FARC 57th Front in Panama

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The FARC’s 57th Front is active along the Colombia-Panama border, where it has long used the dense strip of jungle known as the Darién Gap to traffic drugs into Central America and weapons into Colombia. It also uses Panama as a refuge from Colombian security forces.

The front is known to collaborate with transnational drug trafficking organizations, notably those from Mexico and Colombia. The guerrilla unit has also been implicated in the discovery of coca plantations and cocaine processing laboratories in the Darién area.

Panamanian and Colombian authorities often collaborate in operations against this faction, which have reportedly weakened the group over the past few years.

History

The Marxist rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) was formed in Colombia in the 1960s. The 57th Front was established in the 1990s as part of the FARC’s Northwestern Bloc, or Iván Ríos Bloc. The earliest records of illegal activity by guerrillas in Panamanian territory date back to 1993 with the kidnapping of US citizens Ricardo Tenenoff, David Mankins and Marcos Rich.

Although the FARC has claimed that it only imposes taxes on cocaine traffickers, the 57th Front is known to be involved in cocaine trafficking to Central America, North America and Europe, in collaboration with transnational criminal organizations. The front handles the majority of the Iván Ríos Bloc’s drug trafficking movements into Panama, while moving arms into Colombia. The unit has also been implicated in coca cultivation and cocaine processing in the Darién region.

In order to move drugs through the barely penetrable 60-mile stretch of jungle separating Colombia and Panama, the 57th Front uses the Darien Gap’s indigenous inhabitants of the Emberá and Wounaan tribes as drugs mules and guides. The illegal goods are transported by foot as well as by small boat. There are reports of indigenous locals being threatened and forced to collaborate with the guerrilla, while others are offered payments of up to $300 per drug load. Children are especially exploited for this use.

The front also reportedly raids villages, steals supplies, assaults local women and sets up landmines. The guerrillas’ violence and clashes with authorities have prompted the displacement of many locals. The front is known to practice extortion and has retaliated violently against those who fail to pay.

Following a 2013 ambush that led to the death of a commander of the 57th Front, Virgilio Antonio Vidal Mora, alias “Silver,” authorities discovered the group’s financial records from January to August 2013. In these eight months, the front made a net income of approximately $900,000 (2.7 billion Colombian pesos). Its revenue streams included “taxing” drug traffickers and seizing drugs from those who refused to pay the fee. The front also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on weaponry such as grenades, rifles, shotguns, M79 grenade launchers and ammunition. Other expenses included legal costs for arrested members, payments for hit men, and the purchase of real estate to launder drug money.

The front is politically active to an extent; the seized records showed that it spent hundreds of thousands of dollars financing the Marcha Patriótica, a left-wing political movement associated with the FARC.

This faction’s numbers have been dropping over the past few years due to Panama’s continued security efforts and peace negotiations between the FARC organization and the Colombian government. In 2009, during its peak period, it was reported that the front was over a thousand strong. By 2015, the group’s membership had reportedly declined to 220 members.

The 57th Front has been heavily targeted by authorities on both sides of the border. Panama’s border police and the Colombian Army announced in 2013 that they would build a joint base on the border to fight the FARC’s illicit activities in the region.

Tactics used by Panamanian security officials have included attempting to squeeze the guerrillas out of the Darién region by blocking supplies and restricting transport in the area. However, this form of police enforcement also inhibits the movement of indigenous communities.

Authorities have seized hundreds of kilograms of cocaine, firearms and explosives in raids on the 57th Front.

Leadership

José David Suárez, alias “El Becerro,” was the head of the 57th Front until his death in March 2015 after allegedly being betrayed by people within his security detail. A member of the FARC’s Central General Staff, El Becerro oversaw the finances and weapon purchases for the Iván Ríos Bloc. He was believed to spend the majority of his time on the Panamanian side of the border and negotiated illicit business deals in Panama City. El Becerro allegedly worked with Panamanian traffickers to move drugs north using go-fast boats, and he reportedly maintained links to Honduran, Guatemalan, and Nicaraguan criminal groups.

The guerrilla commander appears to have been highly influential in the FARC’s move into transnational drug trafficking. In the 1990s, El Becerro reportedly decided that the FARC should expand their activities from taxing coca farmers to controlling other stages of the drug trade.

Virgilio Antonio Vidal Mora, alias “Silver,” one of the front’s commanders, played a key role in the group’s finances. According to some reports, he provided the main source of financial support for the entire FARC organization, and was an extravagant spender of the unit’s drug-based earnings. Vidal Mora was known to carry out drug trafficking and kidnapping activities in the region, and was believed to be responsible for 70 percent of disappearances in the Antioquia and Chocó departments of Colombia. After nearly 30 years with the 57th Front, Vidal Mora was killed in a bomb attack by Colombian air forces on August 25, 2013.

Another of the front’s commanders is reportedly the Panamanian national José Luis Valencia Mosquera Asprilla, alias “El Pana,” who served as a police officer in Panama for two years before joining the Colombian rebels in 2001.

Geography

The front is mainly based along the Colombia-Panama border, where the dense jungle of the Darién Gap is located. In Colombia, it is present in the Chocó department’s Urabá region.

Allies and Enemies

The 57th Front has a long-standing agreement with Colombia’s most powerful drug trafficking organization, the Urabeños, which specifies territorial boundaries, drug movements and possibly the pooling of drug shipments. The Urabeños have reportedly helped defend the 57th Front from Colombian security forces.

The front also supplies drugs directly to Mexican cartels. Emissaries of Mexico’s Sinaloa and Zetas cartels have been detected in the border region, obtaining coca base for trafficking to North America and Europe.

Prospects

In recent years, Panamanian security efforts and peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC organization have reduced the threat posed by the 57th Front in Panama. Nevertheless, the strong criminal finances offered by the border region and the unit’s ties to international organized crime increase the likelihood of its members choosing to remain in the field should the FARC demobilize.

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