New Leadership Drives Conflict in Colombia’s Eastern Plains

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A new generation of former paramilitaries are now at the center of the drug war in Colombia’s Eastern Plains. Tracing the backstory of one leader in particular sheds light on the evolving stages of the region’s conflict.

Martin Farfan, alias “Pijarbey,” has had a long criminal career in the Eastern Plains, which in many ways is representative of the mutations endured by Colombia’s paramilitary groups over the past two decades. Like many of those who were recruited by the paramilitaries, Pijarbey already had some military training. In 1993, he formed part of a military battalion based in the Eastern Plains’ largest city, Villavicencio. That same battalion would later be responsible for disabling many of the cocaine laboratories run by Pijarbey’s criminal group.

At some point after his military career ended, Pijarbey formed part of a paramilitary bloc, dedicated to challenging the influence of rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Known as the Centauros Bloc, it dominated the departments of Casanare and Meta, the economic heartland of the Eastern Plains. This was just one of the many paramilitary factions that formed part of umbrella group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

But in September 2004, the leader of the Centauros Bloc was ambushed and killed by a man who would later become the undisputed crime lord of the region: Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo.” The Centauros divided into two factions, and one of them would later demobilize in April 2006 under the name of the “Heroes de los Llanos” bloc.

Pijarbey was among those who turned in their weapons, only to take up arms again. He became one of the top men for Cuchillo’s criminal group, the ERPAC. This group was just one of the many AUC factions that did not fully demobilize, but which continued to traffic drugs and sow terror in the countryside. At the height of its power, the group forged a drug traffficking alliance with their former rivals, the FARC, and ran an enterprise capable of exporting between two to three tons of cocaine per month to Venezuela.

Pijarbey was said to handle the drug exports from the frontier department of Arauca, one of the four departments that make up Colombia’s Eastern Plains. He also served as Cuchillo’s main contact with the various security officials who protected the ERPAC and its drug trafficking operations, feeding Pijarbey tips about any upcoming police raids in the area.

Pijarbey’s arrest in December 2009 was just the beginning of a long series of captures and killings that were supposed to represent the dismantling of the ERPAC. At the time, President Alvaro Uribe himself praised the joint military-police operation that netted Pijarbey in rural Mapiripan municipality, Meta. Four police helicopters and some 300 members of an elite military unit trained in jungle warfare participated in the raid, one sign of the importance that the government vested in capturing Pijarbey. There was also a 1.7 million peso reward on his head at the time, which may have helped the authorities gain the inside intelligence needed to arrest him.

But despite Pijarbey’s status as a paramilitary leader, the judiciary only managed to charge him with aggravated conspiracy. He was sentenced to four years in prison, and was released early, in January 2012, due to good behavior. The sentencing was a reminder of a fundamental weakness of Colombia’s legal system, which was frequently unable to build strong enough cases against ex-AUC members to charge them with more serious crimes.

ERPAC suffered blows of its own with Pijarbey behind bars. Cuchillo was killed during a Christmas Eve raid in 2010. His official successor chose to turn himself in, along with hundreds of followers, to the government about a year later.

Now, as highlighted by a recent report by the International Crisis Group, Pijarbey has returned to his former areas of operation and is leading a group of at least 100 fighters, calling themselves the Liberators of Vichada (Liberadores de Vichada). They are reportedly fighting another ERPAC splinter group, the Bloque Meta, for control of the cocaine processing laboratories and the trafficking routes into Venezuela.

Pijarbey’s saga is representative of the many transformations endured by once-mighty factions of the AUC over the past decade. The phenomenon is not unlike what is happening in Mexico: as the government gets better at dismantling organized criminal groups, whether through a formal demobilization process (as in the AUC’s case), or through the takedown of crime lords, these organizations react by splitting like amoebas. The ERPAC itself was formed out of a split in the Bloque Centauros; with Pijarbey’s return to the Eastern Plains, it seems as though the region is now entering yet another generation of conflict. As the International Crisis Group points out, the government’s failure to properly bring men like Pijarbey to justice, time and time again, is one key reason why the cycle of violence has not yet been broken.

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