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Colombian anti-narcotics police with packages of five tons of cocaine
The Colombian government's perpetual fight against the country's armed groups appears to be entering a new phase. Paramilitary organizations created to battle Marxist insurgent groups, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), have shifted to become primarily criminal organizations. These groups, referred to as "bandas criminales" (bacrim), are consolidating and beginning to cooperate with insurgents against whom they had previously fought, a trend that could create a criminal organization strong enough to challenge the Colombian state.
Bacrim currently have a presence in several hundred Colombian municipalities, concentrated mostly on the Caribbean coast, the Pacific coast and in Antioquia department, according to a 2012 report by Colombian nongovernmental organization Corporacion Nuevo Arco Iris (CNAI). This area of control roughly covers primary cocaine-producing regions as well as export terminals, and it also overlaps with economic interests of the Colombian state, namely extractive resources such as oil, coal and gold.
Estimates of total bacrim membership vary depending on the source. A 2008 CNAI report claimed the various bacrim groups totaled 10,200 members, but it apparently contradicted itself in a 2012 report, stating that 13,000 members had been captured. The government has said the total membership is closer to 4,000, but it has a strong interest in downplaying these groups' numbers. The discrepancy likely is a result of both a miscalculation of the organizations' true numbers and the continuing growth of bacrim.
Drug trafficking is the bacrim's primary source of income, but they also are active in extortion, kidnapping, murder for hire, illegal mining and micro drug dealing in major cities. They primarily operate in rural areas but have shown increasing influence in major cities such as Cali and Medellin. These groups often have relationships with local politicians, police and military personnel involving bribery or intimidation.
Bacrim have good relationships with major drug trafficking organizations, working together to secure coca leaves and to traffic cocaine paste and the finished product through their territory. Daniel "El Loco" Barrera Barrera, one of Colombia's biggest cocaine dealers, reportedly works with two of the most prominent bacrim, Los Rastrojos and El Ejercito Revolucionario Popular Anticomunista de Colombia (ERPAC). In truth, there is little that distinguishes bacrim from drug cartels.
The Colombian government cannot control large portions of the country, and it has the least control in rural areas. It is in Colombia's countryside where lawlessness and armed insurrection is born and where paramilitary organizations sponsored by Colombia's ruling elite were formed to combat the FARC and other militants.
In 1965, the Colombian military was given permission by the government, at the behest of the United States, to create, train and arm groups of civilians, originally called "self-defense groups" but later known as paramilitaries, to fight the growing threat of Marxist insurgency. As the number of paramilitaries and their memberships grew, some of these groups required more funding to continue the fight than the government could provide, and they became involved in cocaine production and trafficking. Others, formed with direct support of drug traffickers, were even more involved in the illicit trade. By the 1980s, many of the strongest paramilitary groups were engaged in criminal activity while continuing to train and conduct joint operations with the Colombian military as the state battled the Marxist insurgency.
Seeing a growing threat from Marxist guerrilla organizations such as the FARC and the ELN, several paramilitaries consolidated in 1997 to form the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Under the AUC, each paramilitary maintained its own leadership and territory of control, but their cooperation gave them more leverage in the fight. At the height of its power, the AUC operated in roughly two-thirds of Colombia and reportedly had more than 30,000 members. Largely designed to protect government interests and those of the landed elite, the AUC fought the FARC and other guerrilla organizations and drew most of its funding from cocaine trafficking.
The United States declared the AUC to be a terror organization in 2001 while at the same time working closely with the Colombian government to allocate more resources against drug trafficking. During this period, the government began to turn away from the paramilitaries and attempted to demobilize the AUC, culminating in the group's official demobilization Aug. 15, 2006. However, this process was fraught with problems. Under the terms of the agreement, some members were required to turn themselves in to authorities to face prosecution, but those who did often were not actual AUC members. Of those who did surrender, less than 10 percent were actually prosecuted. Many of the ex-paramilitary members had no non-military skills, leaving them without the ability to find jobs. Under the agreement, they were to have received a minimum wage salary for 18 months, but this did not happen in many cases.
Moreover, although some high-level commanders did demobilize, many midlevel commanders did not, and many members who were unable to find jobs eventually went back to their former leaders. These groups continued militant activities, taking over the territory of the demobilized paramilitary groups. The government, claiming to have demobilized the paramilitaries, did not want to admit their continued existence, so it rhetorically separated the old paramilitaries from the new by referring to the latter as bacrim, despite the fact that their memberships, goals and activities were largely the same.
For the past few years, bacrim have fought bloody wars against each other in attempts to increase market share and expand territory. However, recent reports suggest an agreement among Los Urbanos, Los Rastrojos and Los Paisas -- three of the most powerful bacrim -- to draw boundaries of operations and agree not to encroach on one another. This does not necessarily mean a full, nationwide cease-fire, but it does show a trend of consolidation similar to what gave rise to the AUC.
There are also signs bacrim are willing to work with their former adversaries, the Marxist guerrillas. Bacrim have bought coca paste from the FARC for several years, and there are indications that these bonds are strengthening. For example, police in Tolima, Narino department, blamed Los Rastrojos and the FARC for a Feb. 3 attack on police stations there. There are also reports that the FARC supported a January armed strike and curfew enforced by Los Urbanos that shut down public services in Uraba and Choco departments. The strike also is the first time bacrim have directly challenged the local government, asserting political and territorial control over about 4 percent of Colombia's territory.
The consolidation of bacrim and their growing ties to Marxist guerrillas represents a new phase in the civil conflict and the drug war.
Operation Espada de Honor represents a rhetorical step by the Colombian government toward combatting bacrim. However, the announcement does not necessarily mean military operations against bacrim are imminent. Neither side is likely eager to engage militarily with the other: The Colombian government's primary concern remains Marxist guerrillas, and the bacrim's goal is to make money, which becomes more difficult to do when fighting against the state. The language of Espada de Honor thus may simply be a veiled threat to bacrim not to flaunt their activities.
The Colombian government is in a difficult position. It cannot be seen as allowing any organization or coalition to become strong enough to challenge its interests. However, as long as the production and sale of cocaine remains profitable, non-state actors will compete to benefit from its trade. Using military force against bacrim will sharply increase levels of violence in the country, both in the short term as the military battles targeted organizations and in the long term as new groups seeking to profit from the drug trade form and fight for territory. But the Colombian government has no real choice because it cannot permit bacrim to become so powerful that they can pose a threat to the state. The government must limit their ability to grow to the point that they can pose the threat of large-scale violence, even if it means persistent low-level violence.
Even with an effective military, the Colombian government has not been able to control all of its territory or completely eradicate Marxist militancy, and the bacrim are no different. The Colombian state used to make up for this by relying on armed civilian groups in the hinterland, but as these groups have grown, consolidated and allied with Marxist guerrillas, they have evolved from being the solution to Colombia's security issues to being another problem.