How Contraband Politics Took Over Northeast Colombia

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A police raid on a luxury mansion in Brazil in late October brought the era of Marquitos and Kiko crashing down: the gangster and the politician who together built a gasoline smuggling empire that co-opted the Colombian state of La Guajira. But while both are now facing the prospect of lengthy prison sentences, the political-criminal nexus they leave behind is far from finished.

Just over a year ago, Marcos “Marquitos” Figueroa and Francisco “Kiko” Gomez had the northeastern border state of La Guajira at their feet. Kiko was the state’s governor and head of a political bloc that controlled almost half of La Guajira’s municipal governments. Marquitos was the kingpin of a contraband cartel with dominion over the billion dollar gasoline smuggling trade.

Their simultaneous rise in the Colombia-Venezuela border region was no coincidence. The pair are long time collaborators, who rode the gasoline smuggling boom to power together, leaving a trail of corruption and death in their wake.

Their downfall within the space of a year was also no coincidence. The revelations that emerged in the wake of Kiko’s arrest in October 2013 made Marquitos the most wanted man in northeast Colombia and launched a manhunt that spanned three countries.

“In La Guajira at the moment, those that have a monopoly on gasoline are the same people that have a monopoly on political power,” one local politician, who did not want to be named for security reasons, told InSight Crime shortly before Marquitos’ arrest.

The question now facing La Guajira is whether that contraband-political alliance can cling on to its monopoly after the loss of its two figureheads, or whether it will be dismantled by the authorities or ravaged by rivals.

The Gangster and the Politician

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The criminal-political partnership that would consume La Guajira was first forged in the late 1990s, when Marquitos was a hungry thug with a growing reputation and Kiko (pictured above) an ambitious and unscrupulous young politician.

SEE ALSO: Profile of Marquitos

They were brought together by Jorge Gnecco Cerchar, the patriarch of a powerful political clan with ties to drug trafficking, paramilitarism and contraband smuggling. Gnecco recruited Marquitos as an enforcer and security chief, a role that brought him into contact with Kiko, Gnecco’s cousin and political protégé.

In 2001, Gnecco was murdered by the paramilitary warlord Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias “Jorge 40.” This put Marquitos and Kiko in a bind: submit to their patron’s killer, or take on the most powerful criminal in northern Colombia.

Marquitos refused to bow to Jorge 40, according to the testimonies of demobilized paramilitaries. Instead, he chose exile in the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, where he built up his contraband and drug trafficking networks.

However, Kiko, ever the politician, chose diplomacy. “What belongs to ’40’ is for ’40,'” he reportedly told an intermediary, to assure Jorge 40 he was not about to imitate Marquitos’ defiance.

By the time Marquitos returned to Colombia – at some point after Jorge 40 was extradited to the US in 2008 — the region’s underworld was a changed place. Jorge 40 was gone, and his paramilitary army had demobilized, fragmenting into new paramilitary-criminal hybrid networks.

The contraband gasoline trade was also changing rapidly. Venezuela’s runaway inflation, black market currency exchange, and refusal to raise gas prices sent profit margins soaring. Contraband gas running began to evolve from an illicit sideline business into a complex and highly lucrative criminal economy.

Kiko, however, had not changed. He remained thirsty for power and willing to use Marquitos’ deadly skills to seize it.

The Gasoline Smuggling King

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Once back in Colombia, Marquitos (pictured above) built up his private army to harness the contraband gasoline boom.

At the time of his arrest, contraband had claimed a 15 percent market share of Colombian gasoline sales, according to Colombia’s Tax and Customs Directorate (DIAN), and police in the region say nearly every drop was making a profit for Marquitos’ network.

“[Marquitos’ band] has control over all the contraband fuel that enters the country here,” the commander of the La Guajira police, Coronel Alejandro Calderon, told InSight Crime.

According to the Tax and Customs Police (POLFA) in the border town of Maicao, Marquitos’ organization invests in vehicles used for smuggling and organizes what have become known as “caravans of death” — convoys of trucks and tankers loaded with contraband gasoline, who stop for nothing and try to shoot their way out of trouble if speed alone is not enough to avoid the security forces.

However, Marquitos’ real power came not from his smuggling network, but from his private army, which he used to seize control of the region’s main smuggling artery — the road heading south to the state of Cesar.

With at least 200 armed men on his payroll, anyone transporting or selling contraband gasoline within his territory had to pay Marquitos’ toll. Those that did not — whether they were rival gangs, or street side gas vendors — were brutally disposed of.

However, his dominance was not only based on violence, but also close community ties and local knowledge, which allowed him to stay ahead of the security forces and rivals.

“His first [advantage] is the long history he has here in the state,” said Coronel Calderon before Marquitos’ arrest. “Second, his family ties and the friendship he has with a lot of these communities, and third is the border, because crossing into Venezuela is so easy.”

Rise of a Contraband Petro-State

While Marquitos built up his contraband empire, he was also helping his old friend Kiko build a political power bloc to take control of La Guajira.

According to prosecutors in Kiko’s ongoing murder trial, together the pair went on a political killing spree, removing anyone who refused to play by Kiko’s rules.

Marquitos also threw his financial support behind Kiko, funneling his smuggling profits into Kiko’s campaign for governor, according to a report that conflict monitoring group Nuevo Arco Iris released ahead of the 2011 gubernatorial elections.

According to one local politician who has held office and campaigned in elections for over 20 years of La Guajira politics, it was far from an isolated case. The contraband gasoline boom has flooded the state’s politics with illicit money.

“This is a crisis in the political model — a model that has money as its most important master, and that doesn’t take into account the origins of that money,” he said.

Despite the swirl of rumors and accusations, Kiko won over 50 percent of the vote in 2011. Candidates backed by his political bloc also swept to power in numerous mayoral elections. Marquitos and Kiko and their brand of contraband-politics had arrived.

With a friend in the governor’s office, Marquitos gained political protection for his smuggling business. In 2012, intense last-minute lobbying by Kiko ensured that a potentially hazardous anti-contraband campaign in La Guajira wouldn’t be under the control of an unfriendly governor, but Luis Monsalvo Gnecco — Kiko’s cousin, Jorge Gnecco’s nephew and the latest member of the Gnecco family to serve as governor of the state of Cesar (another one of Kiko’s cousins is currently the senator representing Cesar).  

The Gnecco family — including Jorge and his three siblings, Cielo, Pepe, and Lucas — form part of a network of political elites in northeast Colombian who have been accused of ties to the contraband trade. As mapped below in InSight Crime’s “family tree” of contraband politics in this region of Colombia, those within this network who haven’t been accused of ties to Marquitos have been investigated — and sometimes jailed — for links to paramilitaries and corruption, among other charges.

Click through the presentation below or explore by panning and zooming.

Still, Marquitos’ principal return on his campaign investment may well be found elsewhere — buried in the paper trail behind unfinished or substandard state projects and services, or inside the financial investigations by the Inspector General’s Office.

Organized crime has long siphoned off money from La Guajira’s state and municipal budgets, with Jorge 40 particularly adept at capturing public funds. The chance to pocket money from public contracts is one of the main benefits for the contraband-politics bloc, according to sources in the region, as well those who have investigated connections between politics and crime in La Guajira.

“The people involved in this illegal business give them money for the campaign, and the administration returns it in contracts — it’s an investment,” said the politician.

Although prosecutors have not yet traced any public contracts directly back to Marquitos, who used a complex web of frontmen to mask his wealth, they have discovered financial irregularities in public contracting all along the gasoline smuggling trail.

In February 2014, the Inspector General’s Office found Kiko himself guilty on three out of five charges of irregularities in awarding public contracts and banned him from holding office for 17 years. This followed the 2012 arrest of his secretary of health for allegedly embezzling $2.4 million, although he was later released after the statute of limitations expired.

At least six La Guajira mayors are backed by Kiko’s political bloc, and all but one has been accused of or investigated for irregularities in public contracts. The exception, Javid Sadet Figueroa Brito, is, according to some media reports, the brother of Marquitos. His predecessor was arrested and charged with murder and colluding with Marquitos, and is also under investigation for corruption in public contracts.

Fall of the Gasoline Empire

The beginning of the end for Marquitos and Kiko’s empire came with a bizarre series of events at the annual “Coal Festival” in the town where both men grew up, Barrancas.

At the festival, agents from Colombia’s Technical Investigation Team (CTI), disguised as partygoers, attempted a surprise arrest of Kiko, but became embroiled in a standoff with local police as Kiko made an exit in an ambulance complaining of heart problems.

Eventually, they brought Kiko into custody. He is currently standing trial for three murders, and under investigation for 15 more.

However, his political bloc was quick to reorganize. Elections were held to pick Kiko’s successor in June 2014, and the winner was Jose Maria “Chemita” Ballesteros. He is the son of Jorge Ballesteros, the chief backer of Kiko’s 2011 campaign and a former senator with family ties to the contraband trade. As depicted in InSight Crime’s “family tree” of contraband-politics in northeast Colombia, this includes a member of the Ballesteros family known as the “Marlboro Man,” a smuggler currently serving time in a US prison. 

BallesterosChemita

Before the 2014 election, reports detailed how “Chemita” Ballesteros (pictured above) was the only candidate able to campaign freely in Marquitos’ territory, while photos surfaced showing him meeting alleged members of Marquitos’ organization. He has also been accused of paying hitmen to take out a group of journalists and investigators behind the accusations against him, although no attacks ever took place.

The new governor is publicly keen to distance himself from his predecessor, and denies rumors that Kiko’s political machine pulled the levers of his campaign.

“This is a new government, a government that has shown it is not tainted,” Ballesteros told InSight Crime. “The governor [Gomez] is facing personal problems and I hope he can demonstrate his innocence, but these issues are his. They have nothing to do with my administration.”

Ballesteros also denied accusations that, once again, money from the contraband trade had found its way into campaign coffers during the election.

“My campaign was financed by the resources of a lot of friends, businesses that wanted to support the campaign of Jose Maria Ballesteros,” he said. “I didn’t have to involve myself, much less commit myself to absolutely anybody except with people who voluntarily wanted to accompany me.”

With Congressional elections taking place in May 2014, Ballesteros wasn’t the only politician in Colombia’s northeast to fall under suspicion. In the aftermath of Marquitos’ arrest, a renowned investigator of criminal-political ties, Senator Claudia Lopez, accused two congressmen of links to his organization: Jose Alfredo Gnecco — Kiko’s cousin, the nephew of Jorge Gnecco and the son of a former governor of Cesar convicted of corruption — and Antenor Duran, one of the main backers of Kiko’s 2011 governor’s campaign, who also has alleged family ties to drug trafficking and contraband. Both men deny the accusations, and Gnecco has threatened legal action against Lopez.


The reorganization of the contraband trade in light of Marquitos’ downfall may be anything but calm.


While La Guajira politics readjusted itself to life without Kiko with business as usual, for Marquitos things were not so simple. Suddenly finding himself one of Colombia’s most famous criminals, he was forced to go on the run.

For a year, the police chased rumors and ghosts. Shortly before his capture, the La Guajira police told InSight Crime they believed he was flitting between Venezuela and Colombia on clandestine smuggling trails, while the POLFA said they had heard he was hiding out on the island of Aruba.

In the end, police tracked Marquitos to Brazil, after following one of the eight mothers of his 19 children. In contrast to Kiko’s arrest, the capture was a low-key affair, with Marquitos and his cousins calmly surrendering.

But the reorganization of the contraband trade in light of Marquitos’ downfall may be anything but calm.

According to Ariel Avila, who has carried out investigations into the region’s criminal networks for Nuevo Arco Iris and the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation, there are three possible scenarios for what could happen next: a potentially violent breakup of Marquitos’ organization; a clear succession and a new leader; or an outside criminal group moving in and taking over.

Avila believes the most likely scenario is the fragmentation of Marquitos’ network.

“I believe what is going to happen is a federalization of this criminal organization,” he said. “They are going to divide up the zones amongst mid-level commanders, and this will be done with a certain level of confrontation in the most profitable areas.”

However, the presence of Colombia’s most powerful criminal network, the Urabeños, may cause further reverberations in La Guajira’s underworld. Police say the group has been slowly building influence in the region over the last four years.

SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile

According to Avila, several months before Marquitos’ arrest, he attended a meeting with the Urabeños, local drug traffickers and representatives of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel to plan the formation of a regional drug trafficking alliance. The discussions involved outlining the future of local, independent criminal organizations like Marquitos’ contraband networks. Avila believes the talks would likely have resulted in Marquitos joining the Urabeños drug trafficking federation but maintaining control of his smuggling empire.

However, Marquitos was captured before any pact could be sealed, and the huge profits on offer from gasoline smuggling may yet tempt the Urabeños to demand a stake from whatever remains of his organization.

Whatever happens next in Colombia’s underworld, the brand of contraband politics that Marquitos and Kiko capitalized on so expertly looks set to continue in one form or another. 

Speaking to InSight Crime after Marquitos’ arrest, the politician from La Guajira now believes the monopoly he spoke of may have been broken, but that the contraband-political networks will continue.

“As long as there is the demand, and there is the supply, the business will go on, and they will be organized from within political activity,” he said.

This article is the second part in a four-part series looking at contraband in Colombia. Read part one, a report from Colombia-Venezuela border town Cucuta, a major smuggling hub; part three, which looks at how police confront the smugglers’ so-called “caravans of death”; and part four, which traces how contraband became Colombian organized crime’s tool of choice for laundering money.

The research presented in this article is, in part, the result of a project funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.

 

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