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 districts throughout 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.
Now there is talk of abuses at the hands of Ecuadorean soldiers.
The U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston, has issued a report citing abuses by Ecuadorean soldiers and saying the military is ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of the border region.
“And as [the military’s] relations with citizens have soured, [its] reliance on abusive tactics to obtain information has increased,” Mr. Alston reports.
There is a heavy price for those who resist, including Miguel Lapo and Miguel Pinzon.
Mr. Lapo was president of Barrancabermeja, a Ecuadorean refugee village with shacks lining the sides of a dirt soccer field. Mr. Pinzon was president of San Martin, a similar village nearby.
Both were Ecuadorean. Both helped Colombian refugees make a new life. Both spoke out if they witnessed something illegal.
Both were assassinated last September, one day apart, by unknown assailants.
Many here say they were killed as a warning to those willing to stand up to criminal elements.
“There are lots of theories of why he was murdered,” said Juan, a burly Colombian. “Nobody will ever know.”
Complicating matters is a culture of violence that is exemplified by “sicariato” — an assassination that costs only $20.
“The number of murders carried out by hired killers, criminal gangs and others is rising steadily, but at the same time fewer and fewer are being caught,” said Mr. Alston, who reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.
His report, issued in July, talks of a shocking level of impunity: For every 100 killings, only one perpetrator is convicted. Many times, the police don’t bother to investigate once they’ve determined that a killing resulted from “sicariato,” which they define as intergang violence.
“This category seems largely designed to provide a justification for the police not to bother too much with investigating a large proportion of the killings that take place, while reassuring the public that those involved were essentially just crooks,” the report states.
The map of criminal players isn’t the only thing that has shifted. Analysts note that the FARC — which began as a communist land movement by peasants and which to varying degrees has controlled much of this border over the years — has changed, too.
“There has been an evolution, and the ideological component has diminished,” said Michael Shifter, a policy analyst for the Washington-based InterAmerican Dialogue. “Now they’ve increasingly resorted to criminal tactics like extortion and kidnapping, and there’s an emphasis on the drug trade rather than the ideological component that characterized the group from the beginning.”