The kidnapping of a military general by FARC rebels operating in Colombia’s Pacific state of Choco — which led to the suspension of peace talks with the government — has shone a spotlight on the organized crime dynamics present in the country’s most valuable criminal real estate.
Following the November 16 abduction of General Ruben Alzate by the 34th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), just miles from Choco’s capital Quibdo, President Juan Manuel Santos suspended peace talks with the guerrilla group for the first time since negotiations began two years ago. While the general’s release appears imminent — particularly now that the FARC has released two soldiers captured in a different region earlier this month — the event has still turned all eyes on Colombia’s poorest province, which has long served as a hub for criminal activity.
Meanwhile, a November 22 armed strike called in Choco by the country’s other main rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), which forced the suspension of bus operations between Quibdo and Medellin, served as an indication of the level of control enjoyed by illegal groups in the northwest Pacific coastal province.
For years, Choco was a battleground for left-wing rebel groups and right-wing paramilitaries fighting for control of important drug trafficking routes and access to gold mines. Many civilians, often poor Afro-Colombian or indigenous populations, were caught in the crossfire of this power struggle. In one notorious example, the 2002 FARC bombing of a church in the town of Bojaya left over 100 dead and reportedly displaced nearly 6,000 more.
Today, Choco is home to all of Colombia’s most prominent armed groups. The FARC control the most territory and have the greatest number of boots on the ground, with the 34th Front, the 57th Front and the Aurelio Rodriguez Front all present in the region. The ELN and two of the country’s officially recognized BACRIM (from the Spanish for “criminal bands”), the Urabeños and Rastrojos, also have a presence in the coastal province. The neo-paramilitary group Renacer also operated in Choco, but has now largely been absorbed by the Urabeños.
Although drug trafficking and illegal gold mining remain the primary sources of revenue for organized crime groups in Choco, the criminal dynamics have changed from previous decades. While the FARC and paramilitaries frequently clashed over control of coca crops, today’s BACRIM would rather buy coca from the rebel army than fight them for it. There have been no signs of drug deals between the FARC’s 34th Front and BACRIM in Choco, but the absence of conflict between them indicates they have made agreements to divide the territory. There have also been police reports of the 34th Front aligning with the BACRIM to illegally extract gold in the province.
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One of Choco’s attractions to criminal groups is its access to maritime drug routes. Choco’s coastline serves as a strategic refueling point for go-fast boats shipping cocaine north towards Central America and Mexico, and the FARC’s 57th Front reportedly controls the coastal area bordering Panama (see map below). Choco also offers access to the Gulf of Uraba, which is largely controlled by the Urabeños, who use it as a jumping-off point for semi-submersible vessels loaded with drugs that travel up the Caribbean Coast. This gulf will likely continue to grow in importance to drug traffickers, amid a resurgence in the popularity of Caribbean sea routes.
Choco is also valuable territory because of its natural resources. One of these is coca, which is primarily cultivated in central Choco. The highest density of crops is concentrated along the San Juan River in the southern half of the province, according to the June 2014 UNODC coca cultivation survey. While it is not entirely clear what criminal organizations control coca production in Choco, territory controlled by the FARC’s 57th Front and Aurelio Rodriguez Front, as well as the ELN, overlaps with some areas of coca cultivation.
Even more profitable for criminal groups than coca are Choco’s gold mines, principally located in the province’s jungle areas. Along with neighboring Antioquia, Choco is the largest producer of illegal gold in Colombia. While other criminal groups like the ELN are also profiting from illegal gold mining in Choco, reports indicate the FARC are the most directly involved in the operations, overseeing the purchase of bulldozers and other heavy machinery. This rebel group is thought to take in as much as 20 percent of the profits originating from this criminal activity in Colombia.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Gold
Another characteristic of Choco which may attract criminal groups is its extreme inaccessibility: just one highway passes through Quibdo and large sections of the interior lack road access. This seclusion offers criminal groups a welcome respite from offensives by Colombian security forces. According to Quibdo Bishop Juan Carlos Barreto, the Colombian government has largely abandoned Choco; he recently indicated to El Pais that the FARC has a stronger presence there than the state.
Indeed, most observers were not as surprised by the kidnapping of a general in Choco — the highest ranking military official taken by the FARC in the country’s 50 year conflict — as by the fact Alzate would enter the rebel-held territory wearing civilian clothing and without a security detail.