The borders of Colombia have long been violent and lawless with criminal traffickers and guerrilla armies controlling much of the land. However, the recent de-activation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the deteriorating state in Venezuela has intensified this situation and allowed it to subsequently pour over into neighboring states. This has ushered in a new wave of criminal organizations that are destabilizing the region.
The Colombia-Venezuela border region has for years been a hub for criminal activities of all kinds. From drug trafficking to contraband fuel trade and extortion, Colombia’s most powerful organized crime groups have long used the border region. Most importantly, Venezuela serves as a fundamental trans-shipment point for drug shipments consistently trafficked by Colombian organized crime groups and destined for markets in the United States and Europe.
Venezuela’s continued spiral into an economic, political and social crisis and the demobilization of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group have shifted criminal dynamics on the Colombia-Venezuela border, transforming the region into one of the most important organized crime hubs in Latin America.
Historically, the main actors controlling the border region’s drug market have been the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL).
The demobilization of the FARC is causing criminal dynamics along the Colombia-Venezuela border to take a new form. This is being aided by rampant corruption from the Venezuelan government. Systemic corruption and criminality within the ranks of Venezuela’s security forces, which President Nicolás Maduro has largely turned a blind eye to, is one factor contributing to these shifts. The Venezuelan non-governmental Fundación Redes recently criticized the loss of a significant amount of military weapons and munitions belonging to the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana — FANB) from several border states. According to the foundation, the weapons were delivered to Colombian criminal groups.
According to Fundación Redes Director Javier Tarazona, the Maduro administration and Venezuela’s security forces, particularly the shadowy groups within the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana — GNB) and the military commonly referred to as the Cartel of the Suns, are complicit in working with Colombian criminal groups operating on the border. (insightcrime.org/).
This criminal activity has also spread to the other side of the Colombian border. Since January of this year, Ecuadorean security forces are on high alert after receiving reports Colombia’s ELN guerrillas are planning a cross-border attack, highlighting what has until now been a major blind spot in Ecuador’s border security strategy. Security forces in Colombia have issued an alert to their Ecuadorean counterparts that the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberacíon Nacional – ELN) is planning an attack against military or police in the border region. The report identifies facilities and units in the municipalities of Mira in the province of Carchi and San Lorenzo in Esmeraldas as potential targets.
Police officials reported that, while the ELN was in Ecuador for peace talks, they also worked hard to build a support network within the country. According to the official, the rebels established contacts with high-level national government officials and local political and community leaders in the border region. While authorities believe their main aim was to establish political ties, they are concerned the guerrillas could also have been looking to set up logistical support networks and supply lines.
Sources in Ecuador also talk of a different concern – that the ELN will look to build on the foundations they established during peace talks to use Ecuador as a rear guard, logistical hub and supply line. This would also potentially increase their criminal earnings as it would allow them to control movement through what is one of the main cocaine-trafficking corridors out of Colombia and a region where illegal gold mining is on the rise (insightcrime.org/).
Ecuador’s areas bordering Colombia have long suffered challenging security dynamics. Ecuador’s three border provinces–Esmeraldas, Carchi, and Sucumbios–have higher homicide rates, stemming from the level of criminal activity associated with the cross-border illegal trafficking of cocaine, gasoline, and other contraband, as well as human trafficking.
Even for a historically complex area, the violence that has occurred over the past few months in Ecuador’s northern border region is unprecedented, with bombings, gratuitous attacks, and threats occurring at an inimitable scale. The growing violence shows no sign of easing up.
Few people have gained international notoriety in such a short span of time as Walter Patricio Arizala Vernaza—known commonly as 'Guacho'—an Ecuadorian citizen who was part of the 29th Front of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group. Guacho rejected the 2016 peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government and decided to dedicate himself to the trafficking of drugs on the border via the Oliver Sinisterra Front. Although both the Colombian and Ecuadorian authorities have prioritized his capture, Guacho remains at large.
The recent attacks are likely a show of strength by criminal groups and are also in retaliation for government seizures of narcotics—Guacho’s way of demonstrating who is in charge and that he fully intends to take advantage of lucrative illicit activity along the border area. Now that a formal peace process is underway in Colombia, FARC dissidents no longer have the same ideological motives for their struggle and are instead motivated by financial gains.
The conflict is no longer confined to the same geographical boundaries. In the same light, the vacuums of power left by former FARC Fronts are attracting offshoots of national and international criminal groups who aim to gain control of profitable activities (forbes.com). Many of these attacks have been carried out next to police stations within the border area (bing.com/).
In 2018 there was a number of bomb explosions and kidnappings in the northern province of Esmeraldas, bordering Colombia. On 27 January 2018, a car bomb was detonated outside a police station in the town of San Lorenzo. Twenty-eight people were injured, and the Ecuadorean government declared a state of emergency in Esmeraldas. A further bomb attack on 20 March of last year in Mataje left 4 soldiers dead and 11 injured. The Ecuadorean authorities have declared these attacks to be terrorist incidents.
On 26 March, 2 journalists and their driver from the leading local newspaper, El Comercio, were kidnapped and subsequently killed. On April 17, 2018, the government revealed that two other people were being held captive by the same group who killed the journalists, and who are thought to be responsible for at least 10 attacks on the border in the past few months. Also, on 17 April, an Ecuadorean couple was kidnapped and killed. These kidnappings and bomb attacks occurred within 20km of the border.
On 4 April a home-made explosive was detonated in the town of Viche, on one of the main roads connecting the highlands to the coast and various popular beach destinations. This was outside the 20km exclusion zone, in the area of Esmeraldas province (gov.uk/terrorism).
The threats from Colombian groups have extended farther than just terrorism. On October 17, authorities in Ecuador arrested seven soldiers and seven civilians for their alleged role in trafficking weapons to the Oliver Sinisterra Front (Frente Oliver Sinisterra), an ex-FARC mafia group — networks of dissident fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). An investigation into several soldiers in Ecuador who are accused of supplying weapons to an ex-FARC mafia network operating in a key border region suggests that groups of former FARC fighters are growing stronger and building the capacity to corrupt military personnel.
Authorities are searching military facilities in Guayas, Esmeraldas, Loja, Santo Domingo and Pichincha provinces where they say weapons and ammunition slated to be trafficked were hidden among provisions of toilet paper and rice, according to El Comercio.
On October 9, authorities intercepted a taxi in the town of Quinindé in Esmeraldas that was reportedly trafficking weapons and ammunition hidden in sacks of rice. Investigators believe that the arms trafficking network has been operating since at least 2016.
Ecuador’s army said in an October 17 press release that the institution “deeply regrets” that some of its members may have been involved in trafficking firearms and ammunition to a criminal group, and that it will cooperate with authorities in their investigation.
Colombia’s ex-FARC mafia networks are quickly emerging as a dominant player in the country’s criminal world, and the recent arms trafficking investigation implicating members of Ecuador’s army suggests that authorities may be further from taking down Guacho and his network than they have let on.
Corrupting security forces is essential for criminal groups such as Guacho’s to survive and continue operating. These connections may explain why he has been able to avoid capture, especially after he was wounded last month during a Colombian military operation (insightcrime.org/news/).
Venezuela’s descent into further chaos has created a safe haven for criminal and radical groups once indigenous to Colombia and emboldened them to expand and challenge local security forces. Ecuador, which had not been readily affected by the violence in Colombia, is totally unprepared with an under-equipped military to deal with the wave of criminals pushing across the border (bing.com).
This situation has the potential to degenerate into something similar to what was seen with ISIS in the Middle-East ─ with rebel and criminal groups wrestling for control of territory from the government and destabilizing the region. In this case, we are watching several organizations such as the ELN who have long been at odds with US policy in the region and are looking to export their revolution.
In other cases, the new criminal groups emerging from the ashes of recently deactivated guerrilla armies have taken over the old cocaine-producing areas. They have set themselves up to control a new phase of drug trafficking organizations taking the region back to the old drug cartels of Medellín and Cali, establishing a new front for cocaine trafficking in North America.