Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

Blood from Stones

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The Death of Edgar Tovar and FARC's Cocaine Pipeline
Relatively unnoticed in Colombia, the government confirmed the death of Edgar Tovar, a senior FARC commander and one of the group's chief ties to Mexican drug cartels.

Tovar, AKA Gentil Gomez Marin or Angel Gabriel Losada Garcia, was the commander of the FARC's 48th Front, which operates primarily along the Ecuador/Colombia border, which has recently grown into the main cocaine conduit for supplying Mexican drug cartels. This makes him a key figure in the FARC's financial structure.

With the FARC leadership being relatively unable to communicate with each other and the contacts with the Mexican organizations a closely guarded among a few members of the 48th Front, Tovar's death is a significant blow. It removes one of the key facilitators of a terrorist group in dealing with transnational organized criminal groups.

Because of these ties, as outlined in my recent Ecuador study Tovar was a primary target for the Colombian police and military. Tovar had also been in charge of the security of Raul Reyes, the FARC's second-in-command, killed in Ecuador on March 1, 2008 by a Colombian attack.

One of the most interesting elements about the FARC in recent times is how groups like the 48th Front, which provide much of the logistical support for the rest of the FARC while collecting most of the cocaine money, have become more independent from the General Secretariat.

Internal intercepted communications of the FARC in recent months have shown that, despite pleas for money by the Secretariat, the 48th Front has simply refused to comply, and has shown in marked disinterest in fighting the Colombian military.

Given the FARC's dependence on the 48th Front's trafficking network (it works closely with the 29th Front, which is in charge of much of the weapons procurement), such defections could be lethal.

I and others have predicted the core FARC that still claims to have an ideological compass will be greatly reduced over time as the group becomes more and more criminalized. As the illicit trade becomes an ever-more dominant reason for existence - no longer tied to benefiting the revolution but entirely tied to personal gain - this fracturing will continue.

Working closely with Tovar is Oliver Solarte, the hands-on manager of the 48th Front's cocaine network. He lives on the Ecuador side of the San Miguel River, controlling the area around Puerto Nuevo, where his family lives, owns lands, runs brothels and supermarkets and generally displace the Ecuadoran state as the real authority.

Despite the wealth of knowledge on Solarte (also detailed in the Ecuador report), the Ecuadoran authorities have been unable and/or unwilling to apprehend him. This could be in part because he is in charge of paying the bribes to the Ecuadoran military and police that operate in the area, insuring that the cocaine flows with impunity and that the Mexican buyers who arrive are not bothered.

I have been to several organized crime and terrorism conferences in recent weeks and have sought to help focus on what the definition of "victory" should be in counter-narcotics efforts, be they in Colombia, Mexico or elsewhere.

Eliminating key financial and logistical operators like Tovar have an important degrading effect on the trafficking organizations. But the degradation of capabilities is usually temporary and, even if it is more long-lasting, it simply makes the trafficking structures less efficient and less profitable.

If they are less efficient and less profitable, they are less able to corrupt and murder, but also harder to target because the structures are somewhat atomized, rather than being centralized.

But if they are atomized, they become a problem that does not challenge the state, but rather can become a local police or military problem, where enough space for the state to reassert control can be created, further weakening the criminal and/or terrorist structures.

And that, I think, is the definition of victory, at least in the mid-term. Pushing the problem elsewhere, reducing the challenges to the state and atomizing the criminal structures so they can be dealt with at a local level are the best that can be hoped for given the profitability and endless supply of consumers.
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