In Colombia’s Coca Corridor, Gangsters Fight for Power
A violent history repeats itself in Chocó
The ELN has denied responsibility for the killing of five civilians in the Colombian department of Chocó. The latest violence shows the zone’s valuable strategic position and highly lucrative criminal economies are worth fighting over by criminal groups following the demobilization of the FARC.
Colombia’s Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez said that the National Liberation Army [ELN] was behind the alleged massacre of five farmers in the Litoral de San Juan municipality on March 25, reported El Colombiano.
Authorities said that the murders, which displaced 52 local residents, were an indication of the rebel army’s efforts to expand its control over the highly-profitable drug trafficking and illegal gold mining markets abandoned by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC] following the demobilization process.
Since January, nearly 2,000 people have been forcibly displaced by violence in Chocó, according to La Silla Vacia, many of them by conflict between the ELN and the Urabeños, one of Colombia’s most powerful criminal groups. On March 4, 200 armed members of the Urabeños entered the Alto Baudó municipality in Chocó, according to a press release by the Congress of the People, a political and social movement.
Outbreaks of violence have also happened in the Medio and Bajo Baudó municipalities, and according to La Silla Vacía, Chocó could see the highest levels of displacement in the country this year, as it did in 2016. Figures from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs show that 6,900 people were displaced in the department last year.
This forced migration is a direct consequence of the withdrawal of the FARC from these areas under the demobilization process, which has created a vacuum that armed groups are fighting to fill, according to the constitutional court’s assessment.
Above–criminal dynamics in Chocó. InSight Crime illustration. At top–Colombian special forces. U.S.
InSight Crime analysis
Chocó has long been contested territory between rival criminal groups attempting to control its drug production areas, its key shipment corridors and its ample gold resources. But although the violence is longstanding, recent government actions and the FARC peace process have created more criminal incentives for the ELN and the Urabeños to fight for power in Chocó, which is perhaps one of the most profitable Colombian departments in criminal terms.
The latest official coca figures indicate that its coca cultivation areas stood just under 1,500 hectares in 2015, ranking it as the ninth Colombian department in terms of coca cultivation stretches. But Chocó has repeatedly been singled out for being a key producer of Colombian illegal gold, whose total annual value was recently estimated at $3 billion.
In addition, while the department may not be a top coca producer, Chocó’s geographic position along the Pacific Coast, its border with Panama and its natural fluvial networks offer criminal groups considerable logistical incentives for transporting drugs. Rural areas in the region remain particularly difficult to access as the department barely has any paved highways, complicating law enforcement efforts.
These factors were already at the root of violent confrontations between the FARC and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia [AUC] between 1997 and 2006, when the AUC demobilized. Conflict between the ELN and the Urabeños in the department dates back to 2009, according to reports from the local human rights ombudsman.
But while the recent news reports indicate that the guerrilla-paramilitary war is ongoing, the actors on both sides have changed. The Urabeños criminal group have replaced the AUC, from which they originate. The four ELN fronts operational in Chocó are going after territory abandoned by the demobolizing FARC, specifically areas previously controlled by the 30th and 57th Fronts.
The 30th Front was strong in Litoral de San Juan, where the most recent killing of the five farmers occurred. Its Pacific coast is a valued drug shipment point. The 57th Front previously dominated municipalities further north, such as Nuquí, Bahía Solano and Juradó before it demobilized. InSight Crime research in the field suggests that an unknown number of dissident former FARC fighters from the 57th front remain in the field in Chocó, which could further complicate future violence between different criminal actors.
One of the factors that could explain the Urabeños’ incursions into guerrilla-controlled Chocó territory is the ongoing military operation against the group’s historic base in the Urabá sub-region along the Caribbean Gulf of Urabá. The campaign, launched in 2015 and dubbed “Operation Agamenon,” aimed at hitting the Urabeños leadership and in particular its boss Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel.”
Although it has had little success so far in reaching this objective, the military efforts — which have included the aerial bombing of Urabeños camps — have increased pressure on the criminal group in Urabá, whose Caribbean coastline was traditionally used as a launchpad for drug shipments.
As a result, reports of attempts by the Urabeños to take over drug routes in Chocó and related forced displacement patterns had already surfaced in 2015, the year in which Operation Agamenon was launched. The United States estimates that Colombia’s coca cultivation rose by 20 percent in 2016, reaching the highest level ever recorded. The related increase in cocaine production means that criminal groups have a greater need for secure drug routes to transnational shipment points, such as those offered by Chocó via its Pacific Coast.
Evidence has surfaced of the ELN’s efforts to inherit the territory formerly controlled by the FARC, with the seizure of 1.5 metric tons of cocaine linked to the group along the Pacific coast of Juradó on March 19. Given the simultaneous need for the Urabeños to assert their control over drug routes in the department, more violence and displacements appear inevitable.