BOGOTÁ, Colombia – The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been successful in diversifying its income streams since it started fighting the state in the 1960s.
The FARC generates money to fund its terrorist agenda through kidnapping ransoms, extortions and “vaccinations,” in which a “protection” fee is charged to businesses.
But the FARC has long exploited another means to make more money than any of their other criminal enterprises: trafficking in illegal drugs.
By aligning with national and international narco-trafficking organizations, the FARC pockets about a US$1 billion annually – about 78% of its overall income – according to a 2007 government report.
“The FARC are not just drug traffickers,” Gen. Óscar Naranjo of the National Police said during a media conference. “Their organizational structure takes on the model of a mafia subculture.”
The guerrilla group has seized the vacancy left by cartels in Medellín and Cali, which have seen their numbers drop considerably since 1995.
The FARC began taking control of fields of coca leaves, the primary ingredient used to produce cocaine, in the early 1980s, according to information released by the terrorist group during the Seventh and Eighth Guerrilla Conferences, held in 1982 and 1993.
Coca leaf plantations in the departments of Meta, Vichada, Guaviare, Caquetá, Putumayo, Sierra Nevada, Catatumbo and Bolívar have become lucrative territory for the FARC, which has as many as 40 fronts in the area, according to Boris Salazar and María del Pilar Castillo’s 2001 book La hora de los dinosaurios: Conflicto y depradación en Colombia (The Time of the Dinosaurs: Conflict and Predation in Colombia).
The government has responded by launching raids aimed at destroying the FARC’s coca leaf plantations and their clandestine laboratories used to manufacture narcotics deep in the jungle.
“The current fight against the FARC is carried out in two areas,” Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón said after FARC leader Alfonso Cano died during a military operation earlier this month. The first, dismantling and attacking the FARC’s core, and [second], dismantling their ties to national and international drug trafficking.”
Last September, Panamanian authorities arrested 19 Colombians and 61 Panamanians accused of trafficking 18 tons of narcotics from Colombia to Panamá during a two-year span. The gang’s alleged leader, José Indalecio Marmolejo Parra, is accused of working for the FARC’s 35th Front, officials said. Parra also is accused of having worked for renowned drug trafficker and Cartel de Medellín leader Pablo Escobar, who died in 1993.
In September 2010, Colombian authorities dismantled an international network that allegedly supplied narcotics to Edgar Valdez Villarreal, who is suspected of having ties to the FARC’s 30th Front. Villarreal, who goes by the alias “Barbie,” was arrested near Mexico City in August 2010. He is accused of leading an operation that trafficked more than three tons of cocaine monthly from Colombia to Central America and Mexico aboard speedboats on behalf of the Beltrán Leyva cartel.
said David Santander, a sociologist at the Universidad del Rosario and specialist on internal conflicts at the Universidad Autónoma of Mexico. “There are more examples that go from the well-known narco-submarines run by emerging gangs (BACRIM) or unaffiliated traffickers who set up protection payments to the FARC so the narcotics can leave Colombia protected by the terrorist group.”
From January through August, a total of 87 cocaine laboratories and eight camps run by criminal groups have been dismantled.
The Popular Anti-Communist Revolutionary (ERPAC), an operating arm of the FARC, has had more than 114 hectares of coca leaves destroyed in the past 20 months, according to the government.
Pinzón said the most recent attacks on the FARC have weakened the terrorist group’s structure, but its financial model wasn’t impacted by Cano’s death.
“Since Cano came to power, there has been a lack of command and control in most of the fronts, which has led to their acting more independently,” Pinzón said. “Nevertheless, every day we find more connections to these gangs in terms of buying and selling cocaine. Many of the FARC fronts are dedicated to financing the organization. They have no other purpose than to acquire resources by buying and selling cocaine.”
Maj. Gen. Sergio Mantilla Sanmiguel, commander of the Colombian National Army, agrees with Pinzón.
“The only sustainable way [the FARC] have to survive [is through] narco-trafficking,” he said. “Without their ties to the criminal gangs, they are condemned to bankruptcy. We understand the war with the FARC is not going to end with Cano’s death, but we took a vital step and our efforts are not only directed toward strategies targeting the FARC’s core but also to ending their means of support.”
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said that the government will continue to attack the FARC.
“The death of Cano affected the FARC deeply, but the work must go on,” Santos said. “Because someone will replace Cano or will try to continue following the financial and conflict models they already have established.”