Security Surge on Colombia’s Pacific Coast: Third Time’s a Charm

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The embattled Pacific state of Choco could soon be the new frontline in Colombia‘s war against drug trafficking gangs.

According to the Defense Ministry, Choco will be the third Colombian region this year to see a surge in military troops and police. So far there are few details about what the surge will look like, but it appears to be modeled on “Operation Troy,” an ongoing security crackdown launched along the Caribbean coast in January. A similar offensive, dubbed “Plan Troy,” was initiated last June in the troubled southwest state of Nariño.

It’s unclear, however, what the two Troy operations have achieved so far. There have been plenty of arrests of low-level gang members, with over 800 people detained in the Caribbean department of Cordoba. But such numbers aren’t necessarily a sign that justice is being done: few captures have resulted in verdicts, and public defenders in provincial areas are still few, and face a lack of resources. The objective of the two Troy operations has never been to strengthen Colombia’s judicial institutions. Instead, the emphasis has always been on boosting numbers: more police, more military units, more arrests, more drugs seized. Such an approach may not be the best measure of success, when it comes to the groups the government has dubbed “criminal bands” (bandas criminales – BACRIMs).

The remote Pacific department of Choco, however, may benefit from this focus on putting more boots on the ground. Increasing military and police presence here is a vital first step in improving security, in contrast to the more developed Caribbean, where there is less to be gained by simply pouring in troops. The department, where most of the population is Afro-Colombian or indigenous, is among Colombia’s poorest regions and has long suffered the brunt of the civil conflict, with high indices of displacement and corruption. The army’s 15th Brigade is based in Choco’s capital, but reportedly has a history of collaborating with paramilitary forces. There is evidence of ties between the Choco security forces and drug-trafficking gangs: bringing in police and military personnel who have few ties to the department may result in more succesful operations.

The new offensive will reportedly be based in southern Choco, where the Rastrojos are active. Their rivals, the Urabeños, control the north. Both BACRIMs have developed alliances with factions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC): the Rastrojos with the 57th Front and the Urabeños with the 34th. The alliance is typical of the deepening relationship between the BACRIMs and the FARC across the country: even though many members of the BACRIMs are former mid-level commanders of the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), factions are increasingly doing business with their former enemies, the leftist guerrillas. In some areas, this business relationship has allowed the rebels to resurge and gain lost ground.

In Choco, the BACRIM-FARC alliance is a typical one: the guerrillas sell coca base to the BACRIMs in exchange for weapons or cash. The groups do not yet appear to be sharing manpower and intelligence, or launching joint operations against the security forces, as is the case in other rural pockets of Colombia. But with drug production in Choco on the rise — the Pacific coast now has the largest area under coca cultivation in Colombia — there is a chance that the FARC and the BACRIMs could begin making more sophisticated agreements which revolve around the drug trade.

That the BACRIMs even have an alliance with the FARC in Choco is a sign of how much Colombia’s drug conflict has evolved, considering the history of conflict between the AUC and the rebels in this department. As early as 1989, the Cali Cartel sent armed groups into southern Choco, with the aim of weakening the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – ELN), who had briefly managed to establish a foothold in the area. In the early 2000s, the FARC were strongest in northern Choco, while the south saw frequent combats between the AUC’s Bloque Pacifico and the guerrillas. In one municipality, Itsmina, homicide rates reached 66 murders per 100,000 inhabitants between 2004 and 2005. After the Bloque Pacifico demobilized, two rival factions of the Norte del Valle Cartel — the Machos and the Rastrojos — fought bitterly over control of the drug smuggling routes in the area.

The Rastrojos managed to win their current stronghold in the south, while the Urabeños have moved into the AUC’s old territory in Choco’s northern Uraba region. It’s possible that the proposed Choco surge will end up impacting the Rastrojos more than the Urabeños, as it will reportedly focus on securing the southern municipalities. This is most likely intended to complement the offensive against the Rastrojos currently underway in Nariño.

So far this year, the Troy operations in Nariño and in the Caribbean have apparently made few long-term security gains, as a result of their focus on arrest counts rather than conviction rates. But if a third Troy surge in Choco deploys more police and military in this lawless region long controlled by one of Colombia’s most powerful gangs, the government might actually be able to talk about progress.

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