Explosives Found on Colombia-Ecuador Border

The illegal importation of explosives and ammunition between Colombia and Ecuador is one of the main topics of the binational defense agenda.
Marian Romero/Dialogo | 20 April 2017

The Pegaso Task Force found several kilos of ammonium nitrate and other explosives which criminals use for making homemade arms. (Photo: Pegaso Task Force)

In a March 21st operation against drug trafficking, the Colombian Army’s Pegaso Task Force found an illegal cache of 600 homemade 81 mm cartridges in the municipality of Barbacoas, in the department of Nariño. So far this year, the Colombian Armed Forces have seized more than 2,000 grenades of various calibers in the region – the same grenades used by illegal organizations to commit terrorist acts against infrastructure such as highways, bridges, transmission towers, and oil pipelines, among others.

Brigadier General Sergio Alberto Tafur García, the commander of the Colombian Army’s Pegaso Task Force, said that the department of Nariño, where the task force operates, is situated in a strategic position that has allowed crime problems such as illegal mining to fester. Over the past several years the problems have also included trafficking in weapons, ammunition, and explosives. “Historically, it [this area] has been influenced by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, per its Spanish acronym), and the National Liberation Army (ELN, per its Spanish acronym), and recently by other Organized Armed Groups (GAOs, per its Spanish acronym) that have not come out of guerilla movements. In the border area with Ecuador, Nariño has a jungle geography that facilitates the illegal trafficking of weapons,” he said.

In that area, the Colombian Army has also seized 653 grenades of various calibers, 42 improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and 1,801 kilos of explosives. All thanks to the joint effort between both countries’ militaries, which have conducted a series of binational operations to effectively tackle the problem.

Interference by GAOs

The border between Colombia and Ecuador is characterized by a complicated geography with a lowland that features high temperatures, abundant rainfall, and lush vegetation. This topography is used by criminal groups to take refuge in the region.

“Currently, the enduring threat matrix in Nariño is made up of the ELN’s Southern Comunero Front and the Gulf Clan. These two GAOs base their financing on drug trafficking and criminal mining,” Brig. Gen. Tafur noted. “Now that the FARC is transitioning over to the rule of law under the peace process, the ELN wants to take back its criminal power in these areas, but since it doesn’t have greater resources or logistical capability, it’s exerting pressure on the civilian population and the government through terrorism.”

On the Ecuadorian side of the border, the problem of explosives trafficking is linked to the strategic position the nation holds on the continent, and to poverty. “Trafficking networks find this border attractive because of its porosity with Colombia,” stated Joint Chiefs of Staff Colonel Francisco Narváez Vaca, who commands the Ecuadorian Army’s 31st Infantry Brigade, called Andes. “There are Ecuadorians and Colombians grappling with unemployment who have gotten used to the culture of criminality on the border. Encouraged by the ability to solve their families’ basic needs, they end up in [collaboration with] common criminal organizations,” he said.

The Ecuadorian Armed Forces have stepped up their patrols over the last three years in an effort coordinated with their peers in Colombia. (Photo: Pegaso Task Force)

Among other seizures in 2017, the Joint Command of the Ecuadorian Armed Forces on March 15th found 18 sacks containing approximately 546 kilograms of ammonium nitrate in the area.

Binational Border Security Strategy

Brig. Gen. Tafur explained that the unlawful importation of weapons reached its zenith in 2015 when 1,267 grenades of various calibers, 1,360 IEDs, and 6,916 kilos of explosives were seized. These figures alarmed the military authorities at the border. As a result, a binational plan was drawn up to tackle the problem in a coordinated way.

“Colombia’s Army Command brought in 180 men to bolster security at the border. It was a group of regular soldiers who control illegal border crossings along the 243 kilometers of the land and river border,” Brig. Gen. Tafur said. “That way, soldiers specialized in counterinsurgency can continue to confront the specific challenges within that department.”

Today the border between Colombia and Ecuador has an early alert system for conducting ordinance seizure and destruction operations. This was made possible through tactical binational meetings, intelligence sharing, patrolling and monitoring of land, river, and sea border crossings, and the parallel actions generally are taken to prevent illegal trafficking in explosives between the two nations. “A threat to Colombian or Ecuadorian security at the border is a shared threat. That is why our two nations’ armies maintain close relations and why we have deployed mechanisms for counteracting illicit acts while honoring the interests of the other country and protecting the people who live at the border,” Col. Narváez stated.

Through their management of these border issues, the Ecuadorian Armed Forces and police are growing increasingly precise in their intelligence, communications, and mobility. This is all intended to prevent the problems associated with the end of the armed conflict in Colombia and to protect the civilian population. “Staying in constant communication — sharing communications between intelligence agencies in order to conduct joint military operations — is crucial for keeping our cooperation agreements in force and thus effectively combating the illegal trafficking of drugs, weapons, contraband, and the guerilla insurgency. These are the most pronounced issues at the border,” Col. Narváez said.

Both nations have organized comprehensive action events in which work crews fan out across the border communities offering health services and distributing provisions. These events are held in both countries every six months, benefitting nearly 5,000 residents.

On March 24th, as follow-up to this cooperation effort, Colombia’s Deputy Minister of Defense and International Affairs Aníbal Fernández de Soto met with Ecuador’s Deputy Minister of Security Coordination Andrés Fernando de la Vega Grunauer for the purpose of signing the Annual Operating Plan, a binational mechanism through which their joint defense and security plans and strategies for 2017 will be formulated.

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