acacio’s partner, captured in Colombia in 2001 was Red Command (Comando Vermelho) leader, Luiz Fernando da Costa, better known as “Fernandinho.” He was arrested in the jungles of Guainía department, as a result of an ambitious Colombian military operation dubbed “Operation Black Cat” (“Operation Gato Negro”). This operation uncovered an agreement whereby the Brazilian mafia boss provided the FARC with weapons in exchange for drug shipments supplied from the Eastern Bloc. There were close to 5,000 soldiers in charge of destroying and laboratories and tons of drugs, dealing a powerful blow to FARC finances.

Brazilian mafias currently associated with the dissidents include:

  • the Family of the North (Família do Norte – FDN) that maintains business operations with the dissident 1st Front in the department of Amazonas, where they control drug outputs headed to the city of Manaus;
  • the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV)
  • and the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), where Jhon 40 and Gentil Duarte serve as the main links.

The Colombo-Brazilian border is key to the FARC dissidents’ international business structure. The geographic configuration of this territory offers a wide range of air, sea, and land routes. The ex-FARC mafia’s dominance lies in its direct access to one of the largest domestic cocaine markets in the world, that of Brazil, second only to the United States.

The Case of the Mexican Cartels

There has been growing evidence of the presence of Mexican criminal groups in Colombia. The Colombian Attorney General’s Office has warned of the presence of Mexican envoys within the country, looking to purchase large quantities of high purity cocaine.

The Mexican presence is led by the Sinaloa Cartel and its closest rival, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG). These Mexican criminal syndicates have woven together a series of alliances with the dissident groups that control the drug trafficking business in regions like the Pacific, Catatumbo and the southernmost part of the country.

The alliance that has proved the most fruitful exists between the 1st Front and the Sinaloa Cartel, controlling the drug shipments coming out of the departments of Meta, Guaviare and Caquetá and heading towards the border corridors with Venezuela.

In Norte de Santander, the dissident 33rd Front also has agreements with Mexican mafias regarding the shipment of drugs headed towards Venezuela, However, sources in the region explained to the InSight Crime team that Jhon 40 arrived to this territory with Brazilian negotiators, which was not to the liking of the Mexicans. This caused tensions in the relations and led to Jhon 40’s departure from the region.

A Transnational Criminal

Footholds in Venezuela, Brazil and Ecuador are crucial to certain factions of the ex-FARC mafia and ensure the dissident groups get access to greater earnings form the drug trade, but taxing and selling cocaine and marijuana beyond Colombia’s borders.

However, the importance of Venezuela is hard to underestimate, especially for the dissident factions commanded by Gentil Duarte and those linked to Luciano Marín Arango, alias “Iván Márquez.”

Duarte’s business manager, Jhon 40 is based out of the Venezuelan state of Amazonas and is estimated to be earning millions of dollars from gold mining and cocaine trafficking. Márquez is also believed to be based in Venezuela. He has strong ties to senior members of the Chavista regime and will likely run his dissident groups from within Venezuela, certainly with the toleration if not active support of the Maduro regime. Out of reach of Colombian security forces and increasingly recruiting Venezuelans to swell their ranks, Venezuela provides the perfect operating base for the ex-FARC mafia to grow and plot their expansion.

As long as a Chavista regime is in power in Venezuela, the total defeat of the ex-FARC mafia is a remote prospect.

*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.

Photo Credit: AP

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