Criminal mafias take over Colombian forests

The territories where these residual groups have grown stronger are the same ones that have a deforestation alert and where the cultivation of illicit crops has increased considerably. According to the latest report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), coca cultivation in Colombia increased considerably, going from 960 square kilometers (370 square miles) in 2015 to 1,460 square kilometers (560 square miles) in 2016. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warned at the end of last year that it was likely this trend would continue to increase.

The fight for the Amazon

According to the FIP, the south of Meta and Caquetá are full of FARC dissidents, integrated by ex-combatants and commanded by the insurgent chiefs known as Gentil Duarte and Euclides Mora, who are believed to be generating alliances with criminal gangs such as the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) and the puntilleros, which are drug-trafficking groups considered remnants of paramilitarism.

In the regions of Guaviare, Guainía, the south of Vichada and Vaupés, the dissidents are more involved with criminal activities and are integrated. Some of their leaders are known as Iván Mordisco, Giovanni Chuspas and John 40. In the region of Putumayo, there are structures made up of members of two former FARC fronts and the current ELN guerrilla group, which seeks to expand to Vichada and Guainía.

A map of the Colombian Amazon region: Amazonas, Caquetá, Cauca, Meta, Nariño, Guainía, Guaviare, Putumayo, Vaupés and Vichada.

The Amazon is vital for businesses operating outside the law, especially due to the large number of water sources it possesses: the Guaviare, Inírida, Vaupés, Apaporis and Caquetá rivers, among others. According to the FIP report, these tributaries give access to shelter areas, cocaine transport routes and weapons. In addition, these rivers are a natural way out to Venezuela and Brazil.

“The Residual Organized Armed Groups, as they call the FARC dissidents, have tried to organize themselves, but it has not been easy for them,” Parra said. “We have killed 22 of them in this year and have captured over 40.”

He said the army also faced a drug-trafficking gang named La Constru, and the Caqueteños organization, which operates in Caquetá and Putumayo and commits crimes on the border with Ecuador and Peru, transporting cocaine to other countries.

The presence of these criminal gangs is also becoming a threat to indigenous reservations.

Ginni Alba, technical secretary of the Commission on Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, says these groups have the native communities of Putumayo and Guaviare under their control. “No one was supposed to enter this area, but as the FARC left, the paramilitaries began occupying it. The control of illicit crops and illegal mining is now being disputed,” Alba told Mongabay.

Alba points out in the commission’s 2017-2018 report: “The criminal gang La Constru has been present in the territory for more than three years as a cocaine producer, but also as an agent of other criminal activities, such as homicides, kidnappings, extortions, etc., especially in Puerto Asís (Putumayo).” This situation has given rise to more than 16,000 violations against the indigenous communities, included cases of dispossession, forced disappearance, kidnappings, murders, threats, and displacements.

According to the UNODC, by 2016 there were more than 400 square kilometers (150 square miles) planted with coca in the Amazon. Alba says that in the municipality of Miraflores, in Guaviare, coca has become the de facto currency and is more important than traditional money. “Everything is bought with grams of coca, that’s how one lives,” she said.

Cocaine is not the only problem for the communities and indigenous people.

They also live from mining, which is also controlled by the armed groups. It is estimated that in Guainía, a region on the border with Venezuela in the Atabapo River sector, some 1,000 people live off small-scale mining, which is the one of the only available forms of livelihood. Parra says that in the first five months of this year, the army’s Sixth Division under his command conducted 26 operations against illegal mining and captured 46 people linked to the business.

Alba says the problem is not only illegal mining but also legal mining, as several communities risk being displaced by large extractives projects, mainly in Putumayo. According to National Mining Agency records, until last year more than 150 mining titles were granted throughout the Amazon for the extraction of construction materials, gold, coltan and other precious metals:

  • Putumayo: 47 mining titles on a combined ​​153 square kilometers (59 square miles).
  • Guainía: 34 mining titles on 727 square kilometers (281 square miles).
  • Caquetá: 58 mining titles on 40 square kilometers (15.3 square miles).
  • Guaviare: 10 mining titles on 6.1 square kilometers (2.4 square miles).
  • Vaupés: five mining titles on 144 square kilometers (55.6 square miles).
  • Amazonas: the most recent figure for this region is from the 2015 Amazon Scientific Research Institute (SINCHI) records, which registers four mining titles.
Mining titles in the Colombian Amazon region until 2015. Map courtesy of SINCHI Institute.
A map of the mining titles in the Colombian Amazon region as of 2015. Image courtesy of SINCHI Institute.

A growing mafia

Brigitte Baptiste, director of the Humboldt Institute in Colombia, says there is a large, structured mafia in the Amazonian region that is not only composed of armed groups but also “corrupt accomplices” within the government.

“When 40,000 hectares of deforested land appear in just two months, one immediately imagines trucks full of operators with chainsaws hired for days at the border of the jungle. Who is paying for that? Who is letting hundreds of illegal loggers deforest? Which authorities are looking the other way? There is every reason to think there is a system that is deliberately deforesting as a business, and people who are investing large capital, whom one can presume are narcotraffickers or of suspicious character,” she says.

Other inhabitants of this region tell Mongabay they have heard the municipal authorities telling people to “take land” and “not to be stupid,” especially in Meta, Guaviare and Caquetá. And the dissidence of the FARC is not far behind. According to them, they distribute land as if they were the owners and masters of the Amazon; an “opportunity” difficult to miss, considering that the strategy of some landowners has for years been to take over the land by buying it from settlers at very low prices and then legalizing it before a judge.

Thus, according to the Superintendence of Notaries and Registry, more than 6,720 square kilometers (2,600 square miles) have been legalized in the country.

For this reason, what is happening in the Amazon is not uncommon. According to different inhabitants of the region, especially from San José del Guaviare, large investors are coming to buy land so that the villagers will be able to colonize further and expand the agricultural frontier. They say there are entire localities of 150 square kilometers (58 square miles) or more that have been bought by one person. Some places like San Lucas have empty schools and health clinics.

The lands in this region are being taken for several reasons.

First, landowners know that these properties could increase in value if the government develops roads such as La Marginal de la Selva (between Macarena, in Meta, and San José, in Guaviare) and the Calamar-Miraflores road (also in Guaviare). Second, more value would be added if the so-called Zones of Interest for Rural, Economic and Social Development, better known as the Zidres — an initiative by the government that seeks to promote development in the countryside — are developed. And third, these territories are suitable for agriculture, livestock, fishing and forestry. However, they are far from urban centers, they have low population density, and they have limited infrastructure.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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