Pijarbey’s Story – Or Why is it so Hard to End Violence in Colombia?
Pijarbey’s Story – Or Why is it so Hard to End Violence in Colombia?

Pijarbey’s Story – Or Why is it so Hard to End Violence in Colombia?

When Martin Farfán was captured in December 2009, hopes were high that violence would fall in one of Colombia’s most dangerous regions. By that time, Farfán, alias “Pijarbey”, was second-in-command of the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC), a 700-strong illegal armed group that controlled drug trafficking and sowed terror in the country’s vast Eastern Plains.

Less than four years later, hopes have been dashed that his arrest would fundamentally change anything. It is now clear that the only way for the government to stop the violence is to complement its increasing law enforcement capacities with better policies to dismantle groups such as ERPAC, prevent their rearmament and protect victims.

When Pijarbey was arrested, all seemed to go according to plan, however. His detention drew widespread media attention, and police basked in their success, hailing the operation as one of the most important blows to organised crime in Colombia’s history. Pijarbey’s capture also marked the beginning of ERPAC’s decline. A year later, in December 2010, police killed Cuchillo (“Knife”), ERPAC´s notorious leader who had eluded authorities several times before, largely thanks to his contacts with security forces. In the same operation, police also captured Loco Harold, the group’s second-in-command at that time.

Without this trio, ERPAC was weakened. Caracho, who succeeded Cuchillo, could not maintain the group’s cohesion. He also quickly lost the backing of Loco Barrera, Colombia´s most powerful drug-trafficker, after ERPAC failed to protect a massive cocaine laboratory belonging to Barrera. The triumph for security forces seemed complete in December 2011 when Caracho turned himself in, facing the choice between being captured or killed. More than 270 fighters followed his example and laid down their arms. ERPAC’s demise seemed closer than ever.

Caracho’s surrender appeared to vindicate the government’s strategy in the fight against armed groups. ERPAC is one of five illegal armed groups that surged after right-wing paramilitaries demobilised in 2006. Since then they have become one of Colombia’s top security challenges. The groups, which the government insists are ordinary criminal groups , or “Bacrim” by their Spanish acronym – play a major role in the illicit drug economy and other organised criminal activities. But reflecting their paramilitary legacy, they have also been responsible for mass displacements, sexual violence and child recruitment, and benefit from close ties to regional and local elites as well as the security forces. President Juan Manuel Santos took tougher action, but until the ERPAC surrender, there was little evidence that the clampdown would truly weaken the groups.

But the surrender did not prove to be the last nail in ERPAC’s coffin, as the government had hoped. ERPAC members who did not turn themselves in simply re-organised in two competing armed groups. With a combined strength of 600 fighters, more than double the number of those who surrendered, these factions show no sign of cracking any time soon. One of these groups is led reportedly by somebody with an intimate knowledge of the Eastern Plains: Pijarbey. By coincidence, he was released in January 2012, just a month after Caracho had surrendered. Despite his importance and paramilitary past, he was sentenced to just four years for conspiracy and good behaviour in prison saw him released after three years. And when that day came, Pijarbey lost no time in returning to the Eastern Plains to claim back his place. A new cycle of violence had begun.

It is not hard to see what fuels ERPAC’s criminal activity. Despite a decade of aggressive counter drug-policies, the Eastern Plains remain important drug-cultivation and trafficking zones, not least because of the access to neighboring Venezuela. Armed groups also control mining projects and they displace people to claim land needed for extensive agro-industrial projects. At the same time, there is no shortage of recruits from a region which has little in the way of a formal economy but a long tradition of armed groups. The region is also a stronghold of FARC guerrillas.

Tackling these problems will take years. The state must beef up its civilian engagement, rather than just its military presence. Education and vocational training will help foster a viable local economy and discourage would-be recruits. Local politics and security forces must also be rigorously purged of their links to drug-traffickers and illegal armed groups.

But equally important, the government must implement a credible policy for dismantling groups like ERPAC and reintegrating fighters into civilian life. This should start with ending impunity. More often than not, leaders such as Pijarbey get away with short prison terms, while aggravated crimes often go unpunished. Rank and file members not responsible for serious crimes could also be encouraged to help dismantle corrupt networks through lighter sentencing.

The executive must also assume greater leadership instead of outsourcing responsibility for surrendering members to the judiciary. The government must ensure that victims of ERPAC and similar groups are compensated on an equal footing with victims of guerrilla groups and demobilised paramilitaries. It should also do more to stop captured fighters rearming once they leave prison. This should include giving rank-and-file members access to basic benefits through programmes run by presidency´s reintegration agency ACR, provided they meet strict criteria of eligibility.

Over the next few months, police could very well recapture Pijarbey. But without a better approach to dismantling the groups and their corrupt support networks, communities in the Eastern Plains will remain prey to the violence that has plagued the region for more than 60 years. And the next chapter in the Pijarbey story will just be a matter of time.

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