The Shifting Contours of Colombia’s Armed Conflict

The complexities of the armed conflict in Colombia's drug-producing region of Catatumbo are set to garner greater attention from both the Colombian military and the media. This is underscored by the fact that in addition to the presence of the EPL, FARC, and ELN guerrilla forces, the region is also host to the neo-paramilitary organizations Los Rastrojos and Los Urabeños.

February 10, 2012


In November 2011, the Colombian military achieved one of its greatest successes when it killed Alfonso Cano, the supreme commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in the southwestern department of Cauca. Cano was quickly replaced by secretariat member Timoleon “Timochenko” Jiménez. With Timochenko believed to be operating in the northeastern department of Norte de Santander, in a remote, drug-producing area known as the Catatumbo region, the primary focus of Colombia’s military operations shifted northward. This part of Colombia is unique because, in addition to the FARC, two other guerrilla groups—the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the People’s Liberation Army (EPL)—operate here.

Colombian soldiers (credit: Garry Leech)
Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos replaced Minister of Defense Rodrigo Rivera in August 2011 amid concerns that the country’s security situation was deteriorating due to an increasing number of attacks against the military and police by leftist guerrillas. Ironically, it was not an attack by the FARC that constituted the last straw for President Santos, but rather the killing of five police officers by the relatively obscure EPL. The killings occurred when the EPL ambushed a police patrol in the Catatumbo region on the border between the northern departments of Cesar and Norte de Santander.

With the promotion of Timochenko to supreme commander of the FARC, the complexities of the conflict in the Catatumbo region will inevitably garner greater attention from both the Colombian military and the media. Those complexities are highlighted by the fact that, in addition to the presence of the EPL, FARC, and ELN, the region is also host to the neo-paramilitary organizations Los Rastrojos and Los Urabeños.


AUC paramilitaries (credit: Garry Leech)
In December 2004, the Catatumbo Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) demobilized under an agreement signed with the government of President Álvaro Uribe. The Catatumbo Bloc was created in the late 1990s when several local paramilitary groups merged and were then incorporated into the AUC. The leader of the Bloc was Salvatore Mancuso, who would later also become the head of the AUC. The Bloc’s objective was to gain control over Norte de Santander, which had been dominated by the FARC’s 33rd Front for decades. The Bloc quickly made its presence felt in 1999 with the massacre of 20 people in La Gabarra in the municipality of Tibú. Over the next five years, the group, in collusion with the Colombian Army, waged a campaign of terror in its effort to cleanse the region of guerrillas. During this period, more than 5,000 people were killed, over 200 were disappeared and some 40,000 forcibly displaced.1

The Catatumbo Bloc was killing so many people that government officials working in collusion with the paramilitaries pressured the militia group into concealing the magnitude of the violence it was perpetrating. According to Mancuso, the Bloc began building large ovens in order to incinerate the bodies of its victims. The first oven was constructed in 2001 and 98 corpses were cremated. Hundreds more bodies were incinerated during the ensuing years.2 Meanwhile, at the same time that the Catatumbo Bloc was waging its dirty war in Norte de Santander, it was also consolidating its control over drug trafficking activities in the region. Coca cultivation was abundant in the remote rural zones and it has been estimated that the value of the cocaine produced in the Catatumbo region amounts to $8 million a week.3

When the Catatumbo Bloc demobilized at the end of 2004, control over the region’s drug production and trafficking fell into the hands of those paramilitaries who refused to participate in the demobilization process. Within a couple of years, these former AUC fighters had formed a group known as the Black Eagles. Meanwhile, another neo-paramilitary group called Los Rastrojos had been formed in southwestern Colombia by former AUC fighters and ex-members of the Norte de Valle drug trafficking cartel. Los Rastrojos quickly expanded their presence throughout the country from six departments in 2008 to 22 two years later.4

The group arrived in Norte de Santander in 2009 and the relative peace that the region had enjoyed following the demobilization of the AUC was shattered. The number of murders soared that year as Los Rastrojos sought to violently displace the Black Eagles and seize control of the region’s lucrative drug producing and trafficking operations. The principal town in the Catatumbo region, Ocaña, experienced 40 selective assassinations in 2009, according to Captain Sergio Jiménez of the local detachment of the National Police. The number of killings in Ocaña halved the following year due to an increased presence of state security forces and the fact that Los Rastrojos had succeeded in their quest to defeat the Black Eagles and become the dominant neo-paramilitary group in the region. Ultimately, many members of the Eagles switched sides and joined the ranks of the newly dominant group. During this period, members of another neo-paramilitary group, Los Urabeños, originally formed in northwestern Colombia, also established a presence in the northern part of the Catatumbo region and in the department of Cesar. Many of the local members of Los Urabeños are former fighters from the AUC’s Northern Bloc.

Because the new groups appear to be primarily focused on controlling drug trafficking operations and, unlike the AUC, have not engaged in extensive counter-insurgency actions against the guerrillas, the Colombian government has refused to recognize them as paramilitary organizations. Instead, it has labeled them bandas criminales (BACRIM), or criminal bands, claiming that they have no political agenda. There are, however, certain commonalities beyond drug trafficking between groups such as Los Rastrojos and their AUC predecessors. Los Rastrojos maintain a similar collusion with state security forces as that enjoyed by the AUC, which is not surprising given the fact that many of the group’s members are former AUC fighters. Two former members of Los Rastrojos, who killed the group’s leader in July before surrendering to the police, handed over documents detailing payments made by the group to state security forces. According to the documents, in the three month period between October 2010 and January 2011, Los Rastrojos paid half a million dollars to members of the Colombian military, the DAS intelligence agency, and the National Police.5

While the Ocaña Defensoria del Pueblo, a government human rights office, has not received any official complaints of complicity between the state security forces and Los Rastrojos, many local residents in the Catatumbo region have little doubt that such collusion exists. However, fear of the group prevents many from speaking out because, as one Ocaña resident noted, “Los Rastrojos have eyes everywhere. They are no different than the Self-Defense Forces before them. It’s the same people.” In fact, Los Rastrojos have utilized the same tactics of intimidation as those used by the AUC. The group has issued death threats against those who oppose it and has waged a campaign of “social cleansing,” targeting so-called undesirables. The group has distributed pamphlets in the region, one of which contains the image of a hand holding a gun, that threaten to “cleanse” communities of “homosexuals and people who don’t have a good image.” The pamphlet also warned “youth who wear earrings and long hair” to disappear “because the order is to cut their ears and kill them with a machete” so that “people understand how to be normal men.”


On August 26, 2011, five members of the National Police were killed when their patrol was targeted by a roadside bomb. The attack occurred near the small town of Loma de González in southern Cesar, near the border with Norte de Santander. Many in the media automatically assumed that the ambush was perpetrated by the FARC, since the country had experienced an escalation in attacks by that rebel group over the previous year. As it turned out, however, the attack was carried out by a small leftist guerrilla group that Colombians rarely hear about and that most foreigners do not even know exists. The Catatumbo region constitutes the only zone of operations in the country for the several hundred fighters that belong to the EPL. While much of the focus of the Colombian military’s counter-insurgency campaign under the democratic security strategy has been on the FARC, the EPL has survived largely unscathed over the past decade.

The EPL was formed in 1965 and had grown to a force of 3,000 fighters operating across northern Colombia and parts of the southwest by the end of the 1980s. Most members of the guerrilla group demobilized in 1991, but a dissident faction, the Libardo Moro Tora Front, led by Francisco Caraballo, continued to fight. Since Caraballo’s capture by the military in 1994, Victor Navarro, also known as “Megateo,” has led the group, which has gained significant support among the peasant population in the Catatumbo region. Meanwhile, many demobilized EPL fighters later joined the AUC and, fifteen years later, former EPL members would be involved in establishing both Los Rastrojos and Los Urabeños.

Megateo and his fighters are responsible for the killing of hundreds of Colombian soldiers and police over the past two decades. The EPL’s biggest military success occurred in April 2006 when the group killed seven soldiers and ten investigators from the DAS intelligence agency in an ambush near Hacarí in Norte de Santander. The attack made Megateo one of the most wanted men in Colombia and a $1 million reward was offered for information leading to his capture or death. In July 2008, DAS operatives finally captured Megateo and his bodyguard. But days later the EPL leader mysteriously escaped from the vehicle that was transporting him to Cúcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander. Just as mysteriously, his bodyguard escaped from prison in Cúcuta shortly thereafter. It is widely believed that members of the DAS who were on Megateo’s payroll orchestrated the escape of both the guerrilla leader and his bodyguard. It is also believed that informers within the intelligence agency had provided Megateo with information about the military convoy containing DAS agents that the EPL ambushed in Hacarí.

The EPL controls large swaths of territory in the mountainous Catatumbo region where coca is the principal crop. With no state presence and insufficient infrastructure to allow peasants to transport perishable food crops to distant markets, coca is the only viable cash crop in the region. According to Captain Sergio Jiménez of the National Police, the EPL and the other guerrilla groups fund themselves through coca cultivation and the production of cocaine base, most of which they sell to Los Rastrojos. The neo-paramilitary group then processes the base into cocaine hydrochloride and traffics the finished product out of the country.

Part of the EPL’s popular support in the countryside is rooted in the rebel group’s efforts to ensure that the basic needs of peasants are met. This peasant support for the EPL has made it very difficult for the military to conduct effective operations against the rebel group in the remote and rugged Catatumbo region. While the ELN and the FARC also operate in this remote part of Colombia, according to the military and many locals, they have limited military capacity here and it is the EPL that poses the greatest threat to the state.

FARC guerrillas (credit: Garry Leech)
While the FARC has recently returned to more conventional guerrilla warfare by operating in small units and utilizing hit-and-run tactics against the military, the EPL has always relied on such an approach. In addition to the August ambush that killed five police officers, the EPL engaged in several other attacks during 2011, including targeting the police station in San Calixto in June and ambushing a police patrol near the town of Convención in February. The EPL not only engages in military operations against the Colombian Armed Forces, it also targets local political leaders. Carlos Picón, mayor of Convención, has received death threats from the EPL, which claims that his government is mired in corruption. As a result, Picón is shadowed everywhere he goes by a personal bodyguard armed with a sub-machine gun. Picón is hoping to avoid the fate of his father, who was assassinated by the EPL in 1994 when he was mayor of the town.

Interestingly, unlike the situation a decade ago when the AUC paramilitaries and the guerrillas were arch enemies, there has been little or no conflict in the region between any of the guerrilla groups and Los Rastrojos or Los Urabeños. Similarly, while the FARC and ELN would occasionally fight each other in the past, these two groups have also begun cooperating with each other. The relatively peaceful co-existence between the guerrilla groups and the neo-paramilitary organizations underscores the crucial difference between Los Rastrojos and the old AUC with regard to counter-insurgency objectives. In short, the AUC fought the guerrillas on ideological grounds and for control over coca-growing regions. In contrast, Los Rastrojos and Los Urabeños have so far been content to let the guerrillas control coca cultivation in the countryside while they dominate in the larger towns and handle the more lucrative trafficking end of the drug business.

Whether or not this cooperation will continue as the neo-paramilitary groups gain strength and become capable of competing militarily with the guerrillas remains to be seen. Already, in the past year, members of Los Rastrojos have begun wearing combat fatigues and patrolling hamlets in rural Convención municipality in a shift reminiscent of the AUC’s more militaristic demeanor. The neo-paramilitary group has introduced curfews and other restrictions on the movements and behaviors of the local population. Such a militaristic expansion into the countryside will almost certainly place strains on the alliance between Los Rastrojos and the EPL and the other two guerrilla groups.


In 2008, the bodies of 19 young men were discovered in the municipalities of Ocaña and Cimitarra. These discoveries quickly sparked the “false positives” scandal, which has become one of Colombia’s most shameful violations of human rights of the past decade. Shortly after discovering the bodies, it was revealed that eleven young men who had disappeared from the poor neighborhood of Soacha in southern Bogotá were among the corpses. These men had been offered jobs in northern Colombia and provided with transportation to Norte de Santander. Upon their arrival they were handed over to the army, which executed them and passed them off as guerrillas killed in combat. One Ocaña resident claims to have been responsible for delivering more than 30 newly arrived young men to the army’s Santander Battalion and the 15th Mobile Brigade to be killed.6

Colombia’s Attorney General’s office is currently investigating 1,666 cases of extrajudicial executions perpetrated by more than 400 soldiers in more than half of Colombia’s 32 departments as part of the “false positives” phenomenon.7 One of the motivating factors for such systemic human rights abuses was the Colombian military’s “body count” policy, under which battlefield success against leftist guerrillas was measured by the number of rebels killed in combat. Declassified U.S. documents make evident that CIA and U.S. Embassy officials in Colombia were aware of this policy as early as 1994 and three years later learned that it was contributing to human rights abuses by officers eager to gain promotion.8

While the false positives phenomenon had been in effect for decades, it intensified dramatically under the Uribe government (2002-2010) due to incentives provided to military officers who achieved high body counts. These incentives included extra leave, promotions and cash rewards as high as $2,000 for dead guerrillas. Furthermore, military units that failed to achieve high body counts were criticized by the Uribe government.9

The intensification of extra-judicial executions also illustrates how the Colombian military’s direct role in human rights abuses has increased since the AUC’s demobilization process. Those civilians executed and passed off as guerrillas killed in combat not only consisted of young men from poor urban neighborhoods throughout the country, but also of people engaged non-violently in the struggle for social change who were viewed as “subversives” by the military. Ultimately, during President Uribe’s first term in office (2002-2006), the state’s direct role in human rights abuses increased dramatically from 17% to 56% of all violations.10

According to the Catatumbo Peasant Association (ASCAMCAT), the army and police routinely harass and detain peasants in the municipality of Convención and accuse them of being guerrillas. More than a dozen peasants were killed in the region in 2011, with five of the deaths occurring in a single month. It is not clear who is responsible for the rash of killings in the past year, but they have also coincided with the encroachment of Las Rastrojos into the rural regions of Catatumbo.

The increased militarization of the Catatumbo region has established security for corporations seeking to engage in oil exploration, mining, and the cultivation of African palm. The region has a history of the Colombian military defending the interests of oil companies. In 2000, three indigenous U’wa children died when Colombian police broke up a road blockade intended to prevent trucks belonging to Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum from reaching the exploration site. Two years later, Occidental abandoned the project before it extracted any oil due to the international campaign waged in solidarity with the U’wa.

The region is once again under threat from corporations and a military intent on protecting corporate interests. In September 2011, ASCAMCAT issued a communiqué claiming that the “army’s presence in Catatumbo does not seem to guarantee the security or integrity of the people who inhabit this region; on the contrary, coupled with the presence of paramilitary groups who spread fear in the community so that people can no longer move freely on the roads, those belonging to the armed forces . . . intimidate and accuse people of belonging to guerrilla groups.” The communiqué went on to declare that the “military bases in the area protect the interests of multinational companies that only prevent regional development and increase violence and displacement.”

In November 2010, hundreds of peasants occupied the municipal offices in Convención and in two other towns in the Catatumbo region to protest the human rights abuses as well as the aerial and manual eradication of coca crops. The police responded with force in the three towns, wounding 25 of the protesters. Undeterred, thousands of peasants marched to the departmental capital Cúcuta one week later and demanded that the national government address the human rights abuses perpetrated by the military in the Catatumbo region. Once again, the peasants demanded that the government suspend its coca eradication operations while ASCAMCAT formulates and implements a pilot alternative crop project. The government relented and there were no coca eradication operations in the Catatumbo region during 2011. However, the continued killing of peasants during this period illustrates how the human rights situation for the rural population has not improved.

In conclusion, while the contours of Colombia’s brutal armed conflict have shifted, both the conflict and its brutality remain.



Garry Leech is an independent journalist and author of numerous books including Capitalism: A Structural Genocide (Zed Books, Forthcoming, May 2012); The FARC: The Longest Insurgency (Zed Books, 2011); and Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia (Beacon Books, 2009). He is also the director of the Centre for International Studies and a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Cape Breton University.



1. C.L. Smith, “Colombia: Demobilized Paramilitaries Back in Action,” Latin America Bureau, April 20, 2011.

2. “Colombian Militia Boss: We Burned Hundreds of Bodies,” Latin American Herald Tribune, April 30, 2009.

3. C.L. Smith, “Colombia: Demobilized Paramilitaries Back in Action,” Latin America Bureau, April 20, 2011.

4. Camilo González Posso, “V Informe sobre narcoparamilitares en 2010,” INDEPAZ, March 15, 2011.

5. “los uniformados en la nómina del narco alias ‘Sebastián,’ ” El Tiempo, August 11, 2011.

6. “I Handed Over More Than 30 Young Men as False Positives,” Semana, March 24, 2009.

7. Rachel Godfrey-Wood, “Understanding Colombia’s False Positives,” Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, July 14, 2009.

8. Michael Evans, “ ‘Body Count Mentalities’: Colombia’s ‘False Positives’ Scandal, Declassified,” National Security Archive, January 7, 2009.

9. Rachel Godfrey-Wood, “Understanding Colombia’s False Positives,” Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, July 14, 2009.

10. Adam Isacson, “CINEP: Colombia’s Conflict is Far from Over,” Center for International Policy, April 10, 2008.



For more on Colombia, see the July/August 2009 NACLA Report, "Coercion Incorporated: Paramilitary Colombia" or NACLA's weekly blog "Colombian Cuadernos."


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