In mid-March Jeremy McDermott, a longtime investigator of organized crime in the Americas, published a study at the site of InsightCrime, the organization he co-directs. He profiled the thriving new cohort of Colombian drug traffickers, which he calls the “fourth generation” of narcos, or just “the invisibles.”
With the FARC’s and AUC’s exits from the criminal scene, narcotrafficking has been left more exposed than ever, with nowhere to hide. Once identified by national and international authorities, the useful life of an important capo is short, at least unless he is prepared to live as a guerrilla in the jungle, passing from one shack to another every night, and renouncing the comforts and opportunities that a great fortune might offer. That’s why today’s narcotrafficker prefers to hide behind the facade of a successful businessman, avoiding the ostentation and extreme violence that characterized earlier generations.
In an English summary, McDermott added:
Colombian drug traffickers have learned that violence is bad for business. The new generation of traffickers have learned that anonymity is the ultimate protection, that “plata” (“silver”) is infinitely more effective than “plomo” (“lead,” as in bullets). …Today’s Colombian drug trafficker is more likely to be clad in Arturo Calle [Colombia’s equivalent of Men’s Wearhouse] than Armani, wear classic European shoes rather than alligator boots, drive a Toyota rather than a Ferrari, live in an upper middle class apartment rather than a mansion with gold taps. He will have the face of a respectable businessman.
With Colombia producing record-high amounts of cocaine, there is much money to be made as a drug trafficker today. But unlike past generations, the last thing a trafficker wants to be is high profile. It attracts too much attention.
But that’s exactly what Wálter Patricio Arizala Vernaza, alias “Guacho,” has chosen to do. In just a couple of months, this former FARC fighter has risen from obscurity to be possibly the most sought-after criminal in both Colombia and Ecuador. And it’s all due to his own actions.
An Ecuadorian citizen from the border province of Esmeraldas, Arizala joined the FARC in 2007. He was a member of the group’s powerful Daniel Aldana Mobile Column, active in Nariño along the Colombia-Ecuador border. There, he specialized in explosives but was also found to be very good at math. He was promoted to management of the Column’s finances in a territory that today is the busiest cocaine superhighway in South America:
Guacho developed contacts with Mexican narcotraffickers who buy and transship cocaine in southwestern Colombia and northwestern Ecuador. This makes him the classic example of the mid-level guerrilla leader whose demobilization was so important for the peace process to guarantee: someone with contacts in the criminal underworld who would be tempted to abandon the peace process at the first lucrative opportunity. And that’s what he did: when the FARC headed to its demobilization sites in early 2017, Guacho went on the lam.
His “Oliver Sinisterra Front,” named for a FARC colleague killed in 2015, grew very fast, a rapid rise documented by the International Crisis Group’s Kyle Johnson in a piece published this week to Razón Pública. Guacho may now be commanding as many as 450 people. Many of them are former FARC militias in the port city of Tumaco, and many are fresh recruits. His group reportedly controls cocaine labs capable of producing at least 10 tons per month. It is currently the largest in an ever-shifting patchwork of criminal groups fighting for control of Tumaco, whose surrounding municipality (county) has more coca than any other in Colombia.
Guacho and his “front” could have kept a low profile and become quite wealthy, had they followed McDermott’s suggestion to use “plata” much more than “plomo,” seeking to corrupt and penetrate institutions.
Instead, though, they have picked spectacular fights with authorities on both sides of the border.
- In November 2017, Guacho’s group attacked a checkpoint of Ecuador’s Special Mobile Antinarcotics Group (GEMA) with grenades and gunfire, killing four.
- In January, it set off a car bomb outside a police station in Guacho’s hometown of San Lorenzo, Ecuador, that wounded 28 people. This was an apparent retaliation for an Ecuadorian police raid and search of his mother’s house.
- In February, it launched a mortar at an Ecuadorian Army post, with no casualties.
- On March 20, it set off a roadside bomb in Ecuador, killing four Ecuadorian soldiers and wounding ten.
- On April 5, Guacho’s group knocked out an electric tower in Colombia, plunging Tumaco into darkness. This was an apparent retaliation for the Ecuadorian government arresting one of his brothers-in-law. Power lines again went down on April 18.
The most spectacular action, though, was the March 26 kidnapping of two reporters from Quito’s El Comercio newspaper, together with their driver. The captives’ plight became daily front page news in Ecuador. The #NosFaltan3 (“we’re missing 3”) hashtag continues to get constant use on social media. Sometime before April 13, Guacho’s group killed Javier Ortega, Paul Rivas Bravo, and Efraín Segarra on Colombia’s side of the border, under circumstances that have yet to be cleared up. Sometime last week, Guacho’s group kidnapped two more Ecuadorian citizens, Vanesa Velasco Pinargote and Oscar Efrén Villacís Gómez, who remain in custody.
From a drug trafficker’s perspective, these are incredibly stupid things to do. The message Guacho has sent is, “look at me, put a target on me, make me a top priority.” And indeed, Colombia and Ecuador have offered a combined reward of more than US$230,000 for information leading to his capture. Using McDermott’s frame, Wálter Arizara is a first or second-generation drug trafficker in a fourth-generation world.
Nine years ago Colombian Police Chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo (now the Vice President) said that the authorities had reduced the “useful lifespan” of the average top drug trafficker to 24 months, after which they are captured or killed. Today, a “well behaved” trafficker like one of McDermott’s “invisibles” may hang on for far longer. But for someone like Guacho, who has committed very grave errors, two years sounds like far too long an estimate.