Colombia’s Forgotten Rebels Now at the Heart of Drug Trade

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The EPL guerrilla group demobilized in 1991, but since then a dissident faction of the organization, and a core of former fighters, have climbed to the top of the Colombian drug trade.

More than 2,500 members of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejercito Popular de Liberacion – EPL) demobilized under an agreement brokered with President Cesar Gaviria (1990-94), but many could not, or would not, make the transition into civilian life. Now the leadership of the two of most powerful transnational criminal organizations in Colombia, the Rastrojos and Urabeños, is made of former EPL fighters, while a still active dissident EPL faction controls much of the drug trade in Norte de Santander, along the Venezuelan border.

A faction of the EPL, under Francisco Caraballo, refused to lay down arms in 1991, and while Caraballo was arrested in 1994, to this day a dissident group of EPL fighters under the leadership of Victor Navarro, alias ‘Megateo,’ continues its fight in the province of Norte de Santander. The government has a reward of over $1 million for the killing or capture of Navarro, a bounty that few criminal bosses or rebel leaders can boast. He commands the last remaining active EPL faction, the ‘Libardo Mora Toro’ Front. He has turned himself into the go to broker for coca base and cocaine in Norte De Santander, working with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – ELN), Rastrojos and the Urabeños. Intelligence sources believe that currently the EPL are capable of producing up to two tons of cocaine a month

The EPL still retain an offensive capacity, and have shown themselves willing and able to take on the security forces in and around their stronghold. In April 2006, the EPL ambushed the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), the Colombian secret police, leaving ten members of the DAS dead, along with six soldiers who were protecting them. In June this year the rebels clashed with police in the San Calixto municipality of Norte de Santander. It is clear the EPL have penetrated the security forces at a local level. In July this year a soldier was arrested as he prepared to deliver ammunition to the EPL.

After the 1991 demobilization, the vast majority of EPL fighters formed a political party, Esperanza, Paz y Libertad (Hope, Peace and Liberty) in the Uraba region of the northern province of Antioquia.  However this was soon targeted by the rival rebel group of the FARC who saw them as traitors, and for survival many members turned to the right wing paramilitaries who were forming in this banana-growing region.  A large group of EPL fighters helped form the Peasant Self Defense Forces of Cordoba and Uraba (ACCU) in 1993/94, the founding paramilitary group of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC).   Among those that joined were the Usuga brothers, Dario Antonio and Juan de Dios, were now leaders of the Urabeños. International intelligence sources told InSight Crime that the top two, if not three, levels of command in the Urabeños are made up of former EPL fighters.

Ex EPL rebels became a core part of the AUC, training the paramilitaries in rebel tactics and strategy and helping the right wing militias clear vast tracts of Colombia of rebel presence through a scorched earth approach. When the AUC became one of the principal drug trafficking organizations in Colombia, the ex EPL fighters were already deeply embedded in the criminal structure, and when the AUC demobilized in 2006, they became key players in the new generation of narco-paramilitary groups, called BACRIMs (‘bandas criminales’ – criminal bands) by the government.

One ex EPL fighter in the southern department of Putumayo did not demobilize in 1991 as part of the peace process, but simply moved up to the city of Cali, where he established himself as an assassin.  He was Javier Antonio Calle Serna. Known by the alias ‘El Doctor’, he now heads, with his younger brother Luis Enrique, the Rastrojos. U.S. authorities, as revealed by an indictment from a court in the Eastern District of New York, believe that Javier Antonio is actually ‘Comba’ the top leader of the Rastrojos, not his brother Luis Enrique, whose face is on all the wanted posters.

As former EPL fighters have taken command of some of the most dangerous criminal organizations in Colombia, what could happen if the ELN or the FARC, demobilize or, more dangerous still, criminalize. The Colombian government needs to learn the lessons of the past, and ensure that another generation of rebel fighters do not become the capos of the future.

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