In January 2019, heavily armed gunmen traveling in a truck and on a motorbike ambushed a small group of anti-narcotics agents in Sucumbíos, the Ecuadorean province that borders Colombia in the Amazon region. The shootout that followed left one agent dead, and two more severely injured.
Yet the response from the authorities was muted. Something about the story was not right, police sources privately confided. No one could explain what the agents were doing, lightly armed and in a small group, traveling through a known narco-town, a place that exists outside of the law.
The initial outcry soon petered out; there was no military deployment, no task force or special investigation. Instead, the entire Sucumbíos anti-narcotics unit was quietly transferred out and replaced.
The series of attacks against security forces in the Pacific border province of Esmeraldas in 2018 was taken as a sign of a new era, where the old rules of coexistence between the state and the underworld were being torn up. The ambush in Sucumbíos hinted at the opposite. Here, the alliance between the underworld and the legal world put in place by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) has outlived the guerrilla’s armed revolution.
The capital of Sucumbíos, Nueva Loja, better known as Lago Agrio, is a hive of underworld commerce. It is a place where the first question a lawyer asks is “do you come from below?” — the underworld. A place where many in the city have two identities: their original Colombian name and their chosen Ecuadorean name, obtained from corrupt notaries. And a place where security forces escort drug shipments.
Lago Agrio first began to grow from a forgotten corner of the Amazon to a regional hub as the oil industry spread its tentacles into the Ecuadorean rainforest. But it was the arrival of the FARC that transformed the town. Lago Agrio underwent a boom as the guerrillas spurred the development of a parallel economy: medical clinics to treat wounded fighters, hotels, bars and brothels to service guerrillas on leave, military supplies stores, and, of course, new employment opportunities in the drug trade.
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While some of this underworld infrastructure disappeared with the 2017 demobilization of the FARC — the demand for 24-hour no-questions-asked medical assistance has dropped drastically — Lago Agrio remains a logistical hub for the drug trade. The trafficking machine set up by the guerrillas continues to operate, and is likely moving more cocaine through Sucumbíos than ever before.
“[In Lago Agrio], there are very wealthy businessmen that use their businesses to move money around, or help with logistics, if [traffickers] need trucks or supplies,” said a source in Ecuadorean intelligence, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If [traffickers] have a problem with a judge or a prosecutor they can sort things out because they have been state deputies, mayors and everything else.”
The security forces are also part of this machine, according to underworld sources, who claim police and military are paid off to wave drug shipments through their checkpoints, or even escort them themselves.
“[In Sucumbios], if you’re not corrupt, then they will corrupt you,” said one, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Lago Agrio is also a meeting point and stop off for international traffickers seeking to do business in the Colombia border region, the intelligence source added.
“As it is an oil city there are also lots of foreigners working for the oil companies, and the traffickers can hide among them easily,” he said.
Underworld sources say European traffickers are the most common visitors, especially those from the Balkans region, a claim supported by police intelligence reports seen by InSight Crime. However, Mexican cartels also do business in the area, and traffickers from as far away as the middle east have also been spotted.
The cocaine the traffickers come to buy is produced across the border in the Colombian department of Putumayo. Most of them will make their deals with a trafficking network that dominates drug routes into Sucumbíos — the alliance between trafficking group La Constru and the ex-FARC mafia.
The alliance was forged in the underworld vacuum left by the FARC demobilization. Several units of the FARC’s 48th Front did not take part in the peace process, instead they kept their guns and they kept their territories — including within Ecuador.
Perhaps even more importantly, so did the militia and logistics networks that had acted as the guerrillas’ life-support: moving drugs, precursor chemicals and money, and securing arms and supplies.
“The militias didn’t turn themselves in, and they were the ones with all the connections,” said one resident of guerrilla-controlled lands in the border region, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals. “The government didn’t even call for them to, they only got involved with those in uniform.”
Initially, these FARC remnants were adrift. While they had the power and knowledge to run the drug trade on a local level, they lacked the international contacts to make transnational arrangements, and the capital to keep the supply market moving.
The solution to their problems came in the form of La Constru, a trafficking network formed during the era of right-wing paramilitaries that went on to become major drug trade partners of the FARC. La Constru stepped in to play the role of cocaine broker, finding international buyers and investing in local coca production to meet their demands.
The ex-FARC, sources say, are now a mercenary army at the service of La Constru. They offer territorial control in coca cultivation and processing zones, and trafficking routes into Ecuador. They have used this armed control to establish a virtual monopoly on cocaine production in the border region, killing anyone who sells to rival traffickers.
“Nobody can move a single gram without them,” said the underworld source.
La Constru buy up the production, process it, then sell it on to international mafias. The price they charge depends on the delivery point, which could be at the border, or they may make arrangements for delivery to farther flung dispatch points.
“A kilo is worth $2,200, then they add security, transport, everything else,” said the intelligence source. “They’ll provide security by sending two or three cars [to escort the load] or by activating their sources in the police and the military, doing everything necessary to have the whole sector secure.”
Only once since 1990 has Sucumbíos not been Ecuador’s most violent province. Since the FARC stood down, it has posted a murder rate around three times higher than the national figure.
“The idea that things have calmed down is a lie,” said the underworld source.
Although there is no longer an insurgency to fight, in many former FARC strongholds, security has deteriorated. Before, violence was regulated by the FARC. They would execute suspected informants, paramilitary collaborators, common criminals and people who messed up in the drug trade. But only after investigating their cases. Today, there is no such control.
Along the border, the ex-FARC have been on high alert. Anyone unknown entering the area is at risk of not leaving.
“They will kill you for the slightest suspicion,” said the resident.
The ex-FARC lockdown on the border region might be a tactic to protect their drug trade interests. Or it could be a response to a threat from the east, and a conflict that spilled over the border in late 2017.
The most powerful ex-FARC network in the country, the dissidents led by Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” had dispatched a bloc of fighters to take Putumayo. They entered by the Caquetá River, before pushing towards departmental capital Puerto Asís, where they encountered resistance from the ex-48th Front groups.
The fighting soon settled on the Putumayo river, which straddles the eastern section of the border. Communities along the banks of the river were caught up in the combat, and residents were murdered, displaced and recruited, according to a human rights worker in the area, who did not want to be identified.
But it has been a largely silent war. The terrorized communities are too scared to talk to the authorities, and the authorities’ presence in the border zone is ephemeral at best. As a result, most of the dead remain uncounted, according to the human rights worker, a claim echoed by other residents of the border region.
“What happens in the border, stays in the border,” he said.
While that conflict died down in early 2019, there has also been violence linked to internal conflicts within the La Constru-ex-FARC alliance.
It began in August 2018, when the ex-guerrilla Pedro Oberman Goyes Cortés, alias “Sinaloa,” became the public face of drug trafficking in the border region.
Sources that personally knew Sinaloa say he had been an errand boy within the FARC, but an errand boy for one of the rebel’s most notorious drug traffickers, who had armed him with the contacts and knowhow to rise up in the new era. The sources say he did not lead the ex-FARC forces in the region, but was instead commander of one of several distinct and autonomous ex-48th Front groups.
Sinaloa became the most notorious of this new generation after the publication of a police intelligence report describing his partnership with La Constru and how together they supplied the Balkans Cartel with tons of cocaine. And when the anti-narcotics agents were ambushed five months later, it was Sinaloa who was blamed.
Sinaloa’s infamy, though, was short-lived, and in March 2019 he was murdered by his own men. The news of Sinaloa’s death made headlines in both Colombia and Ecuador, but in Sucumbíos it was still just business as usual.
“This is a business, and in this type of business you know that you could go at any time,” said the intelligence source. “It could be because of an argument over money, a misunderstanding, jealousy or because someone wants to take your place — there is always someone after your place.”
As with suspicious murder of the anti-narcotics agent, Sinaloa’s killing merely reaffirmed what had become evident since the demobilization of the FARC: the Sucumbíos-Putumayo border belongs to the underworld, and while the names change, the business will continue.
Top Image: A truck found to be transporting drugs in Lago Agrio, the capital of Sucumbíos
*Additional reporting was contributed by Mayra Alejandra Bonilla.