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Colombia's New Generation Drug Gangs: The Power to Corrupt

Defectors from the Rastrojos, one of Colombia's most powerful gangs, have revealed a payroll of corrupt officials in one region of the country, giving a glimpse of the ability of these neo-paramilitary groups to penetrate the security forces.

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The leader of the Rastrojos in northern Antioquia, Angel de Jesus Pacheco, alias "Sebastian," was killed after a heated argument with his two bodyguards on July 25. After shooting their boss six times and tying him to a tree, the gunmen, known respectively by the aliases "El Negro" and "Guadaña," turned themselves in to the authorities. Asides from telling the story of how Pacheco died -- after he reportedly had three of his former bodyguards killed, suspecting them of betrayal -- El Negro and Guadaña brought with them a more valuable source of intelligence: the group's payroll records.

The documents describe how branches of the security forces in the Bajo Cauca received regular payments from the Rastrojos in return for allowing the group to operate with impunity. According to details published by El Tiempo, the local office of the police intelligence agency, known as DAS, received 15 million pesos (about $8,400) in January alone. This is the same sum received by the military's anti-kidnapping unit, known as GAULA. The police station in Caucasia, one of Antioquia's most violent municipalities, received double that amount, 30 million pesos (about $16,800). The books also name individuals on the Rastrojos' payroll: one police officer in the anti-narcotics unit, for example, was allegedly paid two million pesos ($1,120) between November 2010 and January 2011.

It is possible that, in exchange for the cash, these corrupt elements in the security forces actively aided the Rastrojos, instead of just taking a passive stance towards the group's illicit activities. This could have involved providing the Rastrojos with weapons from official stockpiles, a common way that groups arm themselves in Bajo Cauca, or else slipping them valuable intelligence about security operations, perhaps including the identity of police informants.

The Rastrojos have demonstrated a substantial ability to buy off local authorities, especially in their areas of influence in southwest Colombia and along the Pacific coast. In November 2010, six naval officers, including three lieutenants, were arrested in Tumaco, Nariño, charged with receiving up to five million pesos (about $2,700) in bribes from the Rastrojos every month in return for allowing drug shipments to pass through. The Rastrojos have also proved they are capable of corrupting political and judicial officials: in May, 39 people, including a member of the municipal council and a court secretary, were arrested in Choco province, accused of links to the group. According to El Tiempo, the payroll books provided by Pacheco's bodyguards also list local government officials in Bajo Cauca.

So far this year, there are 100 police officers under investigation for their links to criminal gangs, Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera recently said. InSight Crime's Spanish-language media partner, Verdad Abierta, counts 700 members of the security forces under investigation, including 350 members of the military, and close to 300 police who've been removed from duty for suspected links to groups like the Rastrojos.

The Colombian government has tried to distinguish the new generation of criminal groups from their paramilitary predecessors, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC) paramilitary group, by describing them as "criminal bands" (bandas criminales - BACRIM). But as Verdad Abierta notes, evidence of collaboration between the security forces and the BACRIMs points to a common thread running from the AUC era. When groups like the Rastrojos prove they have the ability to thoroughly penetrate state insitutions, this raises the question of how accurate it is to describe such a highly organized and powerful group as a mere "criminal band."

But it is important to note that the security forces' current collusion with the BACRIMs looks very different from that with their AUC predecessors. Now, the emphasis is on the business of drug trafficking: corrupt elements of the police and military are enlisted to actively help move and protect drug shipments, or else to turn a blind eye to the group's operations in a given area.

The AUC, on the other hand, worked with the military and police to persecute suspected members of leftist guerrilla groups. Across the country, elements in the security forces lent the paramilitaries helicopters and trucks for transport and fed them intelligence about their rivals, which sometimes included other paramilitary factions. The AUC and the Colombian military are also known to have conducted joint operations together, although in some cases, like the massacre of Mapiripan which left 50 civilians dead, the army "supported" the operation by refusing to take action against the AUC.

Northern Antioquia, which includes the Bajo Cauca region, was the birthplace of the AUC and the site of several noted cases of collaboration between the paramilitaries and government forces. But the primary interest of the paramilitary blocs active in Bajo Cauca, led by warlords "Macaco" and "Cuco Vanoy," was drug trafficking, not the ideological war against the guerrillas. As a result, there is a tradition here of authorities accepting an extra million pesos, or more, in return for leaving the cocaine trade in peace.

Things could get worse in Bajo Cauca. So far there are no signs of the security forces sharing vehicles or equipment with groups like the Rastrojos. Nor is there evidence that the military or police are favoring one BACRIM over another, as occurred in the Eastern Plains, where rival AUC blocs battled for territory while the government took sides.

Bajo Cauca is a key transit area for cocaine passing from Medellin to the Caribbean coast, or for coca base entering from coca-rich municipalities like Anori. So long as the BACRIMs continue to fight over control of this region, they will look to gain an advantage by buying off members of the security forces. Judging from the records of slain drug lord Angel de Jesus Pacheco, he found it a very worthwhile investment.

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