5 Organized Crime Challenges for Colombia President-Elect Duque

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The election of conservative Iván Duque as Colombia’s next president has raised questions on how the country will tackle some of the many challenges it faces regarding new criminal dynamics, rising violence, and the shaky peace deal with the FARC. 

Duque, from the Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) political party, secured nearly 54 percent of the vote in the second round while the former rebel Gustavo Petro took 41.8 percent. A little more than four percent of voters cast a blank vote.

Here are five of the main challenges Duque will face when he takes office in August.

1. Increased Coca Cultivation

Estimates are that Colombia is now producing the most cocaine in the country’s history — with a 23 percent increase in the number of hectares under coca cultivation so far in 2018 in comparison to 2016, when the government signed a historic peace agreement with the now largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) guerrilla organization.

As InSight Crime previously reported, this soaring cocaine production is fueling a new generation of criminals.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

In early 2017, Colombia outlined ambitious plans to eradicate 100,000 hectares of coca by the end of the year — half forcibly and the other half through a crop substitution program. But forced eradication has at times led to bloody confrontations with farmers and the crop substitution strategy has seen limited success as a result of significant logistical and political obstacles.

Duque has vowed to continue with these two strategies. He has also pledged to reinstate the controversial aerial fumigation of drug crops. The United States has voiced its support for reviving this strategy, and Duque will likely want to strengthen Colombia’s strained relationship with Washington amid growing pressure from the United States concerning the implementation of the peace deal with the FARC.

2. Restoring Faith in the FARC Peace Deal

Confidence in Colombia’s peace deal with the FARC is at a critical low. Duque has vowed to make “structural changes” to the accords, which could have a negative impact on dissidence levels among former FARC fighters.

Specifically, Duque has promised to alter the transitional justice system for the peace process known as the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP) and strengthen penalties handed down to former guerrillas.

Colombia’s Congress recently postponed the vote to establish the rules and scope of the JEP. These delays are likely giving Duque the opportunity to wait for congress to turn in his favor in order for him to have a final say on what the future of the JEP will be.

Duque has also promised to remove the amnesty the peace deal guaranteed former FARC fighters who engaged in drug trafficking during the conflict. Many former rebels were already worried following the recent arrest of former high-level FARC member Seuxis Paucis Hernández Solarte, alias “Jesús Santrich,” for drug trafficking crimes allegedly committed after the signing of the peace deal. 

In addition, a growing number of former combatants have been murdered since the implementation of the peace accord began, and the scale of FARC dissidence could increase further as efforts from the state to reintegrate them back into society have been marred by corruption allegations and criminal violence.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s ex-FARC mafia groups are becoming a national threat as they grow in sophistication and strength. While the government maintains its same strategies, these newly formed criminal groups are thinking and acting differently, and may become an attractive alternative for former FARC fighters disheartened by the lack of progress in the peace accords.

3. Fragility of the ELN Peace Process

Duque has already voiced his opposition to the current peace talks with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), the country’s last formidable nationwide guerrilla army, and has given the group an ultimatum: either give up criminal activities and lay down your weapons or run the risk of being attacked by security forces.

Growing concerns over the shaky implementation of the government’s peace deal with the FARC have undermined the ELN’s confidence it can have successful peace talks of its own. As faith in peace wavers, the ELN is waging a war against the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Popular – EPL) in Colombia’s Catatumbo region along the Colombia-Venezuela border in order to control a key cocaine trafficking corridor.

As an ELN commander told InSight Crime in May, the rebels are “analyzing the intention of the government to see if [the peace talks are] genuine.”

4. Colombia’s New Face of Organized Crime

The departure of the FARC from Colombia’s criminal stage has ushered in a new generation of criminals that has adopted a low-profile and a less violent way of conducting illicit business.

SEE ALSO: The ‘Invisibles’: Colombia’s New Generation of Drug Traffickers

However, as the ELN has shown, those who are going to end up controlling the country’s most strategic areas to further their lucrative criminal activities will undoubtedly have to battle other contenders in the process. This could create a situation where those who are going to prevail during this transition will be the ones who use more “plata” than “plomo.”

5. Evolving Criminal Economies and Rising Violence

While Colombia’s criminal groups continue to battle it out for control over the country’s lucrative cocaine trade, other criminal economies are evolving alongside and contributing to concerning levels of violence across the country.

In addition to battling for control over key regions for cocaine trafficking, the ELN may also be expanding its criminal portfolio into car theft along the Colombia-Venezuela border. 

And as criminal groups expand and try to take advantage of new opportunities presented to them in the wake of the FARC’s absence, innocent victims are increasingly becoming caught in the crossfire.

Indeed, social leaders in Colombia are being killed at an alarming rate — an average of 11 per month were killed between 2016 and February 2018 — amid the shake up of the country’s criminal world, and a reconfiguration of power on the local level around illicit industries and land tenure issues. This fighting is also leading to a new era of mass displacement effecting thousands of individuals and displacing them from areas strategic to lucrative criminal activities.

FARC dissidents and other criminal actors may also be aligning themselves with local gangs in urban settings like the city of Medellín, which has seen a spike in violence in recent months.

*This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime’s Colombia Investigative Team.

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