US State Depertament. Public domain.
“He is an ordinary citizen. The farmers say he is a man who understands the people and talks to them in their own language. He is a brother. He has become a role model.” This is how a citizen from the Colombian department of Norte de Santander, close to the Venezuelan border, described Megateo when I chatted with residents of the region of Catatumbo during my trip to the area a few years ago.
The violent death of this man through a Colombian military operation earlier this month was celebrated by the national and international media as a big success. One of the most wanted drug kingpins of Colombia, his death was an important blow against the illegal cocaine industry. Nevertheless, the residents of Catatumbo have little reason to celebrate. For them, the near future could be even harder, featuring an escalation of violence unseen under Megateo’s rule.
Megateo was not just any narco. He started his career as a guerrilla fighter. He became the leader of the Ejército Popular de Liberación (Popular Liberation Army – EPL), a guerrilla group which still exists as a small faction in the Catatumbo region. He positioned himself as a major power player in the conflict and drug dynamics through his role as a “narco-broker”: Megateo coordinated the agreements between the links of the cocaine supply chain. He helped overcome the mistrust between the groups that participate in the business: the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – FARC), the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army – ELN) and the EPL; the paramilitaries and later their successors; and various criminal groups.
He managed to fulfil this intermediary function successfully because he had three characteristic features: trustworthiness, reliability and strong networking skills. Often the only direct contact between the groups, he was responsible for making the agreements work, therefore he had to be trustworthy to all groups involved. Furthermore, his reputation as a “good broker” over the course of 25 years conferred to him the reliability that is necessary in this illegal business. Finally, he had a large network of contacts which served to connect and reconnect the links while ensuring the validity of the agreements without putting into danger the business deals.
A dead man’s value
The killing of Megateo means that an important part of the cocaine supply chain has been torn apart. As these three characteristics are scarce among drug traffickers, it will be difficult to re-establish this part in a quick manner to ensure the continuous supply of the coca to the laboratories and the flow of cocaine on the trafficking routes towards Venezuela and the Caribbean. But re-establishing these links is only a matter of time.
What is worrying now is that Megateo’s death leaves a power vacuum. This refers both to the drug trade and to territorial control in Catatumbo. Without this figure who knew how to conciliate the differing needs of the various groups which, ideologically, are enemies, a power struggle for Megateo’s succession is very likely.
Although the end of the FARC may be closer than ever, they are still active. In Catatumbo, their power is particularly strong. Also ELN, EPL, various other paramilitary successor and criminal groups – the so-called Bandas Criminales Emergentes (Emerging Criminal Gangs - BACRIM) – and even youth gangs, subcontracted by more powerful groups, operate in the region.
While combat between these groups and the Colombian armed forces are quite frequent, they have reached arrangements of convenience among each other which help reduce the number of violent clashes. This relative stability in the region was partly owed to Megateo. In his function as a broker he contributed to a “Machiavellian equilibrium”, as a human rights defender of the region described it, in which everyone knew their limits. The armed groups would think twice whether surpassing the limit was too costly.
Now this equilibrium is not ensured anymore. It may give way to a power struggle which, at least in the short term, would increase violence in the region which would jeopardize the lives of the people of the Catatumbo region.
These people have already suffered “collateral damages” during the military operations carried out by the Colombian state forces to persecute Megateo. In light of the border crisis between Colombia and Venezuela which developed during those same days, the suffering of these people did not receive much attention. But while Juan Manuel Santos demanded from the Venezuelan president to respect the human rights of Colombians who were deported back from Venezuela to Colombia, the human rights of hundreds of Colombians who had to flee the military operations were violated only a few kilometres away from the border: the intense military operations against Megateo in August 2015 displaced at least 300 people and spread fear across the Catatumbo region. It is vital that this unbearable situation stops now after the military strike, and does not deterioriate.
What is needed are not only actions against the illicit drug trade, but also actions in favour of the people of Catatumbo. The Colombian police are correct when stating that Megateo produced terror among the local population, but this is only one side of the coin. When I visited the villages in Catatumbo where Megateo was wanted and killed, I learned that Megateo was also considered a man who complies with what he says.
Why did so many people like the citizen mentioned at the beginning appreciate Megateo? One has to remember that this is, among other things, the result of state neglect. While Megateo complied – even though through illegal and violent measures – the Colombian state has failed to protect its own citizens. In Catatumbo I travelled on roads where the local communities charge road tolls in order to do construction work because the local government authorities would not do so. I met farmers who cultivated coca because there was no infrastructure that would allow them to take products like yucca or coffee to the markets. And I waited four hours in a long queue of cars and motorbikes in front of a damaged bridge because no one arrived to repair it until those waiting started to repair it themselves.
The Colombian government and the international community must respect, support and protect the Colombians living in the Catatumbo region, especially now during the current situation of uncertainty – a tense calm before a potential outbreak of violence.
In order to eliminate the cocaine industry, the violence fuelled by this industry and the suffering produced by the intertwining of war and the drug trade in Colombia, one must put people first. This leads to a more human equilibrium. The media should pay attention to the lives of the people of Catatumbo rather than to the death of a drug lord. This would be a true reason to celebrate.
A Spanish version of this article was previously published by Semana, Colombia.