Colombia’s peace process with the left-wing rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is stumbling forward.
FARC rebels recently announced they had turned in 30% of their weapons, but the deadline for those turnovers, originally the end of May, has been extended by 20 days because of construction delays and other issues hindering the demobilization process.
As the FARC leaves the battlefield, a number of problems have cropped up.
Production of coca, the main ingredient in cocaine, is up considerably for a variety of reasons. Violence in certain parts of the country has continued or increased as well, as criminal groups and dissident rebel factions jockey for control of territory vacated by the FARC.
The Colombian government has tried to crack down on the groups driving the killing, but they’ve put police and the military under fire in a style reminiscent of Pablo Escobar, adding to the body count.
Colombia has dispatched 1,000 officers to scour northwest Colombia, often in Black Hawk helicopters. The government says it’s closing in on the group’s 45-year-old leader, Dario Antonio Usuga, aka Otoniel, who reportedly has to change locations every three hours. (Otoniel, however, has eluded capture for years.)
“We have him within striking distance,” Jose Angel Mendoza, head of the anti-narcotics police division, told AFP earlier this month. “He has had to run for it at the last second, more than once.”
Colombian officials have dropped leaflets offering a reward for information about Otoniel from helicopters over northwestern Antioquia, the gang’s home turf whose capital, Medellin, was once the redoubt of Pablo Escobar’s eponymous cartel.
The US State Department has offered a $5 million reward based on a 2009 indictment in a New York court, calling Los Urabeños “a heavily armed, extremely violent criminal organization comprised of former members of terrorist organizations.” Colombian authorities have offered a reward of nearly $7,000 for information on the killings.
Police also say they’ve killed 52 of the gang’s leaders this year and arrested 1,300 of its members. The effort has reportedly reduced the gang to 1,500 members — half its size in 2010.
But Los Urabeños is fighting back.
Taking a page from Escobar’s playbook, the gang — responsible for 70% of the cocaine production in Colombia, which produced 646 metric tons of the drug in 2015 — is targeting the police, cutting down officers in the streets in a campaign reminiscent of Escobar’s vicious fight against the state in the early 1990s.
Targeted killings of police date back to March, and have been attributed in part to the National Liberation Army, another left-wing rebel group present in the country.
Los Urabeños appears to be responsible for many of the more recent police killings. During May, Los Urabeños gave out leaflets calling for the killing of police, and police-intelligence officials believe the group is offering nearly $700 for each death. Police have said the killings are in retaliation for law-enforcement action against the group.
Eleven police were killed throughout May, most of them on patrol. The killings have taken place around the country but mainly in the north around Antioquia and along the Panamanian border.
The killing spree has been compared to the “pistol plan,” a campaign devised by Escobar to put pressure on the government in the early 1990s. Even the governor of Antioquia, Luis Perez, has drawn a comparison between the current violence and that of Escobar’s time.
Escobar leveraged the networks of corruption he had established in Medellin to suss out the identities of officers sent to the city to dismantle his organization, killing dozens of them on the street or in front of their families. By the end of 1992, Escobar upped the ante by offering a $2,000 bounty for Medellin cops.
Not content with shootings, Escobar dispatched car bombs; a massive one exploded outside a stadium in the city on December 2, killing 10 police and three civilians. At the end of the month, authorities found another massive car bomb outside the national police’s provincial headquarters.
By the time Escobar himself was gunned down in December 1993, hundreds of Colombian police had been slain.
“In Colombia, every time a criminal group turns to killing police, they do it as a desperate measure,” Vice President Oscar Naranjo, who battled the nation’s drug cartels as national police chief, told the Associated Press in May.
State pressure on Los Urabeños has intensified as well. In late May, the national police reported arresting 35 members of the gang who were involved in police killings.
Around the same time, Colombian authorities reported capturing a gang leader known as “El Boyaco,” who is suspected of financing the campaign against police.
While Escobar was not a rebel or an insurgent, his campaign did have the political objective of getting the government to relent in its efforts to capture or kill his cartel’s members and to secure an agreement not to extradite them to the US. The FARC, both insurgents and traffickers, had designs on remaking Colombia’s political system.
Los Urabeños don’t appear to have aspirations for their deadly campaign beyond getting the police off their backs.
“Unlike what we have seen in the past, these groups don’t have defined political objectives,” Jorge Restrepo, director of the Conflict Analysis Resource Center in Bogota, told the AP.
Despite police success in capturing or killing its leaders, however, the gang appears to be extending its reach in Colombia’s prime trafficking territory, and continued seizures of large quantities of cocaine — like 6 metric tons of it seized in April in what was then Colombia’s third-largest bust ever — indicate the gang still has the ability to move vast amounts of the drugs.
Los Urabeños’ deadly campaign has fallen far short of the one mounted by Escobar, but for the Colombians affected by it, more drug-related bloodshed underscores the emptiness of the peace promised by the FARC’s demobilization.
“Look how everything is,” Jennifer Macias, who police-officer husband was gunned down in May, weeks after his 35th birthday, told the AP. “The peace is useless.”