Former FARC Fighters Make For Hot New Hires
Gangs look to recruit seasoned leftist rebels
In 2016, Colombia’s FARC guerrilla army — which had waged the world’s longest-running insurgency — officially agreed to cease hostilities with the Colombian government and demobilize. But not all members of the group accepted the agreement.
There have been bloody clashes between rival factions and competition for lucrative criminal enterprises, including drug trafficking and illegal mining, which the FARC once managed. Now several South American criminal groups are in a bidding war for the services of FARC dissidents and the smuggling groups they once controlled.
One of the groups looking to recruit FARC guerrillas is the Brazilian crime empire Primeiro Comando da Capita. It’s the largest criminal organization in Brazil, and quite possibly the largest in South America.
The PCC got its start as a prison gang. Forming in direct response to the 1992 Carandiru Massacre — when Sao Paulo military police killed more than 100 prisoners — the gang fought for better prison conditions and prisoners’ rights.
In 2001 the PCC coordinated simultaneous rebellions in 29 Sao Paulo state prisons. The group gained public notoriety after a wave of violence in May 2006, during which gang members attacked police and staged numerous prison revolts. Thirty cops, 21 civilians and 79 suspected PCC members died in the clashes.
The group’s founding manifesto explicitly forbids mugging, rape. Members are not allowed to use the PCC to resolve personal conflicts. Many experts assert that the PCC continues to pursue its core mission, trying to improve prison conditions.
A U.S. court sentenced Colombian drug-trafficker Germán Bustos Alarcón to 19 years in prison in March 2016. Photo via Wikipedia
However, the group also engages in drug trafficking and other criminal activities, ostensibly to increase the organization’s influence and funding. In some cases, this drug money supports members’ families and also pays for former prisoners to attend law school, after which they can advocate for reform.
Over the years, PCC’s moneymaking enterprises have moved to the forefront, often resulting in conflict with other criminal gangs — not only in Brazil, but across Latin America.
In March 2014, Brazilian authorities seized a 3.7 tons of cocaine from São Paulo’s biggest port. Brazilian federal prosecutors later reported there was evidence that PCC members were working with the Italian ‘Ndrangheta mafia to coordinate the shipment to Europe.
The PCC seems to hope it can capitalize on FARC guerillas’ expertise as the group expands its operations.
“There are multiple reasons why the PCC would be interested in aligning with FARC dissidents,” the U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office’s monthly magazine O.E. Watch noted in its March 2017 issue. “These include the opportunity to receive weapons and training needed to fight against Brazil’s armed forces, and control of key trafficking routes in Colombia.”
“With a presence in two-thirds of Brazil, the PCC is currently considered Brazil’s largest and most powerful criminal group. It also maintains powerful ties with criminal groups in Bolivia and Paraguay.”
The Colombian government currently estimates there are somewhere between 150 and 300 FARC dissidents that the PCC could try to recruit. The PCC is particularly interested in two key FARC leaders — Gentil Duarte and Francisco Javier Builes, a.k.a. John 40.
O.E. Watch claimed that John 40 is the bigger prize. He was a powerful leader within the FARC and directed the group’s financial operations.
But the PCC isn’t the only group interested in hiring former FARC guerillas — nor the only group interested in taking over old FARC smuggling routes. Significantly, the FARC already had ties to the Brazilian Família do Norte, a group the PCC has feuded with in the past.
Various criminal groups are vying for control of the drug trade in FARC territories as the group splinters. In January 2017, at least four different criminal groups battled for control of the formerly FARC-controlled port town of Tumaco. One of those factions is the Urabeños group.
On Jan. 25, 2017, Colombian attorney general Néstor Humberto Martínez told reporters that the Urabeños is offering a monthly salary of 1.8 million Colombian pesos — roughly $600 — to any FARC dissidents willing to join. The Urabeños, also known as “Clan Usuga,” is considered one of Colombia’s last criminal organizations with a truly national reach, as well of one of its most ruthless syndicates.
Under the leadership of kingpin Dario Antonio Usuga, better known as “Otoniel,” the group has some 2,000 active members spread throughout the country. It maintains relationships with Mexican drug trafficking groups — notably the Sinaloa Cartel and Zetas —in order to move cocaine north.
The Colombian government has been aggressively pursuing the Urabeños, but Otoniel has managed to avoid capture so far. According to El Espectador, there’s evidence that the Urabeños in Antioquia may have forged ties with corrupt members of the Colombian military.
Local leaders in Antioquia alleged that illegal miners are using explosive materials that they could only have obtained from the government-controlled Indumil defense company. It’s not clear that FARC rebels would be enthusiastic about working with the military they’d fought against for so many years if they went to work for the Urabeños.
But at the end of the day, the drug business is a business. And it’s a business that has lead to stranger alliances before.