This article, written by James Bargent, was originally published by Insight Crime, a Medellín-based foundation dedicated to the investigation and analysis of crime and security in Colombia and Latin America.
Reports of the growing influence of Mexican cartels over criminal groups and drug trafficking in Colombia are raising questions about what role Mexican organized crime is taking in the post-FARC criminal underworld.
“There, the Sinaloa Cartel is supposedly involved, financing the gangs and the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces [the Urabeños],” Negret said.
Photo: This drug lab in Caqueta, Colombia, was producing coca paste before being busted by the Colombian military. (Photo credit: Comando General de las Fuerzas Militares)
The claim was supported by local community leaders, who told Semana magazine that they were being terrorized by a group comprised of elements of the now demobilized guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), who had told communities they were financed by the Sinaloans.
According to the leaders, the armed group forced three members of the local community councils to leave because they supported the coca crop substitution program — a central part of the peace deal with the FARC.
The alleged displacement was the latest in a line of violent actions targeting local communities in the region, and followed the massacre of three people in early January 2018, and the abduction and murder of two community leaders in December. All incidents were linked to the Urabeños working in conjunction with ex-FARC fighters and commanders to occupy former FARC territories and sabotage the coca substitution program, according to a report by Verdad Abierta.
Semana’s investigation, however, claims that the financing of criminal groups is only part of the Mexicans’ strategy. An anonymous anti-narcotic police source told the magazine that the Mexicans are increasingly looking to cut out intermediaries from the drug trade by dealing directly with the territorial actors that control production zones, internal trafficking networks and dispatch points. Among those they have sought to build such direct relationships with are the ex-FARC mafia groups emerging in southwest Colombia, Semana reported.
The notion of the Mexicans seeking to take a more active role in the supply chain was later supported by comments, reported by newspaper El Tiempo, made by Colombian Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez, who claimed the cartels are also seeking to take direct control of cocaine production.
“The Mexican cartels have started acquiring coca plantations in Colombia,” he said. “We have captured agronomists and engineers from this country who are improving laboratories and the productivity of the plants.”
El Tiempo also cited an anonymous police source that stated that the Sinaloa Cartel had set up “offices” to coordinate trafficking activities in six Colombian cities: Tumaco, Cali, Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cartagena and Medellín. According to the source, there are up to five people working in each of these offices. One of these is sent to processing laboratories to check the purity of shipments, another is in charge of cash payments, and the others coordinate logistics and bribes.
The source added that the reason for the Mexicans’ growing presence in Colombia was a mix of the unreliability of their Colombian partners and opportunism.
“They got tired of local narcos robbing them or not delivering shipments that had already been paid for,” he told the newspaper. “Also, the Mexicans are taking advantage of the power vacuum in the Colombian mafia. As well as the [Medellin Mafia] Oficina de Envigado, the other big structure the Gulf Clan [the Urabeños] is having an internal war and some members are in the process of surrendering.”
The notion that underworld dynamics are directing the Mexicans’ strategy was also voiced by a source from the other side of the criminal divide in an anonymous El Espectador interview with a Medellín drug trafficker.
According to the trafficker, the Mexicans began arriving in 2012 in an attempt to bring order to an underworld torn apart by conflicts that had disrupted the supply of cocaine. This helped establish a period of relative stability with the Sinaloa Cartel, which was working closely with both the Urabeños and the Oficina de Envigado as well as running its own trafficking routes.
However, this was disrupted in December 2017 by the ambitions of the recently captured leader of the Oficina de Envigado, Juan Carlos Mesa Vallejo, alias “Tom.” The trafficker told El Espectador that Tom was unhappy with arrangements so had opened up new trafficking routes cutting out both the Urabeños and the Sinaloa Cartel, and working instead with the Sinaloans‘ chief rivals, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG).
This conflict, he speculated, may have been behind Tom’s arrest in December.
“This is a fight between bosses, and it is clear that the bosses always fall because of a snitch. That is what we are seeing now in Medellín: war by treachery, now with Mexican involvement.”
However, he added, the Mexicans are not seeking to take over the Colombian underworld for themselves.
“It’s not that the Mexicans are in charge now, but what is true is that more and more you have to deal directly with them,” he said.
InSight Crime Analysis
There is little evidence and even less logic to the more hyperbolic claims that Mexican cartels are trying to take over the Colombian underworld. But there is no doubt that their presence and influence in the country has expanded rapidly in recent years, and they now appear to be developing new strategies for the post-FARC underworld.
Various Colombian conflict analysts, official sources consulted by InSight Crime, and the trafficker interviewed by El Espectador all concur that the Mexicans began taking a more direct role in drug trafficking in Colombia around 2012, a time when cocaine production levels had plummeted and the supply chain was disrupted by underworld conflicts.
Today, the Mexicans face new and very different challenges, which offer both risks and opportunities.
On one side, they are facing the loss of their most reliable trafficking partners: The FARC. The guerrilla group, which in some parts of the country worked directly with the Mexicans, has demobilized, while the Urabeños are wracked by a leadership crisis and local rebellions that likely signal the group’s end as a united national network.
In addition to seeking out new partners to replace these lost relationships, it is likely that the Mexicans are also taking a more hands-on role to ensure this instability does not affect product quality and the reliability of delivery. This is likely the reason behind the now permanent presence of Mexican representatives in Colombia to coordinate logistics and oversee production sites.
However, these upheavals also offer an opportunity for the Mexicans to cut out intermediaries in the drug trafficking chain and so maximize their profits.
In today’s Colombian underworld, cocaine production, internal trafficking, and dispatching are handled by local territorial groups, which normally control no more than one or two links in the supply chain. These different groups are commonly coordinated by Colombian drug traffickers, some of which are commanders of criminal groups such as the Urabeños or the FARC dissidents, while others are independent traffickers who use brokers to string together the different links of the supply chain.
If the Mexicans can establish direct relationships with the different territorial actors, working as their own brokers to build their supply chains, then they could break their dependence on the traffickers and increase their profits exponentially. This strategy would explain the reports of Mexicans financing local criminal groups, buying directly from production nodes and organizing their own international dispatches.
The reports about Mexican involvement in the Colombian underworld currently emerging suggest the cartels may well be pursuing both strategies concurrently. They are clearly still working closely with established traffickers, especially those in the cocaine trafficking hubs of Medellín and Urabá. However, in other regions, such as Nariño in the southwest, they appear to be cutting out the middlemen and working directly with territorial actors, above all with the emerging new ex-FARC mafia groups.
The strategy allows the Mexicans to hedge their bets. They can rely on Colombian actors’ contacts and expertise to maintain a steady supply of high-quality cocaine, while also exploring alternatives that not only offer them an insurance policy against renewed Colombian instability or the breakdown of relationships, but the potential to expand their own profits.
This article, written by James Bargent, was originally published by Insight Crime, a Medellín-based foundation dedicated to the investigation and analysis of crime and security in Colombia and Latin America. It has been reprinted with permission.