Dissident Rebels In Colombia Ignore Peace Treaty And Continue Extortion

May 11, 2017
Originally published on May 22, 2017 3:28 pm

In the southern Colombian jungle town of San José del Guaviare, construction workers repair a beer warehouse that was partially destroyed by a bomb. There are shrapnel holes in the ceiling and a small crater in the sidewalk out front.

The attack came last month after warehouse manager Javier Montoya refused to hand over large sums of cash to a small group of dissident FARC rebels.

"I'm confused," Montoya says. "I never thought this would happen during a peace process."

During its half-century war against Colombia's government, the FARC rebel group earned millions of dollars extorting business owners, a practice which was supposed to have ended under last year's peace agreement.

Under terms of the treaty, nearly all of the FARC's 7,000 fighters have gathered in special camps where they are handing over their weapons to U.N. monitors.

But about 160 FARC rebels broke away from the main group last fall and now operate from jungle hideouts near San José del Guaviare.

Analysts say these breakaway guerrillas are out to enrich themselves through drug trafficking, illegal gold mining and extortion.

Merchants in San José del Guaviare are some of the main victims, says funeral home owner Alexander Bermúdez.

Bermúdez says he receives up to 20 calls per day from dissident FARC members demanding payoffs. To prove his point he holds up his iPhone and reads through its call register.

"FARC, FARC, FARC, FARC, FARC, FARC," Bermúdez says.

Unforeseen security problems

The peace process has provoked security breakdowns elsewhere in Colombia. With the FARC rebels confined to demobilization camps, some of the territory they once occupied has been taken over by other armed groups.

In the northern state of Choco, recent clashes between drug trafficking gangs and a small guerrilla group, called the ELN, have uprooted thousands of people from their homes.

Meanwhile, the break-away FARC fighters have killed several army soldiers. Last week, they kidnapped a U.N. peace monitor.

All this frustrates Col. Federico Mejía, chief of the army base in San José del Guaviare.

"The rebels are tough to target because they work in groups of three or four and dress like civilians," he says. "The large FARC camps of the past could be bombed."

Still, Mejía claims the peace process has vastly improved security in the region.

Local business owners disagree. They claim that extortion is a bigger problem now than when the war was raging.

Hundreds of merchants recently marched through the streets of San José del Guaviare to protest. Among them was Montoya, the warehouse manager.

Montoya says he will not give in to blackmail. But he's a nervous wreck.

He plays a phone call he recorded from what he said was a FARC dissident.

In it, the caller promises that there will be no more bombings at his warehouse as long as Montoya forks over the cash.

: 5/10/17

In the audio, as in a previous Web version, this story states that breakaway FARC fighters briefly kidnapped a U.N. peace monitor last week. The kidnapping has not yet been resolved.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Rebels in Colombia have stopped fighting a civil war. Some have not stopped the techniques they have perfected over the years for making a living. During the war, the rebel group known as the FARC earned millions of dollars by extorting business owners. Now, after a peace deal, a breakaway group of guerrillas continues to attack army troops and threaten merchants. John Otis reports.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Here in the southern jungle town of San Jose del Guaviare, construction workers repair a beer warehouse that was partially destroyed by a bomb.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: The attack came last month after warehouse manager Javier Montoya refused to hand over the equivalent of $175,000 to a small group of FARC rebels who have rejected the peace process.

JAVIER MONTOYA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Montoya shows me around the warehouse, pointing to shrapnel holes in the ceiling and the small crater left on the sidewalk out front.

MONTOYA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I'm confused," Montoya says. "I never thought this would happen during a peace process." Under Colombia's peace treaty, which was signed last year, nearly all of the FARC'S 7,000 fighters have gathered in special camps where they're handing over their weapons to U.N. monitors. But about 160 FARC rebels broke away from the main group last fall and now operate from jungle hideouts near San Jose del Guaviare. The FARC spent more than 50 years trying to topple the Colombian government. But analysts say these breakaway guerrillas are out to enrich themselves through drug trafficking, illegal gold mining and extortion. Merchants in San Jose del Guaviare are some of the main victims, says funeral home owner Alexander Bermudez.

ALEXANDER BERMUDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Bermudez says he receives up to 20 calls per day from dissident FARC members demanding payoffs. To prove his point, he holds up his iPhone and reads through its call register.

BERMUDEZ: (Speaking Spanish) FARC, FARC, FARC, FARC, FARC, FARC.

OTIS: The peace process has provoked security breakdowns elsewhere in Colombia. With the FARC rebels confined to demobilization camps, some of the territory they once occupied has been taken over by different armed groups. In the northern state of Choco, recent clashes between drug-trafficking gangs and a guerrilla group called the ELN have uprooted thousands of people from their homes. Meanwhile, the breakaway FARC fighters have killed several army troops. And this month, they briefly kidnapped a U.N. peace monitor. All of this frustrates Colonel Federico Mejia, chief of the army base in San Jose del Guaviare.

FEDERICO MEJIA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He says dissident FARC rebels are tough to target because they work in groups of three or four and dress like civilians. By contrast, he says the large FARC camps of the past could be bombed.

MEJIA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Still, Mejia claims the peace process has vastly improved security in the region. Local business owners disagree. They claim that extortion is an even bigger problem now than when the war was raging.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

OTIS: Hundreds of merchants recently marched through the streets of San Jose del Guaviare to protest. Among them was Montoya, the warehouse manager. Montoya claims he will not give in to blackmail, but he's a nervous wreck. That's because he keeps getting menacing phone calls from FARC dissidents, like this one he recorded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In it, the caller promises that there will be no more bombings at his warehouse as long as Montoya forks over the cash. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in San Jose del Guaviare, Colombia.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio, this story states that breakaway FARC fighters "briefly kidnapped" a U.N. peace monitor last week. The kidnapping has not yet been resolved.]

(SOUNDBITE OF LRKR'S "JOURNEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.