His luck ran out: drug lord Otoniel was captured near the border with Panama © Lou Linwei / Alamy Stock Photo

Colombia’s violent struggle for lasting peace

A peace deal should have consigned Colombia’s guerrilla conflict to history. But a new generation of armed groups has taken hold—and the country is stuck between the violence of old and new
June 16, 2022

In early May, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” was extradited to the United States from Colombia. Otoniel, one of the world’s most notorious drug traffickers and the leader of his country’s most powerful armed group, the Gulf Clan, was bundled onto a plane, bound for a courtroom in Brooklyn. 

With millions of dollars on his head and thousands of men on his tail, this capo had spent years eluding grandly named operations like “Agamemnon.” He was captured in October 2021 near the border with Panama by hundreds of soldiers and two dozen helicopters—though he later claimed it was a negotiated surrender. The Colombian president Iván Duque was jubilant, declaring it “the biggest blow against drug trafficking in our country this century” and adding that it was “only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar in the 1990s.”

Months later, as Otoniel boarded the plane and the president patted himself on the back, the Gulf Clan shut down an area the size of England. Millions were confined to their homes, 24 people were murdered and countless vehicles were burned on roads patrolled by Gulf Clan footmen. The shutdown lasted for 96 hours.

This summer, Duque will make way for a new president, who will inherit a country plagued by violence, armed groups, institutional corruption, gaping inequality and environmental crimes. Duque owns much of the mess that he leaves behind, having pitted short-termist militarised strategies against historic and deeply rooted troubles. 

In 2016, amid international applause and innumerable handshakes marking a celebrated peace agreement, Colombia’s war with the region’s oldest guerrilla group, the Farc, was consigned to history—supposedly closing a chapter that had bathed the country in violence, mass displacement and chaos for half a century. 

But Colombia’s kaleidoscope of cartels, paramilitaries and guerrillas has kept turning. Millions now live in a purgatory of occupation and conflict—in the half-decade since the peace agreement, Colombia has strayed far from the future that was envisaged. This new chapter is more complex than “narcos” versus police, or left-wing guerrillas versus far-right paramilitaries: armed groups have undergone a radical reconfiguration, with growing humanitarian consequences. These new forces exert extensive and violent territorial control across the country, and a denialist government’s half-decade failure to grapple with Colombia’s new-old reality has come at a devastating cost.

The four-day strike in May was a bolt of lightning on a dark night: the terrifying reality that many in Colombia are living every day was suddenly made visible. “It meant hunger for some of us, with no way to get food. The state did nothing, and as usual the people were left with the broken plates,” Beatriz (not her real name) tells me from northern Colombia, where the shutdown hit hard. 

Many say the army and police stood back.The government took days to emerge with an official statement, then said what they always say, and promised what they always promise: more boots on more ground, and more bounties on the heads of more leaders. 

“I don’t talk about post-conflict, only about post-peace agreement. This country has entered into the lie that we achieved peace,” says José Obdulio Espejo Muñoz, a retired colonel and commentator. It is also not entirely accurate to call it “the” peace agreement. There are several peace processes in place: some with guerrilla groups, others with paramilitaries and more with urban militias. This messy quilt of agreements is testament to the complex history of conflict in the country. 

Some argue that it began in the 1980s. Others say 1948, or the mid-19th century, or with colonisation itself. But the 20th century was host to the most violent chapters. The 1960s saw the formation of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Farc—a Marxist guerrilla group opposed to Colombia’s deep-rooted inequality, to a power-sharing agreement between political parties that precluded change, and to the intervention of foreign governments and corporations in the country’s politics.

With the putative aim of combatting the guerrillas, ultra-right-wing counter-insurgency paramilitaries, known as “self-defence forces,” arose in the 1980s. For a time they had state backing, but they soon outstripped even the leftist armies in their atrocities against civilians. 

As the military and paramilitaries clashed with the guerrillas, violence spiralled. Over 250,000 lives were lost and seven million people were displaced. In 2005, the biggest paramilitary group, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, signed a peace deal. When the agreement was struck with the Farc, optimists hoped for a new dawn. 

Yet these processes, while achieving some demobilisation, have spawned a chaos of legacy groups, including “narco-paramilitaries” like the Gulf Clan and numerous dissident Farc groups—those who didn’t sign up to the peace process or later abandoned it. The National Liberation Army, another Marxist guerrilla group formed in the 1960s, remains stuck in an all-but-failed set of peace negotiations with the state. 

When the Farc pulled out of its territories, other groups swept in and fought bloodily over them. The pandemic created an opportunity for victors to entrench their control. Armed groups are now present in over a third of Colombia’s territory, with as many as 90 criminal structures nationwide. Confrontations between them are at their highest peak since 2016. “We’re neither at peace nor at war—it’s an unfinished transition, a hybrid situation of conflict and organised crime,” says Jorge Mantilla, conflict expert at the Ideas for Peace think tank. 

Having fallen for nearly a decade, homicides are back at over 25.5 per 100,000 people, making Colombia one of the world’s most violent countries. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by clashes this year alone, and deaths from landmines are rising, amid a chilling number of massacres every month. Many indicators show that conflict is at levels closer to 2011—the midst of the civil war—than 2016.

President Iván Duque uses an old map to navigate a new era of violence © Long Visual Press / Alamy Stock Photo President Iván Duque uses an old map to navigate a new era of violence © Long Visual Press / Alamy Stock Photo

President Iván Duque uses an old map to navigate a new era of violence © Long Visual Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The armed groups exercise varying levels of social control in the territories they occupy—from curfews and protection rackets to para-judicial functions, punishing those who break their social codes. Crucially, however, the slow death of ideology among these groups has removed “ideological safeguards” on behaviour. Now more mercenary profiteers than political radicals, they capture and control—at the point of a gun—land exploited for cocaine production, trafficking and illegal gold mining. 

For some of the old generation, profit-making was a means to an end, funding a political struggle—today, the profit is the end in itself. “There is now not a single armed group in Colombia which has the objective of toppling the government: they are interested in safeguarding individual territories which are lucrative in the illicit economy,” says Elizabeth Dickinson, an analyst at International Crisis Group. “This is the fundamental change in the conflict—the groups active in Colombia today do not seek confrontation with the military; they try to avoid it. They instead try to control the population… [and] exert violence almost exclusively against civilians.” 

Though some gangs deploy political rhetoric, the tactics are about territory, not statehood, and they come down hard on those who threaten their hegemony: that can mean the murder of community leaders and local activists. Colombia accounts for more than a third of all murders of human rights defenders globally. Over 1,300 activists have been killed since the signing of the peace deal—and in a country with a population of just over 50m.

The current government has insisted on navigating this new landscape with an old map—and with strategies designed for the centralised, hierarchical structures of the guerrilla, paramilitary and cartel groups that dominated the previous chapters of conflict. Duque’s comparison of Otoniel to Escobar is telling: a monochrome, moralistic vision, with kingpins to be taken down, helps to justify his military approach. But the new generation are much more nebulous. Groups like the Gulf Clan are structured with strong regional leadership, franchises, “service providers” (services like murder or money laundering) and opportunistic, ad hoc partnerships. The more you squint to try and bring them into focus, the blurrier they become. 

Cocaine is still key. It not only sustains groups financially but also links them to the rest of the world, with a massive tonnage arriving in the US and Europe, often via Mexican and Brazilian cartels and with the close involvement of European gangs from the Italian ‘Ndrangheta to the Irish Kinahan clan. Cocaine is what has cemented the power of many these groups across the world, with 70 per cent of it coming from Colombia.

But the drugs trade is only one part of a tangled web in which inequality, territorial control, corruption and civil conflict are tightly woven together, kept alive by consumption of the drug in distant lands, as well as the vested interests of the political establishment and old elites.

Despite the complexity of the situation, security policy in Colombia seems blinded by the white. The ham-fisted prohibitionism of Colombia’s key ally, the US, also serves to bind the country into the rigid logic of the “War on Drugs.”

The peace agreement offered a better way. It had a structural vision: reducing rural poverty, helping farmers replace coca bushes with legal crops, delivering equitable access to land—breaking cycles of violence and reliance on the criminal economy. It was one of the most progressive peace agreements ever, with victims’ voices at the centre and restorative rather than retributive justice.

The agreement has not, however, been a feature of Duque’s government. He has been persistent in attempts to undermine and hamstring transitional institutions, budgets and ideas since winning the presidency in 2018. 

Instead, he devised a policy called “Peace with Legality”—effectively going back to the old approach of taking down leaders and ripping coca bushes out of the ground. In the new Colombia, groups replace leaders without skipping a beat, and coca bushes are re-planted as soon as the eradication squads have turned their backs. All the while, armed groups continue to expand their presence—and their cocaine production. Tens of thousands of coconuts bound for Europe, filled with liquid cocaine, were captured in January, while 31 “narco-submarines”—semi-submersibles that can carry up to five tonnes of cocaine paste across the ocean—were captured last year alone.

The peace agreement mandates the creation of institutions and services in places the state has never reached. Duque’s military-first approach means that for many, the only “state” they encounter are soldiers—a problematic way to build a democratic relationship between citizen and government, particularly in the context of Colombia’s history. 

“There’s a deficit of trust: in some places, the community consider the army just another armed group,” says Mantilla. This is, after all, the same military who kidnapped and murdered thousands of civilians, many of them young men from rural areas, then pretended these men had been guerrillas to boost their combat kill statistics. The same military who bombed children in a raid on rebels last year and massacred civilians in April, though the defence ministry doggedly maintains that the pregnant woman and the minor killed in the military operation were legitimate targets. This is the same military still routinely and credibly linked to the activities of armed groups—particularly the Gulf Clan. 

Otoniel might have been the world’s biggest narco (the US federal prosecutor called his cocaine export levels “outrageous”), but he was much more than that. There are over a hundred warrants for his arrest in Colombia, for crimes ranging from atrocities like the 1997 massacre in Mapiripán (chainsaws and machetes were used to kill 49 people) to child abuse and human trafficking. Like the Gulf Clan itself, Otoniel represents a fusion of legacies, forged over multiple phases of Colombia’s conflict. In his teens he joined a Maoist guerrilla group, but he was later an ultra-right-wing paramilitary and then recruited into the Gulf Clan by a former associate of Escobar’s cartel. He has navigated a web of corruption, criminality and atrocities for three decades, and for many years as a leader.

With this CV, many see the extradition of Otoniel as the extradition of historical truth: he holds the “Who’s Who” of Colombia’s worst excesses. He has an intimate knowledge of who has participated in, funded and benefitted from illicit activities, as well as who took part in some of the worst atrocities of the war. 

While Colombia’s supreme tribunal, the Council of State, tried to suspend his extradition so that he could finish testifying, the country’s Truth Commission, formed as part of the peace deal, announced that “many would sleep soundly” once Otoniel was gone. But they didn’t mean the millions who live under the occupation of the Gulf Clan. They were talking about Colombia’s elite. 

“This country has entered into the lie that we have achieved peace”

Otoniel had started to talk, sharing a list of around 60 names, including current and former officials, businessmen and members of Colombia’s political and military elite who had collaborated with the Gulf Clan as well as with the previous generation of paramilitaries. His attempts to co-operate with transitional justice bodies were beset by strange events, from police interruptions of hearings to the (still unsolved) robbery of tapes from a Truth Commission investigator’s home. By 5th May, Otoniel was on a plane to the US.

The decision was not just a travesty of historical justice: for many, it is deeply personal. “We just want to know the truth about our siblings and relatives, our disappeared and murdered—we don’t know where they ended up. Otoniel has a lot to tell conflict victims. We thought a miracle might happen, we thought they might listen, that we would get justice—but the whole ‘rotten pot’ of Colombian politics would have been exposed,” says Beatriz, who is part of a group of Otoniel’s victims who tried to suspend his extradition. “There’s no justice in this country. We aren’t even human to this government,” she adds.

Escobar reportedly proclaimed that he “would prefer a tomb in Colombia than a cell in the United States.” He got his wish, but for subsequent narcos and warlords, a cell in the US has been a good option: they serve short sentences there for co-operating with American investigations, as well as being allowed to hold on to some of their wealth—some even get to stay in the US once they’re out of prison. More than a thousand extradition requests have been made by the US from Colombia in the last decade: most are for drug-related crimes, and nearly all are approved. Once those men disappear across borders, much of the history they carry is lost to their countries of origin, and to their victims.

The kaleidoscope doesn’t show signs of stopping either: in late May, the commander of a wing of Farc dissidents, alias Gentil Duarte, was killed in Venezuela. Days later, an associate of Otoniel, alias Matamba, was killed by police, having escaped from a “high-security” prison in Bogotá in March. The camera footage shows him sauntering past checkpoints and right out of jail, wearing the uniform of a security guard. 

Duque’s failures have not gone unnoticed: he has had the worst approval ratings of any president since polls began. When he hands the country to a new president in August, they will have a lot of “broken plates” to sweep up: though Duque certainly did not inherit an easy situation, he’ll be passing on a pile of smashed promises, as well as structural issues he has tried to hide under the rug. 

As for those seeking justice, says Beatriz, “hope is what keeps us alive—but now Otoniel’s gone, it’s like they’ve thrown away the key to the chest.”