While Colombian rebel groups and the new generation of drug cartels have been moving ever closer in the interests of the drug trade, the FARC and the Rastrojos have engaged in brutal war in the Pacific province of Cauca, leaving at least 20 dead last week alone.
El Tiempo reports that the killings took place February 7 in Argelia, Cauca, one of the most conflict-ridden municipalities in Colombia as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) took on the Rastrojos. The Rastrojos and the FARC’s 8th and 60th Fronts are all present here, along with some units of the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – ELN). This is a hugely strategic area of the country, with hundreds of hectares of coca in Argelia alone, laboratories for processing coca base and movement corridors down to the Pacific coast. The killings are certainly a territorial struggle over who controls these resources, and the departure points along the Pacific.
Cauca is a powerbase for the FARC, and the rebels are still strong enough here to regularly carry out full-scale offensives against the security forces. In 2010 the department registered over 42 major armed actions by the FARC, according to think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris. Unlike in other parts of the country, here the guerrillas may still have the military might needed to take on both the Colombian army and criminal bands (bandas criminales – BACRIMS) like the Rastrojos.
But increasingly in other regions, the FARC cannot afford to fight two enemies at once. Conflict is bad for business and this holds especially true in the Eastern Plains (llanos), where some of the greatest concentrations of coca crops are found, along with prized trafficking routes into Venezuela. Here, the non-aggression pact between the FARC and the Popular Antiterrorist Army of Colombia (Ejercito Popular Antiterrorista de Colombia – ERPAC) appears to be holding, despite the death, in December last year, of the ERPAC founder and leader, Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias ‘Cuchillo‘.
There were reports on January 7 that ERPAC-FARC clashes caused the displacement of approximately 80 people from Vistahermosa, Meta, but InSight spoke with government and military sources who said that they could not confirm that this was combat with actual ERPAC collaborators, and not another armed group made up of common criminals. So far this year, nothing like the Rastrojos-FARC violence in Cauca has been seen in eastern territories like Meta and Guaviare.
The FARC have also established partnerships in Antioquia’s Bajo Cauca region and in Cordoba, selling coca base to groups like the Urabeños. These partnerships are strictly business, involving little more than swapping coca base for weapons, ammunition or cash. Like the Eastern Plains, northern Colombia has seen a concentrated push by the security forces. In places like Bajo Cauca, FARC and the BACRIMS have been forced to enter a marriage of convenience due to security force pressure. Fragmented cells of the Paisas, Urabeños, Rastrojos and Aguilas Negras are all struggling for territory here. So far, the FARC have kept their distance from the inter-BACRIM war and sold their coca base to the highest bidder.
Why is Argelia, Cauca, a different story? Here there is another complicating factor, a business alliance between the FARC’s one-time rivals, the ELN, and the Rastrojos. While the FARC and ELN have now patched up thier difference and announced a nation-wide alliance (so far more on paper than in practice), the FARC are seeking to recover lost ground. The ELN-Rastrojos alliance was consolidated in 2006,the first examples of a rebel-BACRIM partnership, forged when the war between the FARC and the ELN was at its worst. The arms and cash provided by the Rastrojos allowed the ELN to grow again and recover lost ground in the southwest, and now four ELN military columns are thought to be present in Cauca alone. As noted by Nuevo Arco Iris, after 2008 the FARC were pushed out of Argelia by a military offensive, allowing the ELN and the Rastrojos to step in and dominate the municipality’s drug trade. The killings last week could be the FARC’s attempt to retake a small swathe of territory which was once theirs, and which retains huge strategic value.
These differences show the complexity of Colombia’s internal conflict and how much the drug business is the key factor that explains these new criminal alliances. There are no FARC-BACRIM pacts being enforced on a national level: much depends on how fragmented, increasingly independent FARC Fronts choose to negotiate with the BACRIMS, amid a set of constantly shifting alliances.