Clashes between leftist guerillas and a neo-paramilitary organized crime group in the Colombian province of Antioquia may foreshadow the violent renegotiation of criminal economies and territories that could occur if guerilla groups and the government sign peace accords.
On April 11, dozens of heavily armed men with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) armbands engaged in combat with members of Clan Usuga, also known as the Urabeños, according to a press release issued by the Colombian Ombudsman’s office.
The combat transpired in El Bagre, Antioquia, in an area with about 5,000 residents, and three civilians were wounded. Combat continued until army helicopters intervened, reportedly killing two members of the illegal groups and wounding two more.
Antioquia Ombudswoman, Gloria Elena Blandon told the Colombian newspaper Semana that ELN members had told residents of El Bagre they did not want any Urabeños sympathizers in the town. Urabeños forces reportedly told residents the same regarding the ELN.
This impossible situation led to what the Ombudswoman called a “drop by drop” displacement of El Bagre residents. With this new combat, the Ombudswoman warned of the possibility of a mass displacement.
Representatives of the seventh division of the army — which operates in Antioquia — confirmed that they have been in the area since Monday afternoon and said the army has not seen mass displacement.
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El Bagre has long been a contested zone, and this new clash could be a sign of what is to come as illegal economies and territories are renegotiated in post-peace agreement Colombia.
Home to contraband routes, coca cultivation, and rich gold deposits, El Bagre was long controlled by the 36th Front of the FARC which oversaw coca cultivation. The Front allegedly tolerated the Urabeños, who managed coca trafficking while the ELN controlled rural areas.
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However, according to a Semana source, with peace negotiations increasing the likelihood of FARC and ELN demobilization it is probable that the criminal bands want to take over spaces and “illegal economies” controlled by the guerillas. This new threat may have caused “the FARC and ELN to unify” in El Bagre, the source said.
There seems to be evidence of criminal bands trying to move in on guerrilla territory in other parts of Colombia as well, as evidenced by a March 2016 confrontation between FARC and Urabeños forces which displaced 220 people in southwestern Colombia.
However, the FARC and BACRIM, as criminal bands are called in Colombia, have also been known to cooperate, as exemplified by a coordinated attack by the FARC’s 58th Front and the Urabeños against police in 2014. FARC fronts that do not want to demobilize may find a place in the new illegal economy by cooperating with the BACRIM.
Regardless of the exact dynamics, the changes brought on by possible peace agreements with the ELN and FARC are unlikely to bring an end to conflict in Colombia’s long-troubled territories.