Colombia’s Armed Groups Battle for the Spoils of Peace

Executive Summary

The peace process with Colombia’s largest and longest standing guerrilla group has defied its detractors and brought 11,200 ex-combatants to the cusp of civilian life, but the aftermath of war has not been safe for all. Since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) withdrew from their rural heartlands to gather in cantonments in early 2017, rival armed actors have taken their place, waging a battle for spoils: control of isolated communities and territories, many rich in illicit business. In the Pacific cocaine hub of Tumaco, in hamlets of Chocó, or in contraband zones on the Venezuelan border, established armed groups and new insurgent breakaway factions have attacked state forces, intimidated communities and vied to become undisputed local overlords. Grassroots security is crucial to assure the success of the peace process with the FARC as it shifts from a UN-monitored weapons handover to deeper structural reforms of politics and society. Efforts to combat remaining armed outfits are essential, but in so doing the government must not alienate the population and exacerbate poverty in ways that would aggravate the conditions that propel these groups’ growth.

Most of these armed factions now cluster in coastal and border areas. Around 1,000 FARC dissidents, who disown the peace deal for various reasons, are de facto rulers of disparate territories, several of them dependent on the drug trade. Colombia’s second main guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has brokered a temporary ceasefire with the government despite looking to conquer new territories, especially along the Pacific coast. The Gaitanista Self-defence Force, currently the largest neo-paramilitary group in the country, combines a vertical military hierarchy centred in the country’s north west with a web of subcontracted local gangs. It is now the country’s leading drug trafficking organisation.

Thriving illicit businesses – booming coca plantations, illegal gold mines, extortion rackets and contraband – account for the survival and expansion of many of these groups. But economic interests alone do not explain their support within some communities. By resolving disputes and defending illicit livelihoods from law enforcement, these groups have crafted a rudimentary, authoritarian form of local political leadership. The Colombian state has responded through a nationwide “Victory Plan”, deploying 80,000 soldiers and police officers to occupy vacated FARC territory. Yet even if security forces could seize all disputed territory, coercion alone cannot establish bonds of trust between the state and local citizens; instead, they need to be persuaded that there is a better alternative to the summary justice and social discipline meted out by illegal groups.

The next phase of reforms under the peace accord aims precisely at building such trust between state and citizenry. It includes a more plural democratic system, reintegration of ex-FARC fighters, justice for conflict victims and a coca substitution program. But its implementation faces myriad difficulties. Comprehensive reintegration plans are on hold. Voluntary coca substitution, one of the accord’s flagship programs, will require a long-term commitment from the state and far more international political and financial backing. Corruption debilitates the government’s campaign against armed groups, and must be countered by stronger and more independent agencies operating within and outside the military and police. Urgent consideration also should be given to the design of new judicial approaches that might encourage other armed groups to lay down their weapons and follow the FARC’s path to peace.

The initial accord’s defeat in a 2016 plebiscite demonstrated the public’s mistrust of the peace process, raising the risk that the 2018 elections could bring a government to power that is intent on rewriting or gutting the agreement. Implementation of the accord is threatened both by an opposition that believes it pandered to FARC guerrillas, and by armed factions that regard the deal either as a fraud or an opportunity to expand. The combination of local armed activity and divisive national politics could decisively weaken public support for the accord unless the results of the peace process defy expectations once again. For that to happen, the government must aim its sights at both local insecurity and the broader weaknesses of local governance that underpin it.


To improve the security situation in Colombia and wrest territorial control from other armed groups:

To the government of Colombia:

  1. Increase permanent presence of police and army in prioritised isolated hamlets, using the army as a stop-gap force in clearly identified areas that police cannot reach until later, but with specific timelines for handover to police.

  2. Increase navy control along key rivers and oceanic deltas, especially along the Pacific coast, creating a new “river force” in the region with members from the Infantry Marine shifted away from land forces.

  3. Strengthen local justice by both providing economic incentives to and improving training for conciliators, evaluating police mediation for possible future use in conflict-affected areas, and expanding systems of local justice.

  4. Continue crop substitution efforts, prioritising prompt payments and coordination with larger development efforts, especially the Territorial Development Plans (PDETs) for post-conflict rural areas.

  5. Allow members of organised armed groups and FARC dissidents to demobilise and take part in individual reintegration programs.

  6. Pass a law on judicial negotiations with organised armed groups that includes lowering sentences in exchange for the fulfilment of truth and reparations commitments, provision of information on illegal economies and handover of illegally obtained assets.

To the FARC:

  1. Continue efforts to bring dissident fronts back into the peace process, offering access to protection measures and inclusion in the reincorporation process while also providing information to the authorities regarding dissidents who reject these offers.

To the government and the FARC:

  1. Accelerate design and implementation of reincorporation projects for FARC fighters in cantonments, with differentiated gender, rank and ethnic approaches.

To the government and the ELN:

  1. Extend ceasefire agreement to last until after Congressional elections in March 2018.

To the international community:

  1. Continue funding key monitoring organisations such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Organization of American States’ Mission to Support the Peace Process and humanitarian bodies; and explore avenues to fund coca substitution efforts.

To the UN mission:

  1. Improve coordination and information sharing among various state agencies charged with implementing security measures.

Bogotá/Brussels, 19 October 2017


The Colombian government is suffering the backlash of successfully ending decades of war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). With the signing of the peace agreement in November 2016, FARC fighters moved to 26 cantonments and in June 2017 handed over their weapons. While this has improved security in some conflict-affected regions, it has allowed armed groups in others to fill the void created by the FARC’s withdrawal, seizing the opportunity to reap illicit revenues and assert local political authority. This makes implementing the peace accords even more challenging since their success depends on tangible improvements in security.

Colombia as a whole is experiencing its lowest homicide rates since the 1970s; in the areas most deeply affected by conflict, security conditions also improved during 2016. However, murder rates and forced displacement in these areas have risen again in 2017 (see Appendix D). Also, about 51 local social leaders were killed in the first half of the year, up from 26 during the same period in 2016. Dissident FARC groups have established territorial control in some areas and are seeking to do so in others. Despite ongoing peace talks, the country’s remaining guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has increased violent attacks in its historic theatres of operation, while expanding elsewhere. Different organised crime groups are active across Colombia, and have established control over illicit economic activities while looking to infiltrate local politics.

The government has not been idle. It has begun to implement its “Victory” and “Safe Communities” plans, under the aegis of the army and police respectively. It plans to strengthen the rural police to protect post-conflict communities. It has also started to carry out strategies to “stabilise” priority territories, improve local justice and replace illegal with legal crops and other licit industries. These efforts, though, have had limited effect in most conflict-affected areas.

Political polarisation, meanwhile, continues to impinge on the peace process. Opposition leaders focus on the accord’s perceived failings and allegedly leftist ideology, while government officials downplay evidence of new security threats. This is reminiscent of what happened following the paramilitary demobilisation a decade ago, when the government failed to adequately recognise the emergence of new “criminal groups”, or bacrim. What is now Colombia’s largest neo-paramilitary organisation, the Gaitanistas, was born during that period.

This report examines security challenges in the Colombian periphery, strategies designed to confront them and how the international community could help cement the peace. It focuses primarily on FARC dissidents, the ELN and key drug trafficking organisations, which have gained local territorial control by offering dispute resolution mechanisms, providing a semblance of protection for local people and preserving local illegal economies. In some cases, civilians – trapped between clashing armed groups – are being exposed to alarming levels of violence.

In-depth fieldwork was carried out in Tumaco, Guaviare, Chocó, Norte de Santander and Putumayo, including more than 100 interviews with community leaders, local authorities, members of the international community, government and the Catholic Church officials, members of FARC dissident groups, and members of the FARC currently taking part in the peace process. Additional research in Bogotá included interviews with experts on security, justice and the drug trade. Ten meetings were held in communities to discuss coca crop substitution, local justice mechanisms, perceptions of the state and what would be necessary to improve those perceptions.

Senior Analyst for Colombia Kyle Johnson and Latin America Program Director Ivan Briscoe travel to the field to discuss the implementation of the peace agreement with locals.CRISIS GROUP

II.Armed Groups at the Grassroots

Armed groups with varying levels of internal organisation, military capacity, economic resources and political capital currently lay claim to parts of rural Colombia. Three stand out for their size and the threats they pose to peace: dissidents from the FARC, the ELN, and organised criminal groups. The Colombian government divides criminal groups into three sub-categories: those that meet the standards set by International Humanitarian Law (IHL) as parties to an internal armed conflict; organised crime groups, which have important roles in illegal economies but do not control territory; and common criminals. Those considered parties to the armed conflict are Colombia’s leading neo-paramilitary group, the Gaitanista Self-defence Forces of Colombia , the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and the Puntilleros.

Each of these groups has different goals, but they share common methods for imposing territorial control, offering protection, resolving disputes among residents and preserving local illegal economies. They compete with a state perceived as distant and indifferent for the control of physically isolated regions, border areas and key rivers, which are seen as the highways of Colombia’s periphery.

A.FARC Dissident Groups

At least nine FARC dissident groups continue to carry out violent attacks, refusing to assemble in the 26 cantonments and hand over their weapons.Their numbers are estimated to range from 800 to 1,000 and they operate across the country, principally in the departments of Nariño, Cauca, Caquetá, Guaviare, Vaupés, Guainía and Meta. While differing considerably in size, origin and military muscle, they share four traits: they represent only a sub-set of their original FARC units (to date no complete front has left the FARC); they all are involved in illegal economic activities; they seek to consolidate territorial control; and they operate in areas where they were active during the armed conflict, often expanding outward.

The motivations of these dissidents are difficult to establish, though evidence points to a variety of shifting interests. Remnants of the First Front in Guaviare are deeply involved in the cocaine trade, but also defend their activities by pointing to alleged flaws in the peace process: “the dialogues in Havana only look to demobilise the guerrillas …. These agreements do not represent real changes”. Gentil Duarte, commander of the Seventh Front in Meta, argued that the government could not be trusted to honour its commitments. The United Guerrillas of the Pacific (GUP, in Spanish) in Nariño, have an interest in controlling the drug trade, though they also seek to ensure a level of public order in the communities they dominate.

Both the dissidents and the communities where they operate depend on criminal revenues. In Guaviare and Meta, First and Seventh Front dissidents attack soldiers and police to protect the coca trade, actions that locals regard as protection for their livelihood from what they consider an insensitive state. In this way, the dissidents are simply continuing to operate as they did before the peace agreement: fighting coca eradication efforts, resolving disputes, controlling trafficking corridors, carrying out targeted attacks on security forces and generally ensuring local public order. For example, fighters with the dissident Seventh Front act both as political bosses and as a local economic power. Their leader, Gentil Duarte, still receives residents who want him to resolve problems in their communities. Elsewhere his group demands exorbitant extortion payments.

Dissidents are also taking advantage of the support base they built during the conflict. The First Front has expanded from its traditional strongholds in Guaviare toward the regional capital, San José del Guaviare, into south-east Meta and parts of Vichada and Caquetá. Seventh Front dissidents remain in their pre-accord areas of operations, however, as do the GUP in Nariño, the 40th front in Meta, and dissidents in Cauca and Putumayo.

Despite their origins, many dissident groups are more abusive than their FARC predecessors as they compete among themselves, sometimes brutalising local communities to maintain control. In the city of Tumaco, a cocaine trafficking hub on the Pacific coast, two groups of dissident FARC militia fighters vied for control, leading to an increase in murders in the first six months of 2017. FARC breakaway commanders sowed so much terror in the rural hamlet of Pital de la Costa, on the Pacific coast of Nariño, that they lost control of the town, which is now under control of the navy, itself accused by the local population of tolerating the presence of a local neo-paramilitary outfit. Tensions have grown in Guaviare over the First Front’s recent selective killings of civilians.

The dissidents undermine the peace process both nationally and locally. Opposition leaders maintain that their existence proves the guerrillas never truly handed in their weapons or gave up their illicit assets, but instead use the breakaway fronts to pursue an armed campaign and criminal activity. These arguments are likely to intensify as elections approach in 2018. Their presence also undermines implementation of the peace agreement, which can only prosper under stable security conditions. Ongoing insecurity would deprive peripheral populations of any peace dividend while perversely confirming dissident claims that the state never intended to fulfil its promises to rural Colombians.

Insecurity also strengthens the appeal of these groups. The murders of 23 FARC members or relatives since the signing of the peace agreement may push some to join dissident forces out of fear or anger. Frustration at the slow progress of the peace agreement, especially the lack of a reincorporation program or opportunities for mid-level commanders to move up within the FARC, is alleged to have prompted Cadete, an important FARC commander, into joining the dissidents in September 2017.

Since the start of the year, originally independent dissident factions have begun to unite, and will probably continue to do so in the near future in response to the central government’s captures or killings of dissident leaders, especially in Guaviare, Nariño and Caquetá. The 62nd and Fourteenth Fronts are now part of the Seventh. In Nariño, the GUP includes four different dissident groups created in July 2016. The First Front includes fighters from the First, Sixteenth and Acacio Medina fronts, as well as individual deserters from numerous other units. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that the largest dissidents have united yet. First, Seventh and 40th Front dissident groups, all of which operate in eastern Colombia, do not represent a single structure led by Gentil Duarte, although members from these groups did meet in June 2017 to discuss coordination around certain matters. The FARC leadership has tried to maintain some contact with dissidents to convince them to return to the peace process. Alexander Mojoso, who led a dissident group in Caquetá, demobilised in March 2017 and was accepted back into the FARC in April.

B.The ELN: Between Peace and War

Even while negotiating with the Colombian government in Quito, the National Liberation Army or ELN has solidified its control of traditional strongholds and expanded into new areas. Since the FARC’s demobilisation in early 2017, the 1,800-strong ELN has surfaced in areas where its previous presence had been negligible, such as northern Chocó, northern Cauca, the Pacific coast of Nariño, Buenaventura and southern Córdoba. It also has strengthened its control in territories formerly shared with the FARC, such as Arauca, Bajo Cauca Antioqueño and southern Chocó. Since 2016, it has carried out attacks in 23 more municipalities than it did between 2012 and 2014; the armed forces have also carried out operations against the ELN in more municipalities than before. The ELN killed sixteen members of the armed forces or police in the first eight months of 2017.

The ELN remains ideologically committed to fighting against what it calls a repressive oligarchy that responds to foreign masters and multinational companies at the expense of poor rural communities. The group, whose membership has included Catholic priests, most notably Camilo Torres and former leader Manuel Pérez, retains an affinity for liberation theology and opposes the commercial exploitation of natural resources, especially oil production and large-scale mining. ELN sabotage of oil pipelines has caused major environmental damage over the past three decades. Incapable of amassing large contingents, it sends small bands to carry out most operations, but occasionally groups of ten to 25 fighters attack government forces or other armed groups.

The National Liberation Army (ELN) looks to create “parallel political power” structures to compete with the state in areas where it has long operated, such as Arauca department on the Venezuelan border, where it applies its own justice, controls economic activity, and seeks to steer communities toward its political ideology. The group also believes in a strategy of local armed resistance, where winning the war is no longer the goal. Resisting suffices to justify its existence, the ELN argues.

Increasingly, the ELN acts as a federation of regional fighting units responding to general guidelines from the group’s leadership. Each regional war front commander enjoys substantial decision-making autonomy and the national leadership seeks majority support when making key decisions. Decisions imposed from above are not the norm in the ELN, which partly explains its reluctance to unilaterally halt kidnappings and the variable yet deepening involvement of certain units in drug trafficking, something the group used to prohibit. Regional autonomy also means some units may reject the terms of a negotiated peace.

Different ELN units also exercise different levels of violence against the civilian population, despite claims to offer protection. Each regional commander acts according to strategic decisions based on his or her perception of the local military, political and economic context, as well as relationships with members of the central command. The ELN’s Western War Front in Chocó department, which is engaged in a bitter conflict for territory and resources with the neo-paramilitary Gaitanistas, has abused the civilian population by planting landmines and forcibly recruiting children. This front is also close to a member of the ELN central command known as Pablito, who reportedly opposes the peace process, and is seen as more economically motivated and lacking in ELN “identity”. Pablito also retains influence over the Eastern War Front, which he previously commanded. This front currently is carrying out an assassination campaign in Arauca against those accused of petty crimes or collaborating with the armed forces.

But the ELN acts differently elsewhere. Despite the presence of Gaitanistas in southern Bolívar department, ELN units there engage in very little violence. The Darío Ramírez Castro War Front, close to both Gabino, the ELN leader, and Pablo Beltrán, its chief negotiator in Quito, is noticeably less violent toward the civilian population than other ELN units, despite facing a fierce military offensive. This front has not recently increased the use of landmines nor does it carry out economically motivated kidnappings, though it is still accused of forced recruitment.

The ELN is more active in drug trafficking than in previous years, especially in Nariño, Chocó, Cauca and Catatumbo. While it previously taxed and purchased coca paste, the discovery and destruction of cocaine laboratories in ELN territory suggests the group is increasingly connected to trafficking networks for the more valuable, fully refined drug. This enhanced role has led to clashes with other armed groups, especially in Chocó and Nariño.

C.Organised Armed Groups

The Colombian government has identified three “organised armed groups”, which it argues qualify as parties to an internal armed conflict under international standards: the Gaitanistas, EPL and Puntilleros. On this basis, the government assumes the legal right to target these groups with lethal force under the laws governing the conduct of war.

1.The Gaitanistas

Founded in the Urabá region of Antioquia department in 2006, the Gaitanistas have expanded along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and to a lesser extent into the eastern plains. It is by far the largest of the three armed groups, claiming some 8,000 members, though the government estimates there are about 2,000. More independent assessments put the figure at between 3,000 and 3,500, including subcontracted gang members.

Gaitanistas fall into two categories: full-time fighters and subcontracted criminals. The armed, uniformed combatants operate in rural areas, such as Urabá, southern Córdoba, Bajo Cauca Antioqueño, Chocó and southern Bolívar, where they seek territorial control, and are organised in blocs and fronts led by regional and front commanders. The subcontractors are members of local gangs who are hired by regional commanders and coordinators, allowing the organisation to gain indirect influence over territory. They operate in Nariño, Antioquia, and along the Atlantic coast and the Venezuelan border. The organisation has a central high command, made up of regional commanders, and a political wing. Beneath the leadership stands a vertical hierarchy with various levels of control, including squadrons, sections, groups, companies, fronts and blocs. This hierarchy has allowed the Gaitanistas to survive and expand despite the loss of key leaders, such as its founder Don Mario who was captured in 2009, and his replacement Giovanni, killed in 2012, as well as withstand some internal divisions in Antioquia.

The group claims it was “obliged” to take up arms given the “poorly done peace process”, in reference to the paramilitary demobilisation slightly more than ten years ago, and argues that it defends its territory from the ELN. The Gaitanistas also state they enjoy “legitimacy and political representation”, a claim that seems true in parts of north-west Colombia. But in areas where the Gaitanistas compete with other armed groups, such as the ELN in Chocó or the GUP in Nariño, violence against civilians is common. The group has killed sixteen police officers so far this year, while the government claims the group is behind many recent killings of social leaders, although the evidence for this is not categorical.

The Gaitanistas are mainly interested in criminal rackets, principally drug trafficking, illegal gold mining and extortion. The group transports cocaine along the Atlantic coast and charges other traffickers for permission to cross areas under its control. It has also started to buy coca paste in a possible bid to dominate the whole of the drug trade in parts of the north west. Gaitanistas profit from criminal and informal mining in areas such as Bajo Cauca Antioqueño, Córdoba and Chocó, where they manage mines directly, demand fees from local minors or demand extortion payments from those who use backhoes to search for gold. More broadly, they extort large sums from local businesses and farms.

2.The EPL

The second organised armed group identified by the government, the Libardo Mora Toro Front of the EPL, with about 200 fighters, operates in Catatumbo, on the border with Venezuela. Since 2016 the EPL has expanded out of its historical communities into areas formerly controlled by the FARC, such as parts of Tibú, El Tarra, Sardinata, Teorama, and Abrego, in Norte de Santander province, where it has announced its presence through pamphlets, attacks against state forces, and violence against civilians. The EPL has ratcheted up control over the local population, including prohibiting road travel at night, increased surveillance in urban areas, threats and selective killings.

Its leader for years was Victor Ramón Navarro, also known as Megateo, an enigmatic figure who, besides organising the drug trade in Catatumbo, built a sizeable civilian following. Since Megateo was killed in October 2015, the group has suffered the loss of two other top leaders. According to police intelligence, two leaders are now fighting for control, though local observers believe the group maintains its internal cohesion. The EPL is also likely incorporating FARC deserters, who are generally more disciplined than its own fighters.

Views differ as to whether the EPL is a guerrilla group, as locals in Catatumbo believe, or an organised crime syndicate, as the government contends. The group has some popular support, which it has tried to strengthen by arguing that, unlike the FARC and ELN, the EPL will not “betray” the people by handing themselves in to the government. Some communities in Catatumbo respect the EPL as the only force to have fought paramilitary groups in the early 2000s.The Marxist-Leninist Colombian Communist Party claims the EPL as its armed wing, and the latter still distributes the party’s newsletter. The group also compels farmers to grow coca rather than take part in crop substitution programs, which has helped it gain support from coca producers while also demonstrating its stakes in the coca trade.

III.The Lure of Illicit Economies

The ability of Colombia’s armed groups to profit from criminal businesses has helped them survive a long asymmetrical conflict with state forces. As the FARC withdraws from its revenue-generating activities, various armed groups are vying to take its place, competing for control of drug production, illegal mining, contraband and extortion both in the interior and along the country’s weak borders, especially with Venezuela. In several areas, this competition has resulted in rising violence. Local communities that depend on illegal activities for their precarious livelihoods often see these armed groups as defending them from government forces. This relationship of exploitation and protection gives local armed actors considerable social support and political power.


Colombian coca cultivation and cocaine production have grown sharply since 2013. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) detected 146,000 hectares of coca crops in 2016, up from 48,000 hectares in 2013 (see Appendix F); the U.S. reports that these crops reached 188,000 hectares, up from 80,500 hectares.Much of this growth is explained by a reduction in eradication, perverse incentives created by the peace agreement, and increases in farm productivity. The government is now under intense domestic and international pressure to bring coca production down fast.

Under point four of the peace agreement, the FARC withdrew from illegal drug trafficking. The guerrilla group had been directly or indirectly involved in the coca paste trade since at least the 1980s, participating in its purchase and trafficking, and regulating or taxing third parties. In some parts of Colombia, the FARC also was involved in cocaine trafficking.

The effects of this withdrawal vary across regions. In Putumayo, where according to UN estimates 25,000 hectares of the crop were grown in 2016, the illicit market has undergone drastic changes. The FARC purchased coca paste and leaves directly while also charging taxes on transactions by other buyers. It also trafficked in coca, working with a local crime outfit known as the Constru. Now the Constru and a newer group, Los Comuneros, have moved into rural areas to take over the trade, though with limited success so far. FARC militia members were still buying coca paste in some towns in early 2017, while new buyers from outside the region have been killed by unknown perpetrators, according to local sources. In Guaviare and Meta, dissidents have increased their involvement in and control over the drug trade, whereas in Cauca the ELN has taken over most of the trade.

Contrary to much public and political opinion in Colombia and elsewhere, there is no direct, linear relationship between the volume of coca crops and the levels of violence suffered in any region.