SAN MIGUEL RIVER, Ecuador | Thousands of Colombian peasants have crossed into this Ecuadorean jungle for years to escape what the U.S. State Department describes as a low-intensity guerrilla war involving mostly political combatants.
But these days, Colombian refugees are contending with a new and equally deadly breed of armed conflict — among ruthless gangs vying for control of the region’s lucrative cocaine and arms trade.
Officials estimate that 3,000 people belong to 20 to 30 “franchised” trafficking groups that were founded in Colombia but now are operating in Ecuador with names such as New Generation, Blue Eagles and the Machos.
“These groups are known as ‘Bacrim,’ which is short for ‘criminal gangs,’” said Jay Bergman, the Andean regional director for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “Banda criminal” is Spanish for “criminal gang.”
“They have filled the drug-trafficking and criminal enterprise void left after the demobilization of the right-wing paramilitary groups. … The Bacrim consist of over 30 independent criminal gangs, several of which have formed close alliances among each other,” he said.
Mr. Bergman said the most formidable gangs — Los Rastrojos, Los Paisas, ERPAC, Los Urabenos, Los Machos and Renacer — are active in 18 districtsthroughout the country, with a heavy influence in the Pacific region.
The Bacrim generally are made up of Colombian fighters who either did not take part in Colombia’s demobilization campaigns or who demobilized and returned to the field.
Mr. Bergman said the gangs also count among their ranks former leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, commonly known as the FARC; the lesser-known leftist guerrilla group known as the National Liberation Army, or ELN; and members from the dismantled North Valle drug cartel.
“The violent transnational criminal activity of the Bacrim continues to increase,” Mr. Bergman said. “For DEA, the U.S. government and Colombian government, tackling the Bacrim is considered a top priority.”
Though many subsets of the Bacrim are causing problems across the country, the principal group in this jungle border region is called the Black Eagles.
Reports in local media say the group is responsible for many killings and has embarked on a campaign of intimidation by peppering some villages with fliers that warn of a social “cleansing” campaign.
Locals say they are caught in the middle of it all.
“One group comes in and makes you hide weapons,” said Rosa, a middle-aged mother of three from the river village of Puerto Nuevo who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. “Then another group comes and thinks you are the enemy. If the military comes, they put you in jail for being a collaborator.”
There are other problems, too.
The Ecuadorean army has built up its presence here in the past two years since the Colombian army conducted a cross-border military raid on a guerrilla camp in Ecuador.