Heated and abandoned: the Ecuador-Colombia border

Figuring out what is going on at the northern border of Ecuador is like trying to put together a puzzle with a huge number of pieces – namely, organized crime, drug trafficking, paramilitary forces and human trafficking. Español

Xabier Villaverde
10 September 2018

The FARC are still present in the territory. Image:

The various social problems currently at play on the border between Ecuador and Colombia generate complex situations which affect a vulnerable population.

The history of the last 30 years and the economic, social and political changes that have recently occurred in Ecuador and Colombia increase the complexity of the new scenarios, even though the actors remain practically the same.

There is no doubt that those who suffer the most are, as always, the local populations which stand to witness the violation of their most basic human rights and how truth, justice and reason are sacrificed, giving way to fear, distrust and silence.

Recent history of this dividing line between Colombia and Ecuador, a heated and at the same time neglected border, enables us to understand how the current situation has come about.

The border in the 90s

The situation on the northern border of Ecuador in the 1990s was marked by violence triggered by the presence of the various conflicting groups:

  1. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
  2. The Colombian armed forces: the police and the army.
  3. The paramilitary groups, the so-called United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
  4. The drug cartels and groups related to drug trafficking.

What kind of relationships did these groups have and what were their power spaces?

Most certainly, the AUC and the Colombian armed forces maintained a factual, though never formally recognized alliance. The paramilitary forces spread terror in the peasant and indigenous communities through their brutal actions and indiscriminate killings. They also maintained a close alliance with the drug cartels.

The Colombian army and police were not present on a permanent basis in large areas on the border. They made occasional land incursions, but they did not stay in the territory; their actions were mostly airborne.

The FARC controlled most of the border in the provinces of Sucumbíos and Esmeraldas. At Carchi, the Colombian army held the main border crossings. The structure of the FARC in the areas they controlled was almost a State-like structure.

The only actors who disputed FARC-controlled territory were the drug traffickers and, occasionally, the paramilitary groups and the army.

The relationship of the FARC with the drug traffickers evolved over the years. At first, depending on the area and the balance of forces, drug traffickers and the FARC coexisted when neither of them were strong enough to impose their rule; but where one of them achieved dominance, it expelled the other.

The FARC always protected the coca producers, but as the pressure from the other groups increased and their resources grew scarce, they began to process and market cocaine themselves – and were thus accused of having become a "narco-guerrilla".

The turning point: the Plan Colombia

The turning point came with the implementation of the so-called Plan Colombia, created with the initiative of Colombian President Andrés Pastrana and in alliance with the United States. The financing of this Plan between 2000 and 2005 amounted to 7,853 million dollars.

Although it was concealed under some components of a social nature, there is no doubt that this was a military plan against drug trafficking and insurgent groups. This aspect of the Plan was subsequently strengthened under the presidency of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010).

The consequences for Ecuador’s northern border were immediate:

  •  - An upsurge in violence. In the first months of 2000, the Colombian army and the AUC spread terror on the banks of the San Miguel River and in Mataje. Entire families were killed. The total number of victims is unknown.
  •  - An increase in the number of refugees. In six months, 2.300 people arrived and registered in the city of Lago Agrio (it is estimated that at least another thousand did not register). They were housed in improvised shelters. The constant arrival of refugees went on for nearly a year.
  •  - The displacement of the Ecuadorian population near the border: in the province of Sucumbíos, several Cibean, Quichua and Shuar communities had to leave their territories temporarily. In 2005, almost the entire population of Mataje, in the San Lorenzo canton, fled shortly after the multiple murder of the president of the parish board, two of his children and six bodyguards. It was apparently a settling of scores related to drug trafficking.
  •  - Along with the refugees there were also members of violent groups who sought to settle scores in Ecuadorian territory. For several months, the murders were three per week on average. Virtually all went unpunished. A fair part of them were perpetrated by Ecuadorian criminals.
  •  - The glyphosate fumigations of coca crops in Colombia spilled over the dividing line between the two countries and caused severe problems to both the Ecuadorian agricultural production and the health of the people in the region.
  • The border became a transit zone for drug trafficking. Production and processing facilities were built in Ecuadorian territory, but nearly all of them were promptly controlled by the armed forces of Ecuador.
  •  - The insurgent groups (the paramilitaries and the guerrillas) recruited teenagers and young people in Ecuador.
  •  - People in the provinces of Sucumbíos, Orellana and Esmeraldas, who used to make a living by going to Colombia to harvest coca, were prevented from doing so. The FARC warned that they would not let them get through and killed five people who tried.
  •  - Finally, the border became a transit zone for drug trafficking. Production and processing facilities were built in Ecuadorian territory, but nearly all of them were promptly controlled by the armed forces of Ecuador.

The results of the war on drugs and insurgent groups

There is no doubt that the death of Manuel Marulanda and Raúl Reyes by the Colombian armed forces with the help of the United States weakened the FARC. Their substitute, Guillermo León, aka Alonso Cano, lacked his predecessors’ strength.

Further actions by the Colombian army such as Operation Jaque, in July 2008, which led to the successful rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages, including three US citizens, were a clear indication of the guerrillas' weakness.

The most distinguished guerrilla after these blows was the commander of the Eastern front Víctor Julio Suárez, aka Jorge Briceño, better known as Mono Jojoy, who was killed by the armed forces on September 22, 2010.

The brutality of the actions by the army and its officers, who were rewarded proportionately to the number of guerrillas killed, gave rise to what is known as false positives – that is, extrajudicial executions and the murder of innocent civilians accused of being members of the guerrilla.

On the other hand, the dismantling of the large drug cartels of Medellín and Cali led to the arrival of and the alliance with Mexican drug traffickers, who began operating on the Ecuadorian-Colombian border.

The current main actors on the northern border

Under different names and with no relation to previous structures, the actors operating on the Ecuador- Colombia border remain the same:

  1. Paramilitary groups which continue to defend the interests of drug traffickers and landowners, even though the AUC no longer exists.
  2. Dissident groups of the FARC now turned criminal and related to drug trafficking.
  3. Colombian drug traffickers allied with Mexican cartels.
  4. The armed forces (the army and the police) of Ecuador and Colombia.
  5. State presence of both nations.

There is also a new actor: the illegal miners who operate in Imbabura, Carchi, Esmeraldas and Sucumbíos, who generate problems for the local populations.

As always, the main victims are the local populations in both Colombia and Ecuador.

A change in strategy with extremely serious consequences

Coinciding with the accession to power of President Lenín Moreno, the Ecuadorian government changed its longstanding strategy.

Over the years it had maintained the principle of non-intervention regarding the internal problems of Colombia and had refused to participate in Uribe’s and Santos’s anti-terrorist crusade. But now the Ecuadorian government committed itself to cooperate in controlling violent groups.

On February 15 this year, in the city of Pereira, Presidents Santos and Moreno signed a declaration to strengthen the protection of the border and to define joint strategies against drug trafficking, organized crime, armed groups and FARC dissidents.

This agreement, which had been in the works for several months, has given rise to recent acts of violence, attacks and deaths.

Recent events

In December 2017, the police of Ecuador arrested a lieutenant and two accomplices of Ecuador-born Walter Patricio Artizala, aka Guacho, linked to the FARC since 2007 and allegedly the commander of the Olivier Sinisterra Front.

On January 27, 2018, a bomb exploded next to the San Lorenzo police station destroying the barracks and 37 near-by houses. 28 people were injured and 576 people had to leave their homes. According to testimonies, the population had been warned previously.

On March 26, three journalists from the newspaper El Comercio disappeared in Mataje. After several days of uncertainty and the publication in Colombia of some pictures which allegedly showed the dead bodies of the journalists, on April 13 President Moreno confirmed their death.

The bombing, which was attributed to Guacho, is a landmark in the history of attacks in Ecuador. Until then, these types of attacks only happened in Colombia.

A few days later, another bomb exploded under a police car. A Colombian citizen was arrested.

On February 17, an Ecuadorian army patrol was attacked near Mataje.

On March 18, two Ecuadorian soldiers patrolling near the border were attacked and wounded.

On March 19, a bomb placed by the road to Mataje killed three and wounded eleven marines. It was a trap bomb loaded with shrapnel. Since 1996, when the FARC had ambushed an Ecuadorian army patrol on the Putumayo River (in Sucumbíos, on the border with Colombia), there had been no Ecuadorian military casualties from attacks by insurgent groups.

On March 26, three journalists from the newspaper El Comercio disappeared in Mataje. On April 3, the Colombian network RCN broadcast a video showing them alive. The Ecuadorian government, under pressure from relatives, friends and society in general, expressed its intention to do everything possible to achieve their release.

After several days of uncertainty and the publication in Colombia of some pictures which allegedly showed the dead bodies of the journalists, on April 13 President Moreno confirmed their death.

On April 4, several bombs were placed in electric towers and a bridge exploded near the town of Viche. There were no casualties.

In the following days, there were bomb threats in different parts of the country: in Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas, Quito, and Guayaquil. Most of them were false. But psychosis set in and fake news spread about Guacho having been seen in several locations throughout the country.

On April 16, the Minister of the Interior of Ecuador reported the kidnapping of two Ecuadorians who had allegedly travelled to the municipality of Puerto Rico in southern Colombia to collect a debt.

The Ministry of the Interior had received a video containing a statement from the hostages asking for government help. The case got much less media coverage than the kidnapping of the journalists, and the government stated that it would not negotiate their release. On July 3, it was officially confirmed that the bodies of the two hostages had been found.

Due to the violence there, the people in Mataje had to flee their homes on several occasions. On March 22, El Telégrafo reported that 60% of the inhabitants had left. In April and May the exodus turned Mataje into almost a ghost town.

During all this time, the Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs Ministries of Ecuador reported a number of arrests of accomplices and collaborators of Guacho, the death of three FARC dissidents by the Colombian Army and the detention, on July 17, of the kidnapper of the murdered journalists, aka Cherry.

Clearly, however, the Ecuadorian government is unprepared for the events and violent actions that have been taking place.

The policy measures taken by the Ecuadorian government

The policy measures that the Ecuadorian government has implemented correspond fully to the war on drugs and the Colombian insurgent movements defined by the Plan Colombia. It is hard to believe that the new climate of cooperation existing between Ecuador and the US has not had a decisive influence on the Ecuadorian decision on this matter.

One such policy measure is propaganda. Information has been withheld in a systematic way, and the mainstream audiovisual and written press has not insisted on the contradictions surrounding the handling of the kidnappings.

The situation of violence generated by the various groups operating in the region and the illegal activities there are still at play. Even though the AUC and the FARC have demobilized, the Colombian cartels have entered into alliance with the Mexican mafias.

On the other hand, the blame has been placed on the previous Ecuadorian government for neglecting the northern border, for letting the drug traffickers and insurgents cross freely, and for building the bi-national bridge of Mataje.

The fact is, however, that the established policy of Ecuador was clearly one of non intervention in the Colombian conflict and that the building of the bridge was a long-standing agreement between the two countries.

The response in the field has been fundamentally a military one. The level of police and military presence deployed in the region has increased and a joint command has been established for coordinated interventions on the shared border with Colombia aimed at developing an integral defense of both countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.

On June 18, Lenin Moreno formally presented in Esmeraldas the so-called Plan for the Defense and Security of the Northern Border. It should be noted that in 2017 Ecuador already increased its military budget significantly, from 345 to 1,565 million dollars.

Regarding social policy, the government has re-activated the Plan Ecuador which was set up by Rafael Correa.


The current situation on Ecuador’s northern border is a consequence of processes which have been going on for years. The situation of violence generated by the various groups operating in the region and the illegal activities there are still at play. Even though the AUC and the FARC have demobilized, the Colombian cartels have entered into alliance with the Mexican mafias.

The big change has been the shift of Ecuador's strategy, from refraining to get involved in the Colombian conflict, to being now actively engaged in the traditional Colombian war on drugs and insurgency.

The problem is that Ecuador is unprepared for this sort of conflict and that, this being so, it is all very well to know how things start, but we just do not know how and when they may end.

The new president of Colombia, Iván Duque, has indicated that the peace agreements which were signed in 2016 must be amended, which does not bode well for the future.

Ecuador should perhaps rethink its cooperation policy, considering that the military solution is inadequate, especially for protecting the local population. Instead, civil society should work towards strengthening the social fabric, so as to prevent the conflict from destroying relationships and creating greater problems for the men and women who live on the border.

This article, based on excerpts from the report A Hot and Abandoned Border: a Brief Report on the Situation on the Northern Border, CEP, Quito, 2018, was previously published by Lalineadefuego.

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