A series of attacks on multinational companies operating in Colombia could indicate that armed groups are shedding discipline for increased criminal gains, in a new era of organized crime in the country.
On September 20, three geologists from Canadian mining company Continental Gold were killed in the town of Yarumal, Antioquia department. Armed men — allegedly from the 36th Front dissident group of the now largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) — attacked a camp where 11 geologists were sleeping. The experts had been performing mining exploration activities in the area. The attack left three people dead and three injured.
Several theories about the event emerged. Authorities stated that the 36th Front dissidents — which abandoned the FARC peace process and are under the command of Ricardo Abel Ayala, alias “Cabuyo” — and the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación – ELN) guerrilla group, formed an alliance to commit the attack. But the ELN publicly denied these allegations and stated that it does not have a presence in the area. Media outlets have reported that yet another criminal group, the Urabeños, has also been investigated for involvement in the attack, but they too have denied responsibility.
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Two weeks earlier, on September 5, Continental Gold was the target of another attack in the Antioquian town of Buriticá, where the company runs its biggest mining operation. The perpetrators attacked two Continental Gold engineers, killing Óscar Alarcón and injuring his colleague. Police arrested four Urabeños members as suspects.
More recently, alleged members of the same group kidnapped 17 officials from multinational utility company Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM) in Zaragoza, Antioquia, according to the Colombian army, which rescued the hostages on September 25. One of the victims told newspaper El Tiempo that the group kept them intimidated for three days in an effort to extort money from EPM. The Urabeños denied involvement.
InSight Crime Analysis
These three cases represent a fight against legality — or its exploitation — by Colombian groups who are increasingly losing a disciplined and ideological leadership.
Antioquia has witnessed the criminal landscape shift since the FARC guerrillas demobilized. Various actors are seeking to strengthen their share in the illegal markets such as coca farming and illegal gold mining.
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Legal businesses like Continental Gold and other powerful entities pose a threat to these criminal groups. When they enter territories with a history of conflict — which may have seemed more feasible following the FARC’s exit — they not only consume resources that feed criminal actors, like gold, but also often bring increased government attention and security force presence. This was the case in Buriticá, where the Urabeños lost a major share of their criminal gains after Continental Gold and Colombian authorities took action.
Moreover, the criminal shake-up provoked by the FARC’s exit has meant that emerging groups like the guerrilla group’s dissidents must reestablish territorial control. The attack at Yarumal may have done more than send a message to Continental Gold. It could also be an attempt by the small 36th Front dissidence to demonstrate its military strength and willingness to turn to violence. The rise of lower-level dissident guerrilla leaders to top roles in their own criminal organizations means that they no longer report to a historical hierarchy, and are less obligated to embrace discipline.
Internal fractures can also be seen in the Urabeños, especially following to the fall of key bosses and massive seizures against them. This double blow to the group’s leadership and finances seems to have reduced the remaining bosses’ control over some of their factions, while these increasingly seek out alternative economies such as extortion.
With the Colombian government and the FARC’s historic peace agreement, the foreign investors and companies some hoped would flock to the country may be at risk due to the volatile scenario created by the remaining criminal groups. And it can only be assumed that they will continue to fight to protect their own interests.
*This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime’s Colombian Organized Crime Observatory.