One of Colombia‘s most wanted drug traffickers took the unusual move of granting a media interview and sharing details of his gang’s plan to turn themselves in — although it is doubtful that he intends to do any such thing.
Jose Eberto Lopez Montero, alias “Caracho,” has been the leader of one of Colombia’s most powerful criminal gangs for less than a year. But he is the first among Colombia’s new generation of drug traffickers to offer a lengthy interview with a national news outlet, Semana magazine.
Lopez Montero’s organization, the Popular Revolutionary Antiterrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC), was once a right-wing paramilitary group which battled the leftist guerrillas for control of Colombia’s Eastern Plains. The group’s name is a deliberate reference to the paramilitaries’ purported ideology, even though the ERPAC is now known to work with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) trafficking cocaine to Venezuela.
From the photos of Lopez Montero and his men decked out in full military gear, to his repeated insistence that the ERPAC’s primary purpose is fighting the FARC, the magazine spread recalls the interviews once given by paramilitary warlords like Carlos Castaño.
Many of Lopez·Montero’s·statements echo the rhetoric of·Castaño’s calculated public relations campaigns, in which he strove to present himself as a righteous warrior trying to provide security where the Colombian state could not. The gang leader’s main intention in the interview appears to be to present the ERPAC as an armed group willing to submit to justice. And, by this logic, if the ERPAC is so willing to surrender, any failure to properly disarm the group would be the fault of the Colombian government.
“This is not a negotiation or a demobilization. This is a surrender,” Lopez Montero tells Semana, implying that Colombian authorities have offered him no incentives, like a reduced prison sentence, in return for giving himself in. The ERPAC leader adds that up to an additional 500 men will turn in their arms, so long as they are charged for “what we’ve done, not for what we haven’t done.”
But according to some of Lopez Montero’s claims in the interview, it isn’t at all clear what crimes he admits the ERPAC is guilty of comitting. He states that the group is no longer involved in drug trafficking and only taxes the precursor chemicals used to process cocaine. He says the ERPAC does not work with Daniel Barrera, alias “El Loco,” or the FARC — who are in fact the group’s principal allies in the drug trade. According to Colombian intelligence, Lopez Montero was at one time the ERPAC’s main contact with Barrera while Lopez Montero.
Lopez Montero’s main defense is that the ERPAC’s previous leader, Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo,” pushed the group into the drug trade and an alliance with the FARC. As for the kidnappings, homicides and displacement committed by the ERPAC, Lopez Montero says he will only take responsibility for those committed after Christmas 2010, when an elite police team killed Guerrero.
Lopez Montero’s attempt to present himself as a Castaño-like figure who wants to fight the FARC and who has “never thought of taking up arms against the state” looks like a bid to be treated as a paramilitary leader with a political agenda, rather than a mere criminal boss. The government’s official position is that they will never negotiate with the·post-paramilitary groups, called “criminal bands” (bandas criminales – BACRIMs), nor offer them amnesty. Police chief General Oscar Naranjo has already made a point of describing the Lopez Montero interview as a “desperate attempt to look for a way out.”
The ERPAC leader has made gestures towards surrender before. In October, he sent a letter to the Attorney General’s Office speaking of the group’s desire to “contribute to national peace.” At another point, he reportedly surrendered a weapons cache to Colombia’s judicial police as a gesture of goodwill, but then grew angry after police said the seizure was a result of their investigative work.
According to the Semana interview, Lopez Montero is not interested in winning concessions from the government in exchange for intelligence on other criminals because, as he puts it, “I’m no tattletale.” After the failed demobilization process of paramilitary group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), in which the government initially granted warlords certain amnesties in exchage for surrender, it would be too big a political risk for President Juan Manuel Santos to attempt a similiar process with the BACRIMs.
Lopez Montero’s decision to grant Semana an interview looks like a ploy to justify the ERPAC’s continued existence. Once he has publicly voiced interest in disarming, the Santos administration looks bad for refusing to play along. But that is the only strategy the government can take.