Cells, groups and support networks: urban battles in Colombian cities

By Oscar Palma

November 19, 2020

Images of the Colombian conflict are usually framed by scenes of jungles, mountains and remote rural areas, but rarely of urban spaces. These images might sell the idea that cities are spaces with little relation to conflict, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Back in September, after the peak of the pandemic, the streets in several Colombian cities were lit on fire by popular protests, vandalism and the usual brutal response from the police. At the start of this year, a generalised social discontent had triggered a wave of unrest, but it dimmed through the pandemic lockdowns. In August, with the end of restrictions, the wave of discontent ignited again, triggered by the assassination of a lawyer – a common citizen – at the hands of the Police. The government of President Iván Duque and his right-wing political party have explained this wave as the consequence of a disinformation campaign waged by the left and its allies in urban armed groups.

A banner with the names of social leaders that have recently been killed is exposed in the campus of Universidad del Valle, Cali, Colombia. Credit: Tefita228/Wikimedia Commons

This idea has brought the focus back on the urban side of conflict in Colombia. Armed groups do have an interest in urban spaces, but the idea of demonstrations as a result of a destabilization strategy by criminal groups gravely oversimplifies a more complex reality.

Rather than a context dominated by a few hierarchically structured organizations, like cartels and guerrilla armies, what we see in Colombia after the 2016 Havana Agreement is a fluid, dynamic and adaptable system, composed of different sorts of groups with varying fire- and manpower capabilities. Many of them combine criminal and political aims in different ways, making it difficult to recognise them as purely criminal or rebel groups. Rather, they exist as hybrid groups in different stages along a continuum between the pure criminal group and the traditional insurgency. Fluidity means that groups are constantly changing, disappearing, weakening, becoming stronger, dividing and emerging, according to their contexts and the security forces’ methods of repression. Notable groups include Urabeños (also known as Clan del Golfo and Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia), National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional, ELN), Caparros, Puntilleros, Rastrojos, and Pelusos, among many others.

Making things more complex, the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016 left a myriad of smaller groups, commonly known as dissidents – repeating what had happened with the demobilization of the right-wing paramilitary self-defence forces in the 2000s. Frente 1, Frente 7, Nueva Marquetalia, Bloque Sur, Guerrillas Unidas del Pacifico, Frente Oliver Sinisterra are only examples in a list of more than 20 groups.

Among these groups there are complex patterns of collaboration and dispute. They might cooperate in one region while fighting in others. Their objectives cannot be neatly defined as either criminal or political. Their interest in controlling territory and capturing power means they implement a sort of governance, regulating population flows, charging ‘taxes’, providing security and justice (although in their own understanding), and of course profiting from illicit economies, of which narco-trafficking is only one. Whereas this happens mostly in rural areas, especially in farther regions away from main cities, the conflict has always had an urban side.

As I describe in my book, FARC had pushed an urbanization strategy since the eighth Guerrilla Conference in 1993; this strategy was furthered through the ‘Plan Renacer Revolucionario de las Masas’, created to adapt to a strong military offensive launched by the Colombian state during 2002-2010. Its author, Alfonso Cano, who became the commander of the insurgency after the death of its founder Manuel Marulanda, had always believed in the need to carry the struggle to the cities.

Cano was one of the main founders of the Movimiento Bolivariano por la Nueva Colombia (MBNC), a semi-clandestine political movement focused on spreading FARC’s views and messages, attracting new members and strengthening FARC’s position in the political arena.They were particularly active in Universities before negotiations in Havana began. The Partido Comunista Colombiano Clandestino (PC3) was another of FARC’s political institutions, but it was entirely clandestine. Since the early 2000s, it supposedly infiltrated different organizations, including universities, government institutions, trade unions, social organizations, companies and security agencies. They were joined by the Militias (Bolivarian and Regular), who also operated in urban spaces, combining political, logistics and intelligence duties. Whereas the PC3 and the MBNC were political institutions by nature, the Militias were at the intersection between the political and the operational-logistics dimension. The Red Urbana Antonio Nariño (RUAN) is an example of a proper urban structure (thus akin to militias), which planned several attacks in Bogota, most of which were disrupted by the Military Forces. 

How many people were involved in these ‘support networks’? It was never clear. However, before the Havana Agreements, Ministry of Defence officials and journalists pointed to a ratio of two or three members to each combatant, meaning there would have been about 30,000 members in total before demobilization. Only 13,203 members surrendered their weapons, which begs the question: where are the rest of the ‘support network’ members? Some hypothesise they are still supporting armed groups, especially FARC’s dissidences; others believe they might have just quit.

On the other hand, the ELN has a more federate and decentralized structure. Its territorial units, Frentes de Guerra (War Fronts), are more autonomous from the central command. In 2006, the ELN reorganized its urban units into a single structure, the Frente de Guerra Urbano Nacional, to build a proper social base and to win the ‘hearts and minds’ through the war of ideas, community service and social mobilization. It incorporated groups, cells and organizations in cities like Bogotá, Medellín, Cúcuta, Cali, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga and Popayán. We have seen ELN flags being placed in public spots, the detonation of small-power bombs with propaganda leaflets and even urban terrorist attacks.

In 2019, in a suicide attack, a car bomb forcefully entered the National Police cadet school, in Bogotá, killing 22. The attack was claimed by the ELN, and intelligence sources pointed specifically to the Northwestern War Front. Two years earlier, a bomb exploded in one of the trendiest shopping centres in Bogota, the Andino. Left in one of the toilettes, it killed three and injured nine more. The government quickly pointed to the Movimiento Revolucionario Popular, an urban group which had been active in several cities like Cúcuta, Medellín, Palmira and Pereira, although they had not attacked people. Their acts consisted rather in propaganda operations, spreading specific messages in iconic places, placing flags and uncovering billboards in public buildings. Intelligence agencies have traced some contacts between this group and the ELN, meaning they could be one of the cells or groups within a complex web of organizations under the ELN umbrella. But doubts about their authorship of the attack loom large.

Cities, then, are of interest for groups who still have wider political ambitions at the national level, like the ELN and maybe some FARC dissidents, as a space where the struggle must be carried to. As a country with a higher proportion of urban population, it would be in their interest to build a real support base there.

But cities are also spaces where power can be captured, criminal governance enforced, and profits made. In major cities, we can still see neighbourhoods in impoverished districts controlled by criminal groups, many of which are local and some of which are connected with major armed groups. The illicit economy of narco-trafficking, for example, finds hubs in these areas for distribution lines which go into wider urban markets. We can see ‘invisible borders’ dividing zones controlled by different organizations.

In conflict-ridden areas, control of specific towns is relevant for entire transnational trade chains, like in the case of Tumaco, in the southern Pacific coast. Trafficking routes through the Pacific Ocean find a port of departure there, near the border with Ecuador and coca cropping areas. Brutal struggles to capture power in such strategic key points are not rare, and the effects are usually seen in a steep number of homicides and massacres.

For decades, then, armed groups like FARC’s militias and the ELN have infiltrated popular demonstrations in urban areas. It has long been part of their strategic objectives to create a social base and to carry the struggle where it has a stronger impact. Through the years, they have agitated urban rebellion and seeded a sense of dissatisfaction towards the government. But generalising that all protests are a result of the manipulation of these agents would simply be a reductionist interpretation of a far more complex reality. The economy is in a grave condition, students can hardly find a job through the labour system, social leaders are being killed, massacres in the countryside are everyday news, and Duque’s government is failing in the implementation of several key points of the Havana Agreement. There is a pervasive impression that national leadership is lacking. The context of police brutality has only fuelled the will of the youth to challenge the state. 

Oscar Palma is an Academic Career Professor at the Faculty of International, Political and Urban Studies, at Universidad del Rosario, Colombia. He has a PhD in International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science, and an MA in International Security Studies, University of Leicester. Former Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. Lecturer at the Colombian Diplomatic Academy ‘Augusto Ramirez Ocampo’-Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Former Commissioned Officer of the National Army, and researcher at the Colombian Joint War College.

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