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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Maps

Colombia’s ungoverned, conflictive margins

While looking for a graphic to use in a presentation for tomorrow, I found this cartogram of Colombia’s population at a site called World Mapper. A cartogram re-sizes territories on a map, usually using software, to reflect an attribute. This one shows what Colombia’s map might look like if each pixel contained an equal number of people.

The map shows what a heavily urban country Colombia is. About 77 percent urban in 2016, according to the World Bank.

The parts of the country that have most suffered the conflict, including those where coca is most heavily planted, are all scrunched down to almost nothing. They are rural, and often marginal to the country’s civic and economic life. (I added the red labels pointing out some of those regions.)

Similarly scrunched are all of Colombia’s border zones (except the city of Cúcuta along the border with Venezuela, bulging between Catatumbo and Arauca, where the metro population is about 800,000). Like most South American border regions, Colombia’s are sparsely populated. The Pacific Coast, similarly diminished, until the end of the 20th century was a forgotten region with a mostly Afro-Colombian and indigenous population. Today, it may be the most violent part of the country.

This image makes clear how, at least for the past 10 years or so, the rural armed conflict was something that most Colombians only saw on television. It also makes clear why neither peace accord implementation, nor drug production, nor any other rural issue leads polled voters’ concerns in the runup to May 27 presidential elections. In a mostly urban country, political reality works against doing what it takes to bring a rural conflict to a definitive end.

Amazing maps, but what a mess

It’s hard to believe anyone would even try to map out the tangled, shifting patchwork of violent groups active in “post-conflict” Colombia’s Pacific coastal region. But the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP), a Bogotá-based think tank, accepted the challenge.

This map, from an April 10 FIP report on rearmed FARC “dissident” groups, depicts the department of Nariño in Colombia’s southwest corner, along the border with Ecuador. Nariño and neighboring Esmeraldas, Ecuador, appear to be the busiest cocaine trafficking corridor in South America right now. Colombia’s Navy has been cited as saying that 60 percent of Colombia’s cocaine comes through here (though this sounds a bit high). It is here where the dissident group headed by alias “Guacho” (denoted on the map as “FOS”) has been causing so much mayhem.

Map of Narino

This map, from the same FIP report, zooms in on the downtown of Tumaco, Nariño’s principal port city. In just the first 85 days of 2018, Tumaco’s urban core (population perhaps 125,000) saw 67 homicides, an annualized homicide rate well over 200 per 100,000 residents. This map of who purportedly controls which neighborhoods—with even a spot for Mexican intermediaries! (orange)—shows why.

Map of Tumaco

This one, from a July 2017 report, shows Chocó department, Colombia’s poorest, in the country’s northwest corner. Here, the ELN and the Urabeños organized crime group have been fighting bitter territorial battles, and FARC dissident bands were just emerging.

Map of Chocó

On a Twitter DM with one of these maps’ creators, I joked that they’re probably already out of date. The reply was “some parts are.” In the absence of government, territorial control over illegal economies shifts constantly, with every murder of a low-level leader, every mass displacement, every fragmentation of a criminal group. This makes mapping almost impossible. It also makes living there almost impossible: the population, terrified and unprotected, suffers. Residents quietly pay extortion demands and lose children to recruitment—or they leave for somewhere else, abandoning their land, much of it Afro-Colombian community councils’ shared landholdings.

Congratulations to the team at Fundación Ideas para la Paz for putting these maps together. What a tragedy that the government has shown such a lack of urgency in filling the post-conflict territorial vacuum in a part of the country that’s crucial for both humanitarian and counter-drug priorities.

2016 suspect trafficking maps

These U.S. government maps were on display at today’s Senate Colombia hearing, but weren’t in anyone’s published testimony. Click on them to see them enlarged.

That route from southwest Colombia and Ecuador to Mexico and Guatemala is really striking.

Also striking is the relative absence of vessels headed to Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba, and Haiti.

Trafficking routes over time

Below this text, in reverse chronological order, are some maps from U.S. Southern Command that I’ve collected over the years. They show the tracks of aircraft or boats that Southcom and its Key West, Florida-based “Joint Interagency Task Force South” (JIATF-South) component has suspected of trafficking drugs (or other illegal things). These give you a general idea of how trafficking (I believe this is nearly all cocaine trafficking) patterns have shifted over the past 12 years.

Four things stand out:

  • The Eastern Pacific is the busiest route. Southcom reported earlier this year that “Eastern Pacific flow currently accounts for more than 68% of documented cocaine movement,” and the more recent maps show that clearly. Colombia’s entire Pacific coast, as well as Esmeraldas and Manabí, Ecuador, are the main launching points for maritime traffic. (Southcom estimates that, after steady decline, only 3 percent of cocaine trafficking from the Andes is aerial; the rest is maritime.) For a while, detected trafficking vessels were not going out as far as the Galápagos Islands, which requires larger boats full of fuel to be stationed in the deep ocean, but now that long-haul route is active again. These long hauls tend not to arrive in Mexico, other than Chiapas which, along with San Marcos and Retalhuleu, Guatemala, remains a very heavy destination.
  • Costa Rica and Panama have been increasingly inundated with maritime traffic, which now blankets their heavily touristed coasts. In the Caribbean, Puerto Rico appears to have seen a very sharp increase too.
  • The Venezuela-to-Honduras aerial route, from Apure to Gracias a Dios, remains active, though overall aerial trafficking is reduced.
  • Traffickers tend to avoid Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua. (The 2016 map reverses Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola.) The lack of tracks detected in Cuba is total in recent years, which is remarkable.

These aren’t secret or classified, but I don’t know why Southcom and JIATF-South don’t just put these on their websites and in their reporting to Congress and the media. It’s about telling your own story.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.