Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Ecuador

Colombia’s Dumbest Trafficker

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.

Guacho gives a Colombian television interview, which is also a dumb move.

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.

Hostages Rivas, Ortega, and Segarra, murdered sometime before April 13.

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.

This Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

(Week of March 25-31)

“Dissident” Group Kidnaps Reporters on Ecuador Side of the Border

The Pacific coastal border region between Colombia and Ecuador has heated up amid an offensive launched by a fast-growing dissident group made up mainly of former FARC members and militias who have rearmed. The “Oliver Sinisterra” group, named for a former FARC commander killed in combat with Colombia’s army, is led by Walter Artízala alias “Guacho,” an Ecuadorian border-zone citizen whom the FARC recruited in 2007. It has between 70 and 450 members.

Guacho’s group is disputing control of criminality in this zone, the busiest maritime cocaine trafficking corridor in all of Colombia, with the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group, the ELN guerrillas, and another FARC dissident group headed by alias “David.” Spain’s El País newspaper reported in January that Guacho does business with four drug cartels, including the Urabeños and Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. Colombia’s prosecutor-general, Néstor Humberto Martínez, said in mid-March that the group “is at the Sinaloa Cartel’s service.”

Guacho’s group has carried out the most spectacular attacks in the region so far this year. In January, it set off a car bomb in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, that wounded 28 people. 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 three Ecuadorian soldiers and wounding eleven.

On March 26, the dissidents kidnapped three reporters from Quito’s El Comercio newspaper from the border zone, and appear to have brought them to the Colombian side. Ecuadorian authorities say they are in contact with the kidnappers and that the captives are in good health.

On the night of March 26, the Pacific port city of Tumaco, near the border, was blacked out after Guacho’s group bombed an electricity pylon. It took several days to restore power. This city of 200,000 people—never a peaceful place—has been hit by a wave of violence, with 67 homicides during the first 85 days of 2018.

FARC dissident groups like Guacho’s are growing quickly around the country. Colombian armed forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía said last week, “Today there are 1,200 of them dedicated to narcotrafficking and criminal economies; depending on the region, they make alliances with other armed groups.” Ariel Ávila of Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think-tank estimated that 800 of them are guerrillas who have abandoned the demobilization process, and the rest are new recruits. Of the 242 (out of 1,100 total) Colombian municipalities, or counties, where the FARC once had influence, Ávila told El Colombiano, dissidents are now active in 48. A “high source” in the governor’s office of Nariño department, which includes Tumaco, told the La Silla Vacía investigative site that Guacho has been in conversations for a possible alliance with what may be the country’s largest dissident group, that of alias Gentil Duarte in south-central Colombia. The site could not confirm this rumor.

Government Forces Kill Urabeños’ Third-in-Command

On March 28 Colombia’s National Police announced the killing of Aristides Meza, alias “El Indio,” whom it characterized as the number-three commander of the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group. Meza, whom the police said was wanted by U.S. authorities, was killed by an aerial assault in Montelíbano, Córdoba. According to the release, “El Indio” commanded 200 men and

directed the criminal activities of the “Gulf Clan” [one of several names used to refer to the Urabeños] on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and in the Magdalena Medio region.… In addition, he coordinated criminal alliances with narcotrafficking structures in Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, for the permanent export of loads of cocaine, by sea and land, to the United States and Europe.… According to the [Police intelligence] investigation, the capo paid between 10 and 15 million pesos [US$3,000 to US$5,000] for virgin girls and adolescents, and loved imported products, especially whisky, cariar, cheese, and other canned goods.

InsightCrime reports that Meza’s killing is the latest result of “Operation Agamemnon II,” the Colombian security forces’ effort to take out the Urabeños’ leadership. In the last seven months, this operation killed Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez alias “Gavilán,” the group’s number-two leader, and top boss Luis Orlando Padierna alias “Inglaterra.” This puts the Urabeños, led by top fugitive Dairo Úsaga alias “Otoniel,” badly off balance, according to InsightCrime:

With a number of top lieutenants out of the picture, Otoniel will have to replace his inner circle with people who do not necessarily have the same level of experience and knowledge as their predecessors.… Now that the Urabeños’ operations on the Pacific coast are leaderless, competing groups like the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) could try to scoop up territory that the weakened group no longer has the power to control.

EPL-ELN Combat Worsens in Catatumbo

Tensions continue in Catatumbo, a region of highly organized campesinos and extensive coca cultivation in Norte de Santander department, following a March 14 shootout that signaled the breakdown of a years-long truce between two leftist guerrilla groups. The FARC, the ELN, and a small local group, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), had long coexisted. But with the FARC out of the picture and the EPL undergoing leadership changes, intensifying ELN-EPL competition has worsened the security situation.

A March 26 update from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warns that since March 14, insecurity has affected more than 20,300 people in the municipalities of San Calixto, El Carmen, Hacarí, Sardinata, El Tarra, and Convención. 12,500 have been unable to access basic goods and services. About 3,000 are confined to their communities. More than 2,400 have been displaced. Over 2,360 children have been unable to attend school.

An extensive report by Verdad Abierta explains what is going on. Analysts cited place much of the blame on the EPL which, after losing its top leader to a Colombian Army raid in late 2016, embarked on a “disorderly” process of expansion that “violated tacitly established norms” between the guerrilla groups. “For the past two years,” Wilfredo Cañizares of the Cúcuta-based Fundación Progresar told the website, “the EPL arrived in ex-FARC territories to carry out punitive practices on the population, bringing the community together and saying: ‘These are the new rules and those who don’t comply, die.’ This happens in a very complex context, because in Catatumbo there are strong civil-society processes, the Community Action Boards have already developed codes of conduct… there are organized and politicized communities on which the EPL came to impose itself through violence, even killing social leaders, which is why their problems with the ELN began.”

Citizen groups in Teorama and El Tarra have organized marches to demand that the armed groups respect international humanitarian law and keep them out of the conflict. “The armed groups’ response [to the protests] didn’t take long in coming,” reports El Espectador. “In the town of Filo Gringo, El Tarra, where combat affected the school and other civilian assets, EPL members threatened the promoters of a protest.”

Three Social Leaders Killed in a Week in Bajo Cauca Region

The Bajo Cauca—several municipalities in northern Antioquia department, a few hours’ drive from Medellín—may be the most violent part of Colombia right now. The cause in this longtime cocaine-producing region is fighting between the Urabeños and a local organized-crime group called “Los Caparrapos.” Along with neighboring southern Córdoba department, Bajo Cauca leads the country in forced displacement so far this year. And it has seen an alarming wave of killings of social leaders.

Víctor Alfonso Zabaleta, the president of a Community Action Board in Cáceres municipality and a participant in a government coca-substitution program, was murdered on March 25 along with another campesino. That same day, Jorge Miguel Polanco, a former Community Action Board leader, was killed along with his son. As reported last week, Community Action Board leader José Herrera was killed on March 20 in Caucasia.

The problem is worsening nationwide. On March 27 the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) put out a statement reiterating “its concern over the high number of murders of human rights defenders and social leaders registered this year in Colombia.”

According to the Ombudperson’s Office, 22 human rights defenders were assassinated in Colombia over the first months of 2018.… According to an Ombudperson’s report, between January 2017 to February 2018, there have been 121 murders of human rights defenders.… The Commission observes with concern that plenty of those murdered human rights defenders carried out actions aimed at implementing the peace agreements related to land distribution. In addition, the Commission has received consistent reports indicating that indigenous and Afro-Colombians human rights defenders are exposed to aggravated violence.

Neo-paramilitary groups may be responsible in many cases, the IAHRC said: “In regards to the perpetrators of those murders, the Nation’s Chief Prosecutor has indicated, in December 2017, that he has identified the presence of ‘self-defence’ strongholds which could be acting systematically to some degree in several regions of the country.”

El Espectador noted that

Of 156 murders of leaders currently under investigation by the National Police Elite Corps and the Prosecutor-General’s Technical Investigations Corps, 68 have made investigative advances, and 117 people have been arrested for their presumed material responsibility for these acts. However, although in some cases it is known who ordered the killings of these human rights defenders, it’s clear that the faces of the ‘intellectual authors’ of a great majority of these homicides remain an enigma.”

Of those 156 cases under investigation, El Espectador concludes, 98 are in the initial inquiry stage, 18 are under formal investigation, 31 are in the trial stage, and 9 have achieved guilty verdicts and sentences. “These statistics make clear the long work that lies ahead.”

Senate Hold on U.S. Ambassador Nomination

The Washington Free Beacon, a pro-Trump U.S. website, reports that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is blocking the confirmation of the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Joseph MacManus. Under Senate rules, a single senator can prevent any presidential nominee from getting a vote by putting a “hold” on the process. “The hold can last for the rest of the congressional year,” the Free Beacon explains, “and force President Trump to either nominate a new person for the role or wait until January when a new Congress begins to nominate Macmanus again.”

MacManus is a career Foreign Service officer, whose Senate Foreign Relations Committee nomination hearing on March 8 was mostly uneventful. He is opposed on the far right, however, because he was on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s personal staff during the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which became a cause celebre for Clinton’s political opponents. During the hearing, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, asked MacManus about his role in Benghazi, but did not pursue the line of questioning very far.

Opponents of MacManus’s nomination may also want president Trump to nominate a political appointee—a non-diplomat who shares the president’s “America First” outlook—instead of a career diplomat. The Free Beacon article speculates that the arrivals of hardliners Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to the posts of secretary of state and national security advisor might spell an end to MacManus’s nomination and the naming of a more ideological appointee. It’s not clear, though, how a more extreme nominee could win approval in the Senate, where Republicans hold a fragile 51-49 majority and where the Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), is a Trump critic who will retire at the end of this session.

New Reintegration Agency Chief

Joshua Mitrotti, the longtime director of the Colombian Reincorporation Agency (ACR), has left his post, La Silla Vacía reports. The Agency attends to ex-combatants who seek to reintegrate individually into civilian life, and some aspects of the reintegration of those reintegrating collectively, as most of the FARC has sought to do. Mitrotti said he had told President Juan Manuel Santos two months ago of his desire to leave his post for personal reasons. He will be replaced by Andrés Stapper, a lawyer with 11 years’ experience at the ACR.

La Silla Vacía notes that the reincorporation process is in rough shape, as the government and guerrillas never agreed on a collective reincorporation policy.

The good news is that of 12,535 ex-FARC combatants accredited by the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, more than 12,000 have a bank account where they are receiving 24 monthly payments of about 90 percent of minimum wage ($220). More than 11,000 are signed up with the national health system and 8,000 with the national pension system. 3,976 have received at least a few days’ vocational training.

But there have been “few advances” on “productive projects,” usually agricultural investments, “which are thought to be how they would make a long-term living.” The FARC want the government to disburse 8 million pesos (nearly US$3,000) to each ex-member, as agreed in the accord, so that they may launch their projects. The government does not want to turn over the money until all ex-guerrillas have received training and all projects have been approved by a body that includes the ACR director, the National Reincorporation Council. Of the 26 zones where FARC members congregated to demobilize in early 2017, only four have active, approved productive projects currently underway.

In-Depth Reading

Links From the Last Month About: Civil-Military Relations in Latin America

Marco Bello photo for Reuters. Caption: “Soldiers march during a military parade to celebrate the 206th anniversary of Venezuela’s independence in Caracas, Venezuela, July 5, 2017.”

Argentina

  • Outgoing Defense Minister Julio Martínez alleged that the previous governments of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández so neglected the country’s air force that “over a hundred [aircraft] went out of service or were decommissioned.”

Brazil

  • Brazilian Army soldiers, long tasked with guarding the country’s 10,400-mile land border, are increasingly being used as police. “During the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets—double the number from the previous nine years combined,” according to an Economist report with an interesting map.

Colombia

  • The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague has notified Colombia that she has her eye on 23 active and retired generals, and 6 colonels, who may bear responsibility for extrajudicial executions. The list, based on cases in five regions, includes the current chief of the armed forces, Gen. Juan Pablo Rodríguez.
  • The mayor of Antioquia, Colombia—the department (province) whose capital is Medellín—is moving forward with a proposal to install retired army colonels as “vice-mayors” of historically conflictive towns. Local human rights groups are opposing the idea.

Cuba

  • American University’s William Leogrande takes down the claim—repeated by proponents of the Trump administration’s tightening of commerce with Cuba—that the Cuban military controls 60 percent of the country’s economy. “Sectors in which the military has little or no participation easily comprise more than half of GDP, and in the other sectors, there are civilian as well as military-controlled firms.”

Ecuador

  • 3,000 members of Ecuador’s armed forces have been deployed to play an anti-crime role in the western provinces of Guayas, Manabí, and Los Ríos. They are mostly searching vehicles at road checkpoints, looking for weapons or other signs of organized crime activity.

Guatemala

  • At NACLA, David Unger summarizes a surprising book by an active-duty Guatemalan colonel. Col. Edgar Rubio Castañeda’s “Desde el Cuartel” (From the Barracks) is a blistering critique of the country’s inequality, the oligarchy that benefits from it, and the military’s role in propping it up.

Mexico

  • Top brass in Mexico’s armed forces have been issuing pointed messages about ethics in politics. Defense Minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos called for more effort against corruption and impunity, which he said have “damaged our society.” Navy Minister Adm. Vidal Soberón said that human rights violations are “contrary to every definition of our reason for being” and “will never be tolerated.” However, the investigative website Animal Político reported that prosecutors failed to act on at least five anonymous tips that a local Army captain was tied to the drug-trafficking group (Guerreros Unidos) that massacred 43 students in Iguala, Mexico in September 2014.

Venezuela

  • At least 123 members of all branches of Venezuela’s armed forces have been detained since daily anti-government protests began in April. According to Reuters, “nearly 30 members of the military have been detained for deserting or abandoning their post and almost 40 for rebellion, treason, or insubordination.” The majority are being held in the Ramo Verde military prison where opposition leader Leopoldo López was interned until this past weekend.
  • From his cell, López recorded a video urging military personnel to “rebel” against orders to repress protesters. Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said that “an air of change” can be felt within Venezuela’s armed forces, but not the National Guard. “A very important decision is coming from the components of our armed forces,” Capriles added.

Links From the Last Month About: Civil-Military Relations in Latin America

Chile

Colombia

  • Colombia’s Congress is nearing approval of a transitional justice system to try war crimes committed during the long conflict with the FARC, as envisioned in the peace accords. Retired Colombian generals are pushing hard to guarantee that this law waters down the definition of “command responsibility” for war crimes They want language that allows former commanders to claim that they did not have effective control over troops who committed atrocities. Although this low standard might run afoul of the International Criminal Court, the bill that passed the Colombian Senate on March 13 included it.
  • As part of Colombia’s post-conflict transition, the Nudo de Paramillo Joint Task Force, a 4,500-person unit in northwestern Colombia, is to become a “Stabilization and Consolidation Command” focusing more on economic development projects, like building roads, than on combat.

Ecuador

  • President Rafael Correa abruptly fired Army Chief Gen. Luis Castro, after the general made public comments implying that soldiers were impeded from controlling the “chain of custody” of ballots cast in the February 19 first-round presidential election. (The military plays a leading role in election logistics in Ecuador.) Gen. Castro’s comments cast doubt on the integrity of voting, which yielded an 11 percentage-point margin—but not a majority—to Correa’s former vice president and political ally, Lenín Moreno.
  • Gen. Castro was the fourth top-ranked military leader whom Correa has fired in the past year amid deteriorating civil-military relations.

Mexico

  • While on a trip to the United States, Mexico’s leftist frontrunner for the 2018 presidential elections, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, repeated a charge—made by many of the victims’ families—that Mexico’s Army was involved in the 2014 Ayotzinapa massacre of 43 student teachers in Iguala, Guerrero. This earned him attacks from Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, who is one of the most likely choices to oppose López Abrader as the ruling PRI party’s 2018 candidate.
  • President Enrique Peña Nieto continued to direct highest praise at the armed forces, calling them “the institution of institutions” whose members devote their “body and soul.”
  • Human rights lawyer Juan Méndez, who as UN special rapporteur on torture had some tense exchanges with Mexican officials in 2015, returned to the country in mid-March. While there, he called on Mexico to reduce the armed forces’ participation in public security functions.
  • “We’re not going to pull out” of crimefighting in the streets, Mexican Defense Minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos said. “It’s the people who don’t want us to go, and it is an order from the President of the Republic.”
  • Indeed, when asked, “Whom would you prefer to have guarding the streets, the Police or the Army?” Mexican respondents to a Parametría poll went with 60 percent Army, 20 percent “neither,” and 18 percent Police. That 60 percent for the Army is down from 66 percent in 2008.
  • Gen. Cienfuegos is actively supporting a draft Internal Security Law that will make permanent the Mexican armed forces’ internal crimefighting role. A movement of NGOs calling itself #SeguridadSinGuerra (“Security Without War”) has formed to oppose this fundamental policy change.
  • In Culiacán, the capital of Mexico’s violence-riven state of Sinaloa, state and municipal police held a protest march to demand the federal military police force’s removal from the state. They criticized the soldiers for not acting until they receive explicit orders, and for “hindering” local police.
  • A contributor to Small Wars Journal believes that Mexico’s Marines, which play a large internal crime-fighting role, are “a modern military force postured to defeat hybrid threats.”
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