By Verdad Abierta, 2019, (“‘Narcos’ mexicanos en Colombia: lo que se especula y lo que se sabe”), 28 January 2019, Verdad Abierta, Semana Magazine
Translated by Daniel Edgar exclusively for SouthFront
There are many rumours circulating throughout the country about the presence of Mexican cartels in Colombia. However, focusing exclusively on their continuous presence can be misleading and prevents us from understanding exactly what it is that they do in Colombia, what they do not do, and where they are located.
Were members of the Mexican cartels involved in negotiating a truce between armed groups towards the end of last year in Tumaco, as speculated by the inhabitants of this port city on the Colombian South Pacific coast? Is it true that drug traffickers from Mexico are stoking the fires of war in Antioquia’s Lower Cauca region and southern Córdoba, the current scenario of one of the toughest armed confrontations in the country? Do they really control cocaine laboratories and trafficking routes in the Catatumbo region, protected by armed personnel and the use of violence?
Although the Attorney General of the Nation, Néstor Humberto Martínez, pointed out in January 2018 that the presence of Mexican drug traffickers has been detected in at least 10 provinces of Colombia, it is also true that there are more gaps in our knowledge than verified facts, which is why the answers to these questions are so varied and generalized. A discussion of how their presence is manifested in the country requires detailed analysis taking into account the particular characteristics of each region.
VerdadAbierta.com conducted an exploratory study in several regions of the country where they interviewed community leaders and a variety of experts in organized crime and violence about what Mexican cartels do and do not do in Colombia and their interests and activities in the country, in order to obtain a more clear and balanced panorama of a phenomenon that has been the subject of lively debate in recent years.
Is their presence real?
Both the Attorney General of the Nation (left) and the current Minister of Defence (right) have recognized the presence of Mexican ‘drug traffickers’ in at least 10 provinces throughout the country.
In addition to the public statements made by the Attorney General of the Nation and the current Minister of Defence, Guillermo Botero, about the presence of members of Mexican drug trafficking cartels in at least 10 Colombian provinces, there are also several reports issued by the System of Early Warning (SAT) unit of the Ombudsman’s Office.
In recent years, the early warning unit has recorded on several occasions the concerns expressed by communities on account of the presence of foreign citizens, particularly Mexicans, in territories where coca leaf cultures converge with illicit use and the actions of illegal armed groups, and where the levels of homicidal violence have registered alarming increases.
The most recent example is the Early Warning of Imminent Risk report No. 006-19 promulgated on 23 January 2019, in which the agency warns of an imminent risk to the safety and human rights of Indigenous and farming communities living in rural areas of the municipality of Jamundí, Valle del Cauca. On January 11, four people were massacred in the San Antonio district of this town, in events that are still being investigated by the judicial and police authorities.
Although the initial investigations point to disputes between criminal structures that are suspected of operating in that part of the Cauca Valley, the Ombudsman’s Office also states in its Alert that “to this complex presence of armed groups in the area are added the reiterated versions referring to visits by foreign subjects ‘with a strange accent, like the accent of the people in the Mexican television shows’, according to comments by the inhabitants in the region with whom they have interacted.”
Ten months ago, in its Early Warning of 027-18 of 5 March 2018 for the municipality of Tarazá, Bajo Cauca, Antioquia, the office recorded the presence of local and international ‘narcos’ (particularly Mexicans) associated with criminal structures from Medellín and its neighbouring municipalities, seeking to take control of the entire drug production and trafficking chain in this vast region, considered the heartland of Antioquia coca growers. Following the departure of the FARC guerrillas from the war scene, these groups are attempting to control the drug trade from the crops and the production of base paste, to local distribution and markets as well as exporting the finished product to other regions.
“Thus, groups that did not have many resources to finance their expansion have probably been strengthened by the entry of external funds that have made an important contribution to the persistence and aggravation of violent conflict, especially in the case of successor structures of paramilitary groups such as the ‘Gaitanist Self-Defence Forces of Colombia’ (AGC)”, states the SAT…
Only a couple of months after this warning, the Ombudsman’s Office issued the 045-18 Early Warning, requesting 23 local, regional and national entities to take urgent measures to protect the inhabitants of Santa Marta and Ciénaga (in the province of Magdalena) and Dibulla (in La Guajira), due to developments indicating the possibility of an imminent threat to their safety and human rights.
Although the main risk described in the Alert is related to the expansion of armed groups that are successors of the paramilitaries, the Ombudsman’s SAT also points out that “for some time, community leaders of the Municipal Victims Participation Tables have been talking about the presence and activities of a group known as ‘Los Mexicanos’ in Dibulla and on the Carretera Troncal del Caribe which is apparently related to the Sinaloa Cartel. However, no other source has provided information that there are people from the Mexican drug cartels operating in the region.” In this regard, the Ombudsman’s Office said that it appears that the Sinaloa Cartel “has an alliance with the AGC to take possession of properties and encourage the commercialization of coca.”
A similar warning was made by the state entity on 14 January 2018. Through Early Warning No. 005-18 for Tierralta, Córdoba, the SAT described a risk scenario for rural communities in this municipality located in the foothills of Paramillo. The report noted: “The expansion of the Gaitanist Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AGC), which, faced with the apparent absence of opposition from other armed actors, is attempting to consolidate its control over the territory, the population and the illegal economies in the rural area of the municipality. In areas where the fronts 5, 18 and 58 of the FARC acted, illegal armed groups are now appearing with different denominations such as ‘Grupo de los JJ’ or as members of the National Liberation Army (ELN, Ejército de Liberación Nacional, the last remaining substantial armed insurgent group), demanding extortion payments from local residents and claiming to be financed by the Mexican cartel from Sinaloa”.
Although these accounts have been collected by the analysts of the SAT in which the specific tasks undertaken by the alleged Mexican ‘narcos’ are not detailed, it is worth noting that, according to the Penitentiary and Prison Institute (Inpec) to date there are 1,249 foreign citizens held in different prisons in the country. Of these, 800 are Venezuelans, being the nationality with the largest number of detainees, followed by Ecuadorians (141) and Mexicans (67). The data also indicate that 42 per cent of the foreigners (529) have been detained for crimes related to trafficking, manufacturing or carrying narcotics.
An old presence
In Tumaco, according to consulted sources, emissaries of the Mexican cartels (Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generación) have been negotiating the purchase of cocaine hydrochloride. Said money is probably financing dissident groups in the region.
Although all the indications suggest that the presence of Mexican ‘narcos’ in Colombia is real, “it is not, in any case, a new presence or a recent phenomenon,” as Juan Carlos Garzón, director of the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP), a research centre based in Bogotá, commented. According to Garzón, “this is a long-standing phenomenon that has been transformed by the changing realities within Colombia itself.”
According to the researcher, Tumaco is a clear example. During the nineteen eighties, the port town on the southern Colombian Pacific coast was controlled by the former Cali Cartel. From there, hundreds of cocaine shipments were sent to Central America, operations in which Mexican labour was indispensable.
But, after the fall of the ‘narco’ empire of the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers and the fragmentation of the successor cartels, the intense war unleashed between guerrillas and paramilitary blocs and the subsequent positioning of the FARC in the territory led the Mexican organizations to become more involved in the dynamics of the region in order to secure merchandise to supply a market that they had managed to conquer – the US. Hence, since the end of the nineties, there have been persistent rumours about the presence of drug traffickers from Mexico as on-site coordinators of drug shipments to Central and North America.
“And of course, the departure of the FARC changes the rules of the game,” continues the researcher. “Today there is a void in the organization of the market and the Mexican cartels have gained greater visibility because what they previously solved with the FARC, they now have to deal with several groups in the same area, making several transactions and accommodating themselves to a new scenario”.
In a visit to Tumaco in August 2018, the police authorities confirmed to VerdadAbierta.com that, up until that time, at least four Mexican citizens, two Guatemalans and eighty Ecuadorians had been arrested for crimes related to trafficking, manufacturing or carrying narcotics.
“Although what it proves is that the presence, at least in the South Pacific, of members of the Mexican cartels has a more entrepreneurial character, that is, they are more like emissaries than controlling local production and trade directly,” says Kyle Johnson, analyst at the International Crisis Group organization.
The broad knowledge he has of the region allows Johnson to affirm that “the presence in Colombia of Mexican cartels, with armed people, controlling territories as such, is not seen, at least on the South Pacific coast. But you do often hear that there are people who work for the cartels, that there are emissaries of the Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generación cartels in the territory. Much of the drug money that moves in Tumaco is handled from Cali. So, there is a lot of talk about the emissaries and it is a role for entrepreneurs”.
The money that these emissaries of the Mexican cartels are moving would be, in Johnson’s opinion, the money that is probably financing the war that has been fought with fury in the South Pacific region and that had a brief respite at the end of last year.
“It is said in the area that the Mexicans exercised their influence to negotiate a truce, because they do not want to ‘heat up’ the business as they say. There are no certainties of that, but the truth is that the participation of Mexicans serves to finance the war between the groups. Mexicans act as entrepreneurs, but the fact that they provide the money also gives them a certain influence in the business. If they remove the money the armed groups would lose the main source of their strength,” the analyst concluded.
It appears that the Mexican cartels have adopted a similar modus operandi in other parts of the country, such as in Catatumbo (in the province of Norte de Santander), the region with the second largest presence of coca cultivation in Colombia. People that we interviewed who know the region well (and who asked that their identity be withheld), stated that emissaries of Mexican ‘narcos’ are in the zone with the sole intention of negotiating the purchase of cocaine hydrochloride.
“We have talked with people in the region and what they tell us is that the Mexicans do not intend to fight with anyone. Everyone is happy, everyone is doing business. Then, the money keeps flowing in the region and they do not need to kill or disappear people, they do not need that. Of course, the money of the Mexicans is financing the conflict in Catatumbo, but because they are buying from all of the illegal armed groups with a significant presence here: the EPL, the dissidence of the FARC, the ELN,” one of the sources consulted by VerdadAbierta.com said.
In his opinion, their presence is not new: “The Zetas were in Catatumbo in 2011-2012. They sent the money and here, local drug dealers picked up the merchandise and sent it, but that did not work for them because the people they bought the drugs from often sent bad merchandise. What happened then is that they began to send emissaries who distributed money and assumed commitments directly”.
The previous dynamic appears to have been reactivated in recent years, which has led to the municipalities of Catatumbo experiencing a new coca bonanza. “Until recently,” says the source consulted, “the farmers kept the pasta-base under the bed because there was no one to buy it, because the guerrillas, the main buyers, owed money to everyone. Then, the Mexicans arrived and reinvigorated the market; now, there is all the money they want, they buy pasta-base with ‘constant and sound’ cash and as if that were not enough, they even increased the price”.
It’s not just coca
There is no doubt that the activity of drug trafficking in Colombia has been profoundly transformed in recent years. In the new scenario, the Mexican cartels could have a greater presence and participation in the country.
What analysts agree about is that, although there is still no definitive proof regarding the armed presence of Mexican cartels in Colombia or their direct impact on the armed conflicts that are taking place in different regions of the country (by directly supporting a particular armed group), it is possible to affirm that the domestic markets related to drug production and trafficking are being revitalized on account of the substantial amounts of capital that the cartels’ representatives are supplying.
“Why are the Mexicans so interested in Colombia? Well basically they are interested in maintaining the supply and directly controlling the final quality of the product because in the past they were sent a lot of material of low purity”, says Daniel Rico, director of G-Analysis, who adds that “you also have to look at how they are investing the money they bring into other illegal activities such as mining, for example. They have money to move, to invest, and in that sense, they could be investing in other activities.”
According to Rico, “the drug trafficking business in Colombia has changed a lot in recent years. Before, to process and export a certain amount of cocaine, practically an army was needed. Today this is not the case. Small groups are able to offer acceptable amounts of cocaine and that is being used by the emissaries of the Mexican cartels, who are finding a diversity of suppliers and buying from all of them.”
Garzón, of the FIP, supports this reasoning, maintaining that after the disappearance of the high profile drug cartels the production of alkaloids has been atomized, favouring the emergence of small local ‘narcos’ that remain in the shadows, capable of negotiating certain quantities of cocaine, even with Mexican emissaries, who do not need an army to back them up and exert violence only if necessary.
In this regard, there are two examples that illustrate Garzón’s analysis. One of them is alias ‘Montero’, from the municipality of Barbosa, Antioquia, who has contacts with criminal groups in Medellín such as ‘Los Triana’. Judicial sources indicate that he was the owner of a shipment of 700 kilos of cocaine that was seized by authorities in January 2017 at the El Progreso farm in Barbosa, owned by the University of Antioquia. His presence has also been noticed in the centres of coca production in Bajo Cauca, Antioquia.
The other example is alias ‘the Accountant’, who is said to be the true ‘patron’. Although the prosecutor Martínez declared in the middle of last year that alias ‘the Accountant’ is the one who is financing the drug trafficking activities in Tumaco, little is known about him. His identity is an enigma, as well as his intentions in the war being waged in the South Pacific region. Sources consulted by VerdadAbieerta.com in the port town of Nariño warn that it would be a powerful drug trafficker who is financing groups in the urban area and looking for alliances with other organizations in the rural area, where there are more than 23 thousand hectares of coca leaf cultivated throughout the municipality.