The ex-FARC mafia are a series of criminal structures that emerged during and after peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) guerrillas in 2016. They have established themselves as major criminal players in both Colombia and Venezuela.

Rather than a single structured organization, the factions that make up the ex-FARC mafia are characterized as groups composed of former FARC members that occupy formerly FARC-controlled areas. These groups are involved in coca cultivation, drug trafficking, illegal mining, and extortion. While multiple factions emerged following the peace negotiations, all ex-FARC factions now have some connection to the two main dissident groups: the self-styled Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central – EMC), led by Néstor Gregorio Vera Fernández, alias “Iván Mordisco,” and the Second Marquetalia, led by Luciano Marín, alias “Iván Márquez.”

History

Internal divisions within the FARC emerged shortly after the peace talks with the Colombian government began. Although the top FARC leaders, known as the Secretariat, were willing to end the guerrilla group’s armed struggle, which had lasted over half a century, some of the group’s most important leaders approached the process with significant doubts or refused to participate at all. 

The first to distance himself from the FARC was Iván Mordisco, commander of the 1st Front, or Armando Ríos Front. In July 2016, the 1st Front announced its decision to withdraw from the peace process, claiming it would remain in place to combat the structural causes of the armed conflict.

In response, the FARC Secretariat ordered Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” to return to Colombia from negotiations being hosted in Cuba and take command of the 1st Front to restore discipline. With more than 30 years of experience as a guerrilla fighter and political leader, Gentil Duarte had been an active negotiator in peace talks since 2012.

He traveled to Guaviare, where the 1st Front was located. But instead of restoring discipline, Gentil Duarte accepted Iván Mordisco’s proposal to join the dissident movement and continue controlling drug trafficking in the south of the country. He abandoned the peace process at the end of 2016, escaping with $1.35 million and several of his men from the 7th Front, forming the first FARC dissident group.

This had serious implications for the future of the peace process. After learning of Gentil Duarte’s departure, the Secretariat expelled four other commanders who were opposed to the negotiations from its ranks: Géner García Molina, alias “John 40;” Luis Lizcano Guadrón, alias “Euclides Mora;” Miguel Díaz San Martín, alias “Julián Chollo;” and Ernesto Orjuela Tovar, alias “Giovanni Chuspas.” 

Since then, thousands of members from across the FARC’s ranks have abandoned the peace process to return to illegal activities, both before and after the peace agreement was signed.

August 2019 marked a turning point for the dissidents. Iván Márquez; Seuxis Pausías Hernández, alias “Jesús Santrich;” and Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias “El Paisa,” released a video announcing the “birth of the Second Marquetalia” in response to the government’s “treason” regarding the peace agreement. Márquez explained that the group would embrace the legacy of the FARC and that it would accept any former guerrillas within its ranks.

The Second Marquetalia attempted to establish an alliance with their former comrades-in-arms but were rejected by Gentil Duarte and Iván Mordisco. Although the Second Marquetalia had significant political connections and financial muscle, it was no military match for Gentil Duarte’s faction. Searching for allies, Márquez then turned to old political and military contacts in Venezuela, which allowed him to carve out territory and establish control over criminal economies on Venezuelan soil.

Throughout Colombia, ex-FARC dissident factions fractured. Departments such as Cauca, Nariño, and Putumayo became the battlegrounds for armed confrontations between ex-FARC mafia groups affiliated with the Second Marquetalia and the EMC.

These conflicts prompted several commanders to take refuge on Venezuelan soil. Venezuela, however, was no longer friendly territory for many of them, and various key leaders were assassinated between 2021 and 2022.

One of the first ex-FARC commanders to fall in Venezuela was Jesús Santrich of the Second Marquetalia, who, according to media reports, was killed in the border state of Zulia in May 2021 by Colombian military who infiltrated Venezuelan soil. In December 2021, El Paisa and one other Second Marquetalia commander, Henry Castellanos Garzón, alias “Romaña,” were killed in the state of Apure.

Then, Gentil Duarte was killed in May 2022 in Zulia, leaving Iván Mordisco to take control of the EMC.

The deaths of these commanders weakened both factions, forcing Márquez and Mordisco to rethink their strategies.

When Petro took office as president in August 2022, his promise of Total Peace for Colombia presented a new opportunity for the reeling groups.

The EMC began exploratory talks with the Colombian government in September 2022, and signed a first bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government in February 2023. Two months later, in April, formal negotiations were announced. The negotiations have been stop and start, with both parties suspending talks at various points, although the ceasefire has also been extended several times.

The Second Marquetalia has been slower to engage in negotiations. After exploratory talks were announced in September 2022, no concrete progress was made until early 2024, when the government announced a formal negotiation process.

Leadership

Unlike the homogenous structure of the FARC, the ex-FARC mafia operate as a coalition of factions with shifting alliances, in which different leaders coordinate actions based on their commercial interests.

Since it was created, the Second Marquetalia faction has been led by Iván Márquez. When Márquez was recovering after an attack in 2022 in Venezuela, he was temporarily replaced by José Vicente Lesmes, alias “Walter Mendoza.” However, Márquez once again presented himself as the sole leader of the faction in peace talks in 2023 with the Colombian government.

Márquez coordinates military actions and illegal economies with around 12 cells in different regions of Colombia. Among the most prominent are the Border Command, formed by dissidents from the 32nd and 48th Fronts, which operates along the Colombia-Ecuador border, and the Alfonso Cano Western Bloc, which operates in the Colombian Pacific.

The EMC faction was in the hands of Gentil Duarte until his death in mid-2022, after which Iván Mordisco was quickly recognized as the natural successor.

The EMC has co-opted factions in eastern and western Colombia. As a result, Mordisco’s territorial control is far more widespread than the Second Marquetalia’s.

Javier Alonso Velosa, alias “John Mechas,” leader of the 33rd Front, is another important figure. He is particularly important to the EMC’s coca leaf cultivation efforts.

Miguel Díaz Sanmartín, alias “Julián Chollo,” leads the semi-autonomous Acacio Medina Front which has significant influence in the Venezuelan Amazon, where illegal gold mining and drug trafficking are rife. John 40 previously oversaw the front’s lucrative drug trafficking operations there, making him one of the most important financiers of the ex-FARC mafia. He has since moved to Norte de Santander. 

Geography

What began as a small group of FARC fighters dissatisfied with the peace process has turned into a criminal threat with transnational reach.

Between 2022 and 2023, ex-FARC mafia factions carried out actions in at least 20 departments, according to reports from the Colombian Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo). The groups have mainly been concentrated in border and coastal departments such as Arauca, Putumayo, Nariño, Cauca, and Norte de Santander, where they have found international safe havens and coordinate cross-border criminal economies.

These departments are sites of a wide range of criminal activities, like coca crop cultivation, illegal mining, and drug production, as well as export points for drugs destined for international markets.

Venezuela has also become a crucial destination for certain ex-FARC mafia cells, with groups present in at least four Venezuelan states: Zulia, Amazonas, Bolívar, and Apure. The EMC has little territorial control after the Venezuelan military and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) forced them out of their stronghold in Apure in 2022.

Now, the Acacio Medina Front, which may be aligned with the Second Marquetalia, has the widest territorial spread. The Second Marquetalia still controls some territory in Apure, although the ELN now dominates much of the state, and maintains close ideological ties with the Venezuelan government. 

Allies and Enemies

Ex-FARC mafia groups maintain alliances and hostilities with criminal groups in Colombia and Venezuela, as well as with political and military contacts on Venezuelan soil. With so many groups that make up the ex-FARC mafia, these alliances are constantly evolving and shifting based on each territory’s unique dynamics.

Ex-FARC mafia groups have created alliances with other criminal groups, allowing them to maintain control of key areas and criminal economies. These alliances can be diverse and often compete with each other. Ex-FARC mafia groups have at different times allied with the ELN, the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), and the Caparros.

In the same vein, territorial clashes between dissident factions have plunged parts of the country into violence. For example, in Nariño and Putumayo, various ex-FARC groups have disputed control of coca crops and drug trafficking routes toward the Pacific. Along the border with Venezuela, the 10th Front has been attacked and forced out of the country by Venezuelan armed forces and the ELN in a military campaign that displaced thousands of people to Colombia, but ultimately benefited both the ELN and Second Marquetalia.

Perspectives

The ex-FARC Mafia represents one of the main security risks in Colombia due to its rapid growth, its control of strategic areas around the country, and its ability to strike at the civilian population and the armed forces.

Criminal groups, including ex-FARC factions, have only strengthened during the President Gustavo Petro’s “Total Peace” (Paz Total) negotiations and ceasefires, which allowed them to focus on territorial expansion and disputes with rival groups instead of weathering security forces’ operations. Despite these risks, negotiations have continued to slowly and intermittently move forward, with both factions engaging with the Total Peace initiative.

Peace negotiations with the ex-FARC mafia will require different strategies than the talks with the FARC, and even than the talks underway with the ELN. President Petro faces several factions that are more criminal than political, with their members unmotivated to give up the lucrative criminal economies that they control. The EMC represents the main challenge to Total Peace, despite it being the first of the two factions to engage in Petro’s peace processes. It has the most substructures on Colombian soil and the largest number of members. Mordisco rejected the 2016 peace process, and the EMC has continued its violent and criminal activities during the current round of negotiations.

The Second Marquetalia, while weaker militarily, will also be difficult to negotiate with. It and the Acacio Medina Front are well-positioned to grow in Venezuela. Income from drug trafficking and illegal mining in Venezuela, as well as experience on both sides of the southern Colombia-Venezuela border, will allow the group to continue to make money and expand membership, even after so many of its leaders were killed.

Although the ex-FARC mafia pales in comparison to the former strength of the FARC, membership appears to be trending upward, and the two factions may have as many as 5,200 members in total, according to military intelligence estimates published in early 2024.

Related Content

What are your thoughts?

Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.