Gentil Duarte’s Master Plan to Reunite Colombia’s FARC Dissidents
FARC dissident commander Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” is leading a movement to unite Colombia’s former FARC fighters into a single fighting force — and he may well succeed.
More than 1,000 fighters in Colombia and Venezuela are currently under the command of Duarte, who began his unification project almost a year after the signing of a historic peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
In October 2017, Duarte held a summit in a rural area of El Retorno in Colombia’s Guaviare department where he presented the idea of forming a new force of between 6,000 and 8,000 fighters by 2019. He initially sought to expand the block of dissidents to the east and south, but was soon looking further afield to the Catatumbo region and the Pacific.
Taking advantage of his popular support and leadership within the FARC prior to its dissolution, Duarte started calling on dissident commanders and sent emissaries across Colombia to speak on his behalf.
Before being killed by military forces in February, Édgar Mesías Salgado Aragón, alias “Rodrigo Cadete,” was a powerful voice for Duarte in the effort to unite dissidents in the southern departments of Caquetá and Putumayo. Cadete spent 39 years with the guerrilla movement climbing the FARC’s ranks, until becoming commander of the 27th Front Isaías Pardo Leal in the Eastern Bloc, which was once the guerrilla group’s strongest military branch. After abandoning the peace effort and joining the dissidents, he became a crucial figure in handling internal conflicts created by Duarte’s unification plan.
Another Duarte emissary is Géner García Molina, alias “Jhon 40,” a controversial FARC leader who was sent to the Catatumbo region to take charge of the 33rd Front and to recover drug trafficking routes along the Colombia-Venezuela border.
Duarte also set his sights on southwest Nariño department along the Pacific coast. He contacted Walter Patricio Arizala, alias “Guacho,” then the head of the Oliver Sinisterra Front before he was killed last December by Colombian security forces, according to letters published by the Ecuadorean news site El Comercio. Prior to his death, Guacho was one of the most visible dissident commanders, although he was more concerned with maintaining control of criminal structures in a coca cultivation and production hotspot than ideological pursuits.
They are distributed in 29 units across 18 departments and 120 municipalities, most of which are areas of historical FARC influence, such as Guaviare, Vichada, Guainía, Putumayo and Meta. However, not all of the units are the same. They differ in size, firepower and involvement in criminal economies.
For example, the 1st and 7th Fronts, under the command of Iván Mordisco and Gentil Duarte, respectively, are the two most important dissident groups of the former FARC rebels. Ideological as well as highly criminal, they control drug trafficking routes that extend from Guaviare into Brazil and Venezuela. Likewise, they maintain alliances with the 14th, 16th, 17th, 27th, 40th, 42nd, 43rd and 44th Fronts.
Last year, Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office published an alert stating that dissidents from the 10th Front in northern Arauca department had also joined this alliance.
The commanders were regrouping former combatants from the 28th, 38th, 45th and 56th Fronts around the Colombia-Venezuela border, according to the report. They focused on providing logistics and strengthening support through the delivery of provisions and weaponry transported from Venezuela. This allowed them to join forces with the 1st Front to regain control of the FARC’s former territories.
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The rearrangement of the multiple FARC dissident units into one single structure could mean a return to combat with similar military power as the group had before it demobilized.
Though it would appear that orchestrating this operation from Venezuela could be problematic for Gentil Duarte, his location has actually helped him. Venezuela has offered him safety and he can exert pressure on the fronts through emissaries.
If the alliance were to solidify, the dissidents would have control over a strategic cocaine, gold and arms trafficking corridor that extends from Colombia’s Pacific through Venezuela. Inroads into Ecuador, Peru and Brazil would also be possible. This would give Duarte a competitive advantage, allowing him to strengthen the criminal alliances he has with the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, as well as with Brazil’s Red Command (Comando Vermelho) and First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC).
Nevertheless, the path to unification is not so simple. Duarte’s unification effort has lost two major figures with the killings of Cadete and Gaucho by Colombian military forces. Without Cadete, Duarte finds himself without his most ideological and charismatic spokesman. And without Guacho controlling Nariño department, infighting has become more likely.
After these two casualties, the new lead role may fall on Iván Mordisco, but he is known to have a more difficult personality, and does not generate the same support Cadete had among the rank and file.
Not all dissidents, meanwhile, are on board with Duarte’s project, as some prefer to maintain their drug trafficking fiefdoms.
In Putumayo department, Pedro Oberman Goyes Cortés, alias “Sinaloa,” a former member of the 48th Front, has refused to join the effort. In Caquetá, Marco Tulio Pérez Guzmán, alias “El Oso,” and a former member of the Teófilo Moreno Mobile Column, is rumored to be on board, but no confirmation of this has been obtained.
As FARC dissidents have shown to be primarily concerned with controlling criminal economies such as drug trafficking and illegal gold mining, many are ripe for recruitment by illegal groups, such as the left-wing National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and a former paramilitary group known as the Urabeños.
For now, Colombian security forces remain the nascent alliance’s biggest threat.
During 2018 alone, more than 1,200 operations were carried out against the dissidents. This led to 305 arrests and the loss of at least two strategic leaders. In addition, Colombian authorities have increased their efforts to capture Duarte, announcing a $1.7 million reward for information leading to his arrest.
As Duarte’s survival is key to any successful unification of the FARC’s dissident factions, his plan must take shape before Colombia’s military can take him out.
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