Fighting between guerrillas and narco-paramilitaries has displaced thousands in west Colombia, with heavy combat that may carry echoes of politically motivated battles from Colombia’s past, but is likely rooted in present day criminal dynamics.
Over 2,600 people from 27 indigenous communities in the Pacific coast region of Choco have fled their homes to escape fighting between the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the narco-paramilitary group the Urabeños, according to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
According to a report from the Choco Ombudsman’s Office, the ELN had previously maintained a strategic alliance with the region’s narco-paramilitaries, who controlled the area and its drug routes on behalf of the Rastrojos. However, fighting broke out towards the end of 2013 after the group switched allegiance to the Urabeños.
InSight Crime Analysis
While reports of heavy fighting between guerrillas and paramilitary groups forcing thousands from their homes are reminiscent of the peak of Colombia’s conflict, it is highly likely the current fighting is motivated by criminal not political aims.
The part of Choco in dispute is an important hub of criminal activities, incorporating Pacific coast drug routes, coca crops and illegal mining. Since the demobilization of the paramilitary movement, which concluded in 2006, much of this region’s criminal activity has been controlled by paramilitary successor group Renacer.
For some time Renacer were believed to be a part of the Rastrojos network. But by 2013 police were reporting they had allied themselves with the Urabeños, and together the two groups were fighting off the remnants of the Rastrojos — who had been imploding rapidly since the loss of their leadership in 2012.
This new alliance is likely what brought them into conflict with the ELN. Colombia’s second biggest guerrilla army has maintained a strategic alliance with the Rastrojos for several years, a relationship that opened the way for a new era of cooperation between guerrillas and groups with their roots in the paramilitary counterinsurgency.
The alliance, and others like them, is based on shared criminal interests and not ideology. Similarly, this latest outbreak of fighting is likely based on competition over criminal interests with the new Renacer-Urabeños alliance, rather than any political dispute.