By Mayra Alejandra Bonilla
Indigenous people at the Colombia-Ecuador border are reporting an increase in threats, extortions and restrictions to their access, as criminal groups and authorities fight to control the vacuum left by the FARC.
Alarms were first set off around the border area between Putumayo in Colombia and Sucumbíos in Ecuador by members of the Siona indigenous community reporting to the Ecuador Ombudsman’s Office in July 2018.
After the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) in 2016, the Ecuadorean military reduced its presence at the border. This appears to have allowed criminal drug organizations from both countries, including dissident members of the former guerrilla and other local structures, to move in and control illicit economies at the border..
In August 2018, a team from Ecuador’s Ombudsman’s Office and their Colombian counterparts confirmed that the Siona community now had their freedom of movement significantly impaired. The restrictions are mainly due to the proliferation of anti-personnel landmines, other improvised explosive devices left behind by the FARC, as well as armed clashes between armed groups.
Ecuador’s Ombudsman, Gina Benavides, confirmed in a report that indigenous communities had been caught amid violence between criminal organizations, with houses even being impacted by stray bullets, although there were no confirmations of Siona casualties. The indigenous community is requesting international intervention as opposed to just asking for help from local authorities, feeling their interference and involvement could worsen the conflict.
The dispute for territory is caused mainly by the presence of illicit drug crops, especially on the Colombian side of the border. The department of Putumayo and its neighbor along the border, Nariño, lead the country in coca production.
The geostrategic importance of the border between Sucumbíos and Putumayo makes the area highly attractive for criminal organizations and a great challenge for authorities.
Since 2016, the presence of ex-FARC mafia networks operating on both sides of the border has been well-documented.
However, since the kidnapping of three Ecuadorean journalists and an attack against a police station in the town of San Lorenzo in Esmeraldas province, Ecuador’s actions to fight organized crime have been focused along the Pacific coast and the border between Nariño and Esmeraldas. This border area was the base of operations for Walter Patricio Arizala, alias “Guacho,” the former leader of the Oliver Sinisterra Front made up of FARC dissidents before his death in December 2018.
This pressure has driven some actors back towards Sucumbíos, in order to stay under the radar of the authorities.
According to information accessed by InSight Crime, a number of ex-FARC mafia structures operate along the Sucumbíos-Putumayo border. These include elements from the 48th and 49th Fronts, the Alfarista Revolutionary Movement and La Constru.
These groups are not only involved in drug trafficking, but also have networks focused on the transportation of other substances like chemical precursors and fuel.
High-ranking police officials told InSight Crime that they have identified drug trafficking routes coming from the Ecuadorean province of Esmeraldas through the Amazon, passing through the province of Carchi and arriving to Sucumbíos, with the drug flow having significantly increased of late.
Both the geostrategic significance and the lawlessness of this border region are evident. In January, three anti-narcotic police officers were ambushed in Puerto Mestanza, with one being killed. Ecuadorean authorities have reported at least nine deaths of Colombian nationals linked to drug trafficking over the last year, particularly around Lago Agrio.
And with the Siona now being targeted for recruitment into the gangs, the situation for the indigenous community may only get worse.
Credit: InSight Crime, www.insightcrime.org