Hundreds of citizens in a key drug trafficking region of southern Colombia have been forced to flee their homes amid increased fighting between rival criminal groups, highlighting shifting criminal dynamics in the region in the absence of the former ex-FARC mafia boss, alias “Guacho.”
Intense fighting between a group of dissident former rebels from the now largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) known as the Oliver Sinisterra Front (Frente Oliver Sinisterra – FOS) and another armed group known as Los Contadores has forced hundreds of Colombians from their homes in the rural hamlet of Santo Domingo near the port city of Tumaco in southwest Nariño department, El Tiempo reported.
Days earlier on March 1, Ivette Catherine Mina Santana from Tumaco’s local human rights ombudsman alerted community members about the possibility of being displaced after intense clashes between the two groups were recorded on February 28, according to Blu Radio.
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The fighting displaced between 150 and 275 people from southwest Colombia across the border into northern Ecuador’s port town of San Lorenzo in Esmeraldas province — itself a hotspot recently for spillover violence from Colombia and the contested border region, the Ecuadorean Defense Ministry announced in a press release.
Members of Ecuador’s armed forces responded by reinforcing their presence along the Colombia-Ecuador border to monitor the flow of people and boats in the area, according to the press release.
Colombia is no stranger to displacement after five decades of brutal armed conflict. But the signing of a peace agreement in 2016 between the FARC rebels and Colombian government has ushered in a new era of forced displacement.
Criminal groups are now battling for control over strategic territories once occupied and now abandoned by the FARC. In January 2018, for example, armed fighting displaced nearly 300 families comprising more than 1,000 people across the country over one four-day period.
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The recent mass displacement of hundreds of citizens outside of Tumaco suggests that Los Contadores, led by a long time drug trafficker known by his alias, “El Contador,” is trying to capitalize on the weakened state of the Oliver Sinisterra Front in the aftermath of the death of the head of the group, Walter Patricio Arizala, alias “Guacho,” who was formerly one of the most dominant criminal leaders in this strategic border region.
Contador has allegedly been the “true power” and “big financier” of the drug trade in Colombia’s prized Pacific region for at least a decade, according to El Tiempo. He was a key player in the drug trafficking activities of the FARC’s Daniel Aldana Mobile Column and 29th Front.
However, after the FARC demobilized in 2016, Contador began working with Yeison Segura Mina, alias “Don Y,” who was reportedly the leader of militia groups operating in Tumaco. But after his death in November 2016, Contador moved on and started working with Don Y’s brother, Víctor David Segura Palacios, known widely as “David,” as well as Guacho, according to El Tiempo.
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With David heading a crime group known as the United Guerrillas of the Pacific (Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico) up until his September 2018 death, and Guacho leading the Oliver Sinistera Front up until security forces killed him in December 2018, Contador appears to have remained in the shadows and out of authorities’ sights while financing drug trafficking operations in the region.
But Contador isn’t just operating solely in the Pacific. One of his main cocaine buyers, according to El Tiempo, is Miguel Botache Santillana, better known as “Gentil Duarte,” who is currently Colombia’s most wanted criminal and one of the leaders of the 1st Front Dissidence operating primarily in Guaviare, Vaupés, Meta and Vichada departments. This 1st Front Dissidence is arguably the most powerful and dangerous of the ex-FARC mafia groups comprised of former rebels.
Contador’s relationship with the 1st Front Dissidence, as well as with Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel, is likely what’s keeping his drug trafficking operations alive after the deaths of two of his primary clients in David and Guacho. It may also explain the armed offensive Los Contadores is waging against the weakened Oliver Sinisterra Front, likely in an effort to consolidate control over the drug trade in Nariño.
As Colombia broke records for cocaine production in 2017, this department was the country’s main coca-producing area with 45,735 hectares of land being used for coca cultivation, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
*This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime’s Colombian Organized Crime Observatory.