Dissident commanders’ death shows once again the division between former FARC organizations
On December 5th, 2021, multiple press outlets reported on Venezuelan intelligence indicating Hernan Darío Saldarriaga, better known for his war name, “El Paisa”, and Henry Castellanos Garzón, “Romaña”, died in an ambush on the Colombian – Venezuelan border. They were among the commanders of the “Segunda Marquetalia”, one of the splinter groups out of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), now demobilised. The party responsible for the attack would be the 10th Front, yet another FARC dissidence, and another actor in the complex territorial infighting over control for drug trafficking and illegal mining, among others. Although these criminal groups have proven to be able to hit military and high political targets, violence is mostly contained within the north-eastern part of the country.
After the Colombian State and the FARC leadership reached a peace agreement in 2016, most of the guerrilla members gave up their weapons, moving onto economic endeavours like agriculture and tourism. However, some refused the demobilisation plan agreed by their higher-ups, and formed their own criminal organizations, taking on the vacuum left by the oldest guerrilla group in the western hemisphere. Others, nonetheless, initially took part of the efforts from the State and international cooperation to re-join civilian society, before defecting later, be it for their own interests, or over concerns with the lack of resources and compromise from Bogotá. Even then, nearly thirteen thousand former combatants remain willing to live a peaceful civilian live, setting up such projects as trout farms and ecotourism endeavours.
Of those that broke off with the peace agreement, over twenty groups have wrestled to inherit the legacy of violence and illegal activities that their parent organization had. On the south-western part of the country, over the border with Ecuador, a.k.a. “Guacho” and his Oliver Sinisterra Front were among the first to catch national and international attention, kidnapping and murdering three Ecuadorian journalists. Through his control over the Nariño department, long a territory embedded in Colombia’s conflict, he oversaw one of the country’s biggest coke production areas, bonding with foreign cartels such as the infamous Sinaloa one. On December 21, 2018, newly inaugurated president Ivan Duque announced the death of “Guacho” by Colombia’s armed forces, taking a victory early on in his presidential period.
Gentil Duarte and Iván Márquez
As “Guacho”’s organization attracted the spotlight, other groups grew around the country. Perhaps the most powerful is that of Miguel Botalla, a.k.a. “Gentil Duarte”, and his 1st Front. A high-ranking member of the former FARC, Botalla exerted control over the Meta department, alongside household names like a.k.a. “Mono Jojoy” and “Alfonso Cano”. Despite taking part of the peace negotiations, “Gentil Duarte” defected to the Guaviare department before the agreement took effect. This organization created the Western Coordination Command (CCO) to gather multiple smaller opportunistic groups that filled the void left by the FARC in their territories. It currently acts in twelve out of the thirty-two Colombian departments, especially in the borders with Ecuador and Venezuela.
However, the defection of a.k.a. “Iván Márquez” and “Jesús Santrich”, two of the highest profile negotiators of the peace agreement, reorganised the security theatre in the country. They moved to the Venezuelan border and created the “Segunda Marquetalia” group, a reference to the founding myth of the original FARC. Although the peace agreement gave both the right to be senators, they were under investigation from the Colombian general attorney and the DEA, so they decided to take arms again, denouncing a persecution from Colombian and American authorities. Despite their importance within the parent group, it is unlikely that “Segunda Marquetalia” will achieve the reunification of the FARC.
Indeed, “Gentil Duarte”’s men have no intention to join forces with whom they see as the leadership that surrendered the troops. Its growth and power make it a powerful actor within Colombia’s criminal theatre, so they refuse to become underlings to “Iván Márquez”. Quite the opposite, as the 1st Front has battled “Segunda Marquetalia” in multiple departments within the country. In Nariño, as the Oliver Sinisterra Front loses power after the death of its leader, it joined “Segunda Marquetalia”, and started fighting against the CCO in a proxy war between both “Duarte”’s and “Márquez”’s organizations. Other actors, such as the Gulf Clan, and the National Liberation Army, also condition the ability of FARC dissidences to grow. In the border with Venezuela, these two criminal groups, Venezuelan authorities, and the Colombian army, contain the expansion of Duarte’s allied group, the 10th Front (which reports indicated ambushed “El Paisa” and “Romaña”).
Such infighting has a hefty cost for “Segunda Marquetalia”, as it loses two more commanders after the death of “Santrich” in May. Although in that moment this criminal organization blamed the Colombian army, defence minister Diego Molano claimed it had happened during a struggle between this dissidence and gangs in Venezuela. Despite its losses, “Segunda Marquetalia” remains an active threat in the area, where the 33rd Front, one of their allies, displayed its strength in the attacks against the presidential helicopter earlier this year. Likewise, Venezuela is an important player in this stage, as its forces take on the 10th Front in what has been called the “War of Apure”.
Impact on OSAC members
Although the competition between these groups leads to more violence, it is mostly contained to rural areas at Colombia’s borders. The State Department strongly recommends against travelling to Arauca, Cauca, Chocó, Nariño, and Norte de Santander departments. The latter has seen multiple bomb attacks, first at Cucuta’s airport and then at a police station.
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