Colombia: Is FARC making room for drug cartels?

Posted on May 17 2013 - 9:55am by Rico

More repression against terrorist and illegal armed groups could be behind the strengthening of the presence of Mexican drug cartels in the country.

Colombian Police arrested 35 suspects allegedly linked to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel in Bogotá in February 2012. Colombian officials are concerned one of Mexico’s most ruthless cartels is trying to establish a direct narco-trafficking presence in the Andean nation. (Eitan Abramovich/AFP)

Colombian Police arrested 35 suspects allegedly linked to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel in Bogotá in February 2012. Colombian officials are concerned one of Mexico’s most ruthless cartels is trying to establish a direct narco-trafficking presence in the Andean nation. (Eitan Abramovich/AFP)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia – While the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) negotiate peace, Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel may be strengthening its presence in the southwestern departments of Nariño and Valle del Cauca.

Officials became concerned regarding the presence of men working under Sinaloa leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán following the arrest of Pedro Luis Zamora Caicedo, who goes by the alias “Junior,” in Bogotá in late January. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has identified him as a member of the cartel.

After Zamora Caicedo’s arrest, President Juan Manuel Santos ordered authorities to investigate whether the Sinaloa cartel had established a presence in Colombia, specifically in the city of Cali, where “Junior” is from.

In late April, the Technical Investigation Corps (CTI) of the State Prosecutor’s Office conducted an operation in the Bronx area of Bogotá. Several of the eight alleged narco-traffickers arrested during the operation may be members of the Sinaloa cartel.

“They were arrested not only for trafficking drugs, but also for micro-trafficking,” CTI Director Jorge Saavedra said.

Authorities are investigating whether the Sinaloa cartel has infiltrated the municipalities of Buenaventura in Valle del Cauca and Tumaco in Nariño, as both are home to ports along the Pacific Ocean that have historically been used to ship cocaine.

Both departments have a strong presence of illegal armed groups (BACRIM) involved in drug trafficking, such as Los Rastrojos and Los Urabeños, as well as the FARC.

Despite Santos’ concerns, Gen. Luis Alberto Pérez Alvarán, the director of the National Police’s Counter-Narcotics Division, said that all reports so far regarding the Sinaloa cartel are “rumors” and “speculation.”

“We cannot say the Sinaloa cartel or Los Zetas are [trafficking narcotics] from Colombia,” said Pérez Alvarán, recalling historical relations between Colombian criminal organizations and Mexican cartels to transport drugs into the United States.

“Colombians are coordinating with Los Zetas or the Sinaloa cartel, but that is very different from saying the cartels are managing the drug trade in our country,” Pérez Alvarán added.

Though narco-traffickers in both countries have maintained a business relationship for decades, the immediate concern is Mexicans could be involved in the production and processing of cocaine in the Andean nation.

The weakening of Colombia’s criminal organizations, punished by blows from security forces, could be facilitating the arrival of Mexican cartels, said Adam Isacson, a researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“There’s so much instability that perhaps Sinaloa buyers want to get more involved to avoid having to a meet a new boss every few years,” he added. “The active life of a drug dealer has gone from 20 years to five years.”

However, Isacson said a hypothetical presence of Mexicans would be unlikely in areas such as Buenaventura and Tumaco, which are predominantly Afro-Colombian.

“The presence of Mexicans, with their Aztec features, would be noticeable. Even the accent is different,” he added. “I don’t think that there is a colony of Sinaloans on the Colombian Pacific Coast.”

Pérez Alvarán added it would be “stupid” for Mexican narco-traffickers to do business in Colombia.

“The only thing they would do is facilitate our work,” he added. “If the Colombian drug cartels are having difficulties operating, imagine the Mexicans, who don’t even know the surroundings and therefore will have more weaknesses.”

In an interview with Mexican newspaper Excélsior, Douglas Fraser, a retired general and former head of the U.S. Southern Command, also highlighted the success of the Colombian government’s fight against criminal networks.

“In the last five years, they have reduced the production of cocaine by more than 50% and imprisoned or extradited hundreds of criminals, but this fight is not only Colombia’s,” he said. “The challenge against transnational criminal networks is an inter-American problem and an increasingly global problem.”

Border with Venezuela

Other narco-trafficking hotspots in Colombia where the Sinaloa cartel’s presence also has been alleged are along the border with Venezuela.

In early March near the city of Cúcuta in the department of Santander, the National Police seized a shipment of 519 kilograms of cocaine owned by Los Rastrojos bound for the Sinaloa cartel, according to Colombian authorities.

Relations among Colombia’s illegal groups and the Sinaloa and Los Zetas cartels are the subject of investigation in the study “The hot border between Colombia and Venezuela” by the New Rainbow Foundation.

The hierarchy of this “very old” connection reversed about 20 years ago, with Colombians subordinate to Mexicans, according to political analyst León Valencia, the New Rainbow Foundation’s former director.

Colombian authorities are constantly pursuing members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Above, 17 alleged members of the terrorist group were taken into custody in the department of Cauca in late April. (Luis Robayo/AFP)

Colombian authorities are constantly pursuing members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Above, 17 alleged members of the terrorist group were taken into custody in the department of Cauca in late April. (Luis Robayo/AFP)

The role of the FARC

A key point for the Colombian government in peace talks, which have been ongoing since November 2012, is the elimination of guerrilla involvement in regional drug trafficking.

The demise of the FARC opens two scenarios, according to Valencia.

The first, which Valencia considers “ideal,” is for the government to enter into a national pact with the FARC to help “eradicate drugs and find solutions for producers” in areas under guerrilla control.

The second, which Valencia describes as “perverse,” consists of “the territories [that are controlled by guerrillas today] going into the hands of BACRIM in association with those from the FARC remaining in the drug trade.”

The Sinaloa cartel could benefit from this new network for coca operations. A continued strengthening of the cartel in Colombia would facilitate the logistics and transport of drugs, reducing transaction costs and maximizing revenue per kilo purchased in Colombia.

However, Pérez Alvarán aspires to have a country without guerrillas and narco-trafficking.

“We hope the FARC help us eradicate remaining crops,” he said. “The least of our worries is to be afraid of Mexican drug traffickers.”

By Antoni Sedó for Infosurhoy.com