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In Rural Colombia, Narcotics Gangs Step Into Power Vacuum Left by Peace Deal

In Rural Colombia, Narcotics Gangs Step Into Power Vacuum Left by Peace Deal

Massacres and assassinations of community leaders are rising in the countryside as gangs vie for control.

The gunmen burst in without warning, tossing grenades and letting loose a burst of fire and that killed six young men in an abandoned house that served as a cockfighting ring.

Days after the late September attack, townspeople in this remote hamlet stricken by rising violence marched along a rutted road past the house where their neighbors had died, waving signs and demanding, “We want life.”

“This is a war here, but we don’t know why,” said Samir Balanta, whose brother died in the shooting. “I keep asking, ‘Why?’ ”

While Colombia as a whole is ever more peaceful, a surge of bloodshed in rural regions, including a string of mass killings and selective assassinations, is shaking a country that had hoped a peace pact with Marxist rebels would end a cycle of violence dating back to the 1950s.

Instead, the 2016 accord that disarmed 13,000 rebels from the once-powerful Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, left a void in communities like Munchique that powerfully armed drug-trafficking organizations have filled. These groups have killed hundreds of people in the past four years, settling scores and targeting those who challenge their activities.

“The problem in deactivating the FARC is that they had control over many regions,” said Gen. Marco Mayorga, who commands army forces in this region and went from battling the FARC to fighting the group’s successors. “The vacuum the FARC left behind was difficult to fill because the backwardness in these regions is gigantic.”

The violence is caused by shadowy organizations that operate from the chain of mountains here near the Pacific to the eastern plains near Venezuela. It has caused an uproar across a broad section of Colombian society, leading to protests that have undercut President Iván Duque’s tough-on-crime persona. The president’s approval rating stands at 31%, down from 38% in August, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The United Nations, which monitors violence in the country, said more than 500 community leaders and human-rights activists were slain from the start of 2016, the year Colombia was moving toward peace with the FARC, through Oct. 26. Other organizations, including the government’s human-rights ombudsman, tally dozens more.

The number of massacres—attacks in which three or more die at a time—increased from nine in 2016 to 22 last year, claiming 279 lives, according to the Defense Ministry. This year through September, the pace has accelerated, with 21 massacres and 105 people killed.

The chaos reflects the wide gulf between the countryside and Colombia’s bustling and relatively prosperous cities, among them Cali, whose flickering lights can be seen from the mountains where violence is part of everyday life.

Colombia has registered a drop in the nationwide homicide rate to its lowest level in 46 years. But that is mostly due to reductions in big cities. Rural pockets remain hotbeds of violence, even though the FARC pact promised to reduce that chasm.

“We had hope that at last we were going to live in peace, do what we wanted, do things without fear,” said Edilson Agrono, a town-council member who lost two cousins to the massacre here in Munchique.

Sergio Jaramillo, a former national-security director who headed the government team that negotiated peace, said Mr. Duque’s two-year-old government hasn’t formulated a strategy to deal with a new reality since the FARC disarmed.

Guerrilla commanders who brought a semblance of order in some rural areas by intimidating rivals have been replaced by groups looking to control the spoils of illicit industries once tapped by the rebels to fund their war chest: cocaine, gold, extortion and a bustling marijuana business.

“The war with the largest insurgency in Latin America ended, and you now have a different kind of threat, more like criminal gangs with territorial ambitions,” Mr. Jaramillo said. “What you need is to adapt the security strategy to the new situation, which this government hasn’t been able to read.”

Duque administration officials and military officers don’t dispute the shift to drug gangs and their targeting of people perceived as threats to their business, such as leaders of small towns or ethnic minorities who push back against traffickers and demand better security from the state. Other casualties include rivals, suspected informants and innocent victims caught in the crossfire, investigators say.

The settling of a score is what led to the massacre here in Munchique, a hamlet where residents farm and mine for gold in nearby streams. A group of former FARC fighters who didn’t join the peace process, calling themselves the Jaime Martínez gang, are responsible, prosecutors say, for most of the homicides logged in this region.

On Sept. 20, gunmen from the group headed to the house where the cockfighting was taking place to finish off a rival who had killed one of their associates, said Marta Mancera, a prosecutor who heads a special investigations unit focusing on killings in rural regions.

As they arrived, their quarry dashed out and escaped. The gunmen still opened fire, killing the six men left behind, all bystanders who had no involvement in the dispute. Authorities recently arrested and charged two men—both members of the Jaime Martínez gang—with homicide.

The government said it is deploying troops and mobile units of prosecutors to investigate the new spate of crimes. Among the nearly 400 deaths of community leaders and rights activists registered by prosecutors, investigators have determined who is responsible in 60% of the cases and secured 61 convictions, the government said.

At the same time, the state is making halting progress implementing sections of the peace accords that call for development in rural regions. Modernizing a long-neglected and mountainous countryside is a tremendous challenge.

“The country and the state have not yet been built,” said Rafael Guarín, Mr. Duque’s national-security director. “It’s been 200 years [of Colombian history], and we haven’t finished resolving this problem.”

Most of the killings take place in regions where coca, the crop used to make cocaine, thrives. Colombia has three times more coca than it did in 2012, a year before the government began phasing out spraying with toxic chemicals. The government wants to resume spraying, once court-mandated requirements are met.

Gen. Mayorga, who commands troops in a violent southwestern region of Colombia, said there is a messy fight over control of cocaine routes toward the Pacific that notably involves the National Liberation Army rebel group, former FARC members who didn’t participate in peace talks and a powerful narcotics-trafficking band called the Gulf Clan. The three groups and others target villagers they believe stand in their way.

“You don’t know if you’re confronting a subversive group, a narco-trafficking group, a crime group; you don’t know who you’re fighting,” Gen. Mayorga said. “They don’t have an ideology.”

The killings in this region affect various communities, from the descendants of African slaves who live in the lowlands to the Nasa Indians in the mountains that rise more than 13,000 feet.

Clemencia Carabalí, a rights defender who survived an assassination attempt, said crime groups want farmers’ land to plant coca. But often, she said, it is unclear why the people she represents—the descendants of African slaves who eke out a living farming the foothills—are targeted.

“Despite everything, we have to talk and promote peace,” said Ms. Carabalí, who has bodyguards.

Higher up in the town of Toribio, indigenous leaders worry about young Indians recruited to join drug gangs.

The Nasa community’s only defense are the so-called Indigenous Guards, young men who carry staffs with tassels that identify them as sentries in a high mountain patrol. Their job is to stop motorcycles and cars on mountain passes to ensure they aren’t carrying drugs or guns.

“Sometimes we don’t let them go where they want to go, and that’s when they kill us,” said Floresmiro Pazu, 35, one of the Indigenous Guards. “I think we can’t take a step back. We can’t let them scare us. We have to fight for a better community.”

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