EPL Expands as FARC Withdraws From Former Turf

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The EPL is reportedly expanding across Colombia’s northeast, as the FARC withdraws from one of the country’s largest coca growing areas.

The narco-guerrilla group the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) is intensifying its operations in the Catatumbo region, reported El Tiempo. Authorities believe the EPL is present in the region’s 11 municipalities, with at least 213 members around the zone. The insurgents are reportedly trying to take control of territories formerly controlled by the 33rd Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).

Earlier this year, the FARC moved into 26 concentration zones across the country, where they are set to surrender weapons and demobilize. 

On March 20, EPL guerrillas allegedly killed a chief of Colombia’s investigative police unit, SIJIN, Víctor Manuel Benavides, who was leading a raid against the insurgents in Tibú, Catatumbo. Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos condemned Benavides’s assassination, and ordered the police and armed forces to double their efforts to clamp down on all organized crime groups in the country.

InSight Crime Analysis

The intensification of EPL activities across Catatumbo is a reminder that Colombia’s fight against organized crime will continue long after the demobilization of the FARC guerrillas.

Colombian authorities insist on dubbing the EPL “Los Pelusos” in an effort to paint the group as one of the several criminal syndicates — commonly referred to as BACRIM for the Spanish bandas criminales — that are plaguing the country. To be sure, the EPL is a powerful organized crime group that controls much of the coca grown in the department of Norte de Santander, home to a significant portion of Colombia’s coca cultivations. Under the leadership of the group’s finance commander, Victor Ramon Navarro Serrano, alias “Megateo,” the group had established an international network of drug trafficking clients, who would purchase the narcotics produced in the EPL-controlled Catatumbo and ship them abroad.

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But the group also acts as an insurgent movement, as uniformed members still carry out political work in the areas they control and enjoy ties with local communities. Downplaying their political nature is to potentially downplay the threat the EPL poses to Colombia’s national security.

After Megateo’s death, the group was thought to have suffered some setbacks, but reports from October 2016 indicated that the narco-guerrilla group was allegedly expanding across Colombia. And while rumors claim one of the most prominent of Megateo’s successors, alias “Caracho,” might be have been killed, sources known to InSight Crime suggested Caracho is alive and well, and trying to re-build the group’s international drug trafficking network.

InSight Crime correspondents from within Venezuela also believe the EPL has been pushing into neighboring Táchira for the first time — further evidence of the group’s expansion and its efforts to take back control of the old drug smuggling routes. 

The EPL is a perfect example of what some FARC commanders in coca growing areas could do if they wished to set themselves up as independent players in Colombia’s criminal map. One of the great strengths of the EPL has been its ability to work with the FARC, ELN and BACRIMs, and to act as a broker for other criminal organizations. It is possible some FARC dissidents might be able to replicate the same model in other parts of the country.

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