MEDELLÍN - A party of teenagers got together to drink beer in the town of Samaniego in southwest Colombia on a recent evening when armed men drove up and gunned eight of them down. Two girls were riding their bikes in Montelíbano, in the north, when an assassin shot both in the face. One was twelve years old. In a gold mining town near the Pacific coast, men and boys gambled on a rooster fight when gunmen burst onto the scene, slaughtering eight.
“Just to kill someone doesn’t really register in a country like Colombia that’s desensitized to violence. It’s just one more death. But a massacre? Now you’re inspiring terror,” says Toby Muse, the author of Kilo: Inside The Deadliest Cocaine Cartels - From the Jungles To The Street.
“Massacres are used strategically in Colombia… It’s a way to demonstrate you’re in control.”
The United Nations has documented 33 massacres during 2020. There were 16 massacres in July and August alone.
This spate of killings reflect a surge in violent crime after what many hoped would be a peaceful transition out of decades of bloody armed conflict. In 2016 the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by their Spanish-language initials FARC) signed a peace accord. When 8,000 fighters laid down their weapons in 2017, the FARC also handed over huge zones of territorial control. Under the agreement, Colombia’s state security forces would move in and establish themselves. But the hand-off was fraught with political in-fighting over the legitimacy of the accord and a faulty implementation.
In the wake of the demobilization, former rebels morphed into ex-FARC mafia, and other criminal groups flourished in the vacuum.
“The narrative has changed… We now have an armed conflict that’s much more fragmented and has very specific regional characteristics,” says Juan Carlos Garzon at the Foundation Ideas for Peace, a Colombian non-profit.
Colombia’s armed conflict has changed significantly since the early 2000s, when right-wing paramilitaries aided by the military beat back the FARC, a 20,000-strong rebel force that had taken control of nearly two thirds of the countryside. In 2002, President Alvaro Uribe was elected with a mandate to impose security on the lawless parts of the country, with the help of the United States. In 2005, the paramilitaries, who stand accused of atrocious human rights violations, demobilized through a peace process led by Uribe. When Uribe’s successor, Juan Manuel Santos, won the presidency in 2010, he opened up peace talks with the FARC and the peace deal earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.
In spirit, the Uribe and Santos agreements neutralized both the paramilitaries and the FARC. But in reality, many former members of these two criminal groups splintered, and joined old criminal groups or formed new ones. The hegemonic control over key illicit businesses - like cocaine production and transportation, illegal gold trafficking, and illicit timber - fractured, multiplied and thrived.
The small, local organized criminal gangs that splintered out of these two peace deals are likely behind Colombia’s spate of rural murders, say observers.
The Atunes gang operated a giant cocaine laboratory in Nariño, where the Samaniego massacre occurred in late August. The Atunes compete with a rival gang called The Marihuanos. A group called Los Caparrapos are trying to gain an upper hand over rival gangs in Bajo Cauca, next door to where the Cordoba girls were murdered. In northern Cauca, the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels combat the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) over the gold trade. And in August, former members of the FARC, who call themselves the Segunda Marquetalia, revived their war against the government.
“There are so many illegal narco militias now, it’s hard to keep track of how many there are,” says Muse.
Garzon says that in some areas, as many as six different organizations operate and compete. “We went from large armed organizations to many local and fragmented groups,” says Garzon.
Since Colombia’s peace accord, at least 400 social leaders have been killed, according to the Washington Office on Latin America think-tank, also known as WOLA. In response, Colombia created a specialized investigative unit within the Attorney General’s office in 2017 to investigate the killings of community activists. In August, the Defense Ministry created a separate unit for investigating the growing number of ‘collective homicides’, and says it will coordinate with the Attorney General’s social leader homicide investigative unit. Colombia’s law enforcement agents have apprehended and imprisoned eighteen suspects linked to six of the most recent massacres. The suspects are currently facing charges.
The Defense Ministry claims that most of the killings are tied to the presence of disparate groups on the latest criminal landscape that formed post-FARC. However, Colombian law enforcement officials would not comment on the names of specific mafia organizations behind the July, August and September massacres.
Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo has cast most of the underlying blame on the abundant growth of a leafy, lime-green shrub known as coca, the base ingredient for cocaine. The United Nations shows that land under coca cultivation has soared ever since the 2016 peace agreement, ascending from 146,000 in 2016 to 171,000 in 2017. In 2019, Colombia produced 1,136 tonnes of cocaine, up 1.5% from the year before. Holmes Trujillo insists that annihilating this plant, the leaves of which farmers sell to drug-traffickers for cocaine production, will squeeze groups of their finances and cut down on violence.
“We have to accelerate the rhythm at which we eliminate illegal crops, using all the tools necessary, including aerial spraying, eradication and substitution. It’s a national security issue!,” he barked on Twitter on September 23rd.
Observers are not convinced this cocaine-focused-only approach will work and say the violence is connected to other criminal activities as well. Groups without the income from the drug trade may only increase their activities in extortion, kidnapping and illegal resource extraction to replace lost profits, promising to maintain if not increase levels of violence. And even after decades and millions of dollars in aid from the U.S. government aimed at combating the coca leaf, coca cultivation has grown steadily.
“It’s not strategic at all to frame the current conflict as a direct product of drug-trafficking. Because if you take a region like Cauca [where many killings have occured] the profitability of the illegal marijuana market and illicit gold mining is just as strong as coca,” explains Alberto Sanchez, an historian on Colombia’s conflict.
Many of the recent massacres occurred in areas along the Pacific coast of Colombia, a dense jungle canopy badland known for labyrinthine rivers and a coastline loaded with hide-and-go-seek mangroves. Coca grown in the interior gets processed into bricks and spills down from the Andes toward the Pacific coast, where traffickers then ship their product out into the vast eastern Pacific ocean and onward to hungry consumer markets around the globe. Colombia’s Pacific geography is also ripe for extorting the lucrative gold and timber trade. These are the routes groups are fighting to control.
Under pressure from President Donald Trump, the administration of Iván Duque wants to restart aerial spraying of coca. His supporters think it would be a less risky alternative for the police forces who are currently eradicating coca by manually sweeping through dense plantations loaded with landmines.
“Police are very bitter. They feel like they’ve lost a tool (aerial spraying) and they feel like they now have to literally walk through minefields,” says Muse.
But drug policy experts widely agree that aerial spraying of coca is a proven policy failure. Muse points to the fact that most peasants who subsist on small coca plots will usually move to new virgin land, slash and burn it, and re-plant if their plot gets eradicated or sprayed. By some estimates, up to 67% of decimated crops get re-planted. “People are desperate,” he said.“They need money to feed their families. They will start re-planting coca as soon as they can.”
Part of the 2016 peace accord brokered by Santos with the FARC involved substituting coca for alternative crops. But in many cases, the implementation of this substitution policy never came to fruition. Farmers who expected cash in exchange for committing to voluntary eradication were left wondering when their payment would arrive.
The murder rate in Colombia is still nowhere near the levels of the height of the armed conflict in the early 2000s, but Muse thinks this current vicious cycle of violence looks likely to continue if the failed “war on drugs” policy of the 20th century remains the status quo.
“Prohibition made Al Capone. Prohibition is going to keep making men like Pablo Escobar and El Chapo,” he laments. “If you keep insisting on this black market, you’re going to create monsters like them, and as long as the war on drugs continues, we will have them.”
Although some in Colombia’s cities have enjoyed a relative ‘peace’, marginalized folks in the countryside are seeing anything but. There is little will on the part of current leaders to change the status quo on the drug trade: militarization and eradication look set to continue. But as long as there is demand for drugs, the groups that manufacture and produce them will continue to do so. And the mass killings of innocents look set to remain.
Cover: Demonstrators during a protest in Medellin on September 4 2020 to demand action to stop the murders and massacres of young people. Photo by Fredy Builes/Getty Images.