After more than half a century of civil war and the rise and fall of drug trafficking empires, Colombia has made huge strides in improving its security situation in recent years. However, it remains beset by guerrilla rebels and criminal networks, and the Colombian underworld is a potent mix of ideological organizations, their remnants and organized crime, where the boundaries between war and criminal activity are fluid. These armed groups and criminal networks are involved in an extensive range of activities including drug production and trafficking, arms trafficking, money laundering, extortion and illegal mining.
With access to two oceans and borders with five countries, Colombia is the gateway of South America. Three extensive mountain ranges and large swathes of isolated, inaccessible territories also give criminal groups ample space to move, store and produce illicit drugs and conduct other activities such as illegal mining. Colombia’s location has long made it a center of contraband and illicit activities, while its vast mountain ranges have made it difficult for any government to properly unify the nation and provide security. Colombia gives licit and illicit businesses access to Ecuador, Brazil and Peru to the south, Venezuela to the east and Panama to the north.
Colombia’s geographical advantages have meant it has long been a hive of contraband and smuggling. The country’s relationship with the drug trade began in the 1970s when poor farmers began planting marijuana as a far more lucrative alternative to the legal crops they were struggling to survive producing. The development of Colombian organized crime accelerated in the 1970s when criminal groups looked to cash in on the craze for cocaine in the United States by processing coca leaf from Peru and Bolivia into cocaine then trafficking it to the United States. In the 1980s, the first major cocaine cartels emerged, Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel and the Cali Cartel in the south west. While they were in the same trade, the Medellín and Cali Cartels were polar opposites. The Medellín Cartel leaders cut their teeth stealing cars, buying their way through the local police and employing street thugs and gangs to do their dirty work. When the upper classes rejected their attempts to enter politics, they rebelled and used violence to try and coerce the state. The Cali Cartel was a more sophisticated operation born of a more upper class contingent and bent on the use of political persuasion rather than military might. Both established cocaine empires that stretched from the coca fields of Bolivia to the streets of New York.
Around the same time as coca processing was shifting to Colombia, the country’s numerous guerrilla groups were building up their strength by financing themselves with criminal activities, especially kidnapping. The four main guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), the 19th of April Movement (M-19), and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) began targeting businessmen, cattle owners, and politicians. The so-called “retentions” were at first declared political in nature but quickly evolved into one of the guerrillas’ single most important motors for growth. However, the long-term impact of this strategy would be catastrophic for these groups. The M-19’s kidnapping of the daughter of a major drug lord led to the organization of one of the first of many paramilitary groups financed by drug money that eventually targeted not just insurgents but civilians suspected of collaborating with them. Locals also turned on the guerrillas as they started to kidnap middle-class and even poor farmers and shop owners. The result was a widespread backlash, increased support for the right-wing paramilitary groups and “slash and burn” military tactics, and little political support for the guerrillas once they had demobilized and entered the political process.
The cocaine laboratories, meanwhile, were a boon for everyone from the criminal syndicates to the rebels, the businesses and the government. But they also had catastrophic consequences for Colombia. Few had any real incentive to slow the trade until pressure to extradite some of the big cartel leaders to stand trial in the United States led to a violent showdown in which hundreds of innocent civilians were killed in a series of bombings orchestrated by Escobar. The so-called “Extraditables” also killed dozens of police and judges, and assassinated and kidnapped prominent politicians and wealthy scions. The tactics worked as Colombians banned extradition during the 1991 constitutional assembly. With extradition off the table, Escobar turned himself in, but only on the condition he serve his time in his own purpose-built luxury prison. After a year, the deal between Escobar and the government soured after it became apparent he was still running his criminal empire from behind bars, and Escobar escaped. After escaping jail, he faced a formidable foe that included a loose alliance between the Colombian police, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a lethal group of paramilitary assassins and the rival Cali Cartel. The pressure eventually forced the kingpin from hiding long enough for authorities to gun him down in December 1993.
Even with Escobar gone, the drug trade continued apace. Those who had allied to defeat him simply took over his supply and distribution routes. The new criminal groups were more sophisticated than the old ones, often camouflaging their intentions in political rhetoric, military alliances and police uniforms. They included the multiple paramilitary groups who worked as state proxies in the battle against leftist guerrillas. Following the arrest of the heads of the Cali Cartel, a group of former and current police became the core of the most powerful of the new generation drug trafficking organizations, a federation of drug lords known as the Norte del Valle Cartel.
Indeed, the end of the Medellín and Cali cartels meant the end of direct purchases of coca paste in Peru and Bolivia, and the result was a boom in coca production in Colombia. Much of the cultivation was focused in isolated rural areas dominated by guerrilla groups, and taxing the drug trade became the rebel’s most important source of finances while also adding an incentive for their enemies to seize territory from them. While both the Medellín and Cali Cartels operated large, sophisticated armed networks, the new groups were quite literally armies that competed for control of this production. The largest of these, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), was a nationwide movement of paramilitary groups formed in the 1990s ostensibly to fight the guerrillas. At its height, the AUC had some 35,000 soldiers at its disposal. For years, the organization did battle with the guerrillas, but always combining political and military campaigns with illegal business interests, especially in the drug trade. Later on, some guerrilla fronts from the FARC made the leap beyond taxing and regulating coca production and into cocaine trafficking, mostly through Venezuela, Brazil and later Ecuador. However, while Colombian groups were militarily and territorially powerful, their power in the transnational drug trade was slipping. During this time, Mexican organizations such as the Gulf, Tijuana, Juarez and the Sinaloa Cartels sought to move further down the supply chain and increase their stake in the drug trade by negotiating directly with the cocaine providers, shifting the balance of power in the regional underworld away from Colombia and towards Mexico.
In 2003, the supply chain went through another transformation. The Norte del Valle Cartel began a bloody internal war after one faction assassinated one of the other faction’s key leaders. The war coincided with the beginning of a peace process in which the AUC leaders demobilized their armies and handed themselves in to authorities. Several AUC leaders were also assassinated during this process and many of those that surrendered were later extradited to the United States. The Colombian government also began a military offensive against the guerrillas, dislodging them from many of their strongholds in coca-producing areas.
The breakup of the Norte del Valle Cartel and the demobilization of the AUC marked the beginning of a new era in Colombian crime dominated by criminal-paramilitary hybrids that the government dubbed BACRIM (from the Spanish for “criminal bands”). These groups largely consist of paramilitaries that either rearmed or did not demobilize and are led by former mid-level AUC commanders who stepped in the vacuum left by the top paramilitary leaders. There were originally over 30 BACRIM, but the number has now been reduced to a handful as smaller groups have been absorbed by more powerful networks or dismantled by the security forces.
By far the most powerful BACRIM currently active is the Urabeños, who control a broad portfolio of criminal activities throughout much of the country. The FARC, meanwhile, entered into peace talks with the government in 2012, and finalized their disarmament in 2017. This has contributed to a major shakeup in the underworld as FARC units criminalize instead of reintegrating to society, and other organizations fight for control of the criminal interests vacated by the FARC.
Insurgencies, multiple former right-wing paramilitary groups and several smaller drug trafficking organizations alternately work in concert or fight against each other for control over what remains the most important production, depot, storage and embarkation points for illicit drugs and numerous other contraband. The most powerful of these groups are dissidents of the now-demobilized FARC and the still-active ELN rebel groups, as well as criminal-paramilitary hybrid groups known as the BACRIM such as the Rastrojos, the Oficina de Envigado and the Urabeños. There are also smaller, more localized criminal networks ranging from street gangs to rearmed paramilitaries across the country, and these often work in partnership with larger organizations.
In total, Colombia’s security forces — including the army, navy and air force, as well as the police force — have close to 500,000 members. Each branch has its own intelligence services that work closely with US and European counterparts sharing information and, at times, coordinating operations against organized criminal groups.
Colombia’s courts system is headed by four judicial organs: the Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction over civil and criminal law; the Council of State, which handles administrative law; the Constitutional Court; and the Superior Judicial Council, which serves as a court of appeal regarding jurisdictional conflicts between courts. Over the last decade, Colombia has gone through a massive judicial overhaul as it moved from the inquisitorial to the accusatory system, aided by the Justice Sector Reform Program (JSRP) directed by the United States Department of Justice. Nevertheless, the system remains hampered by corruption, inefficiency and impunity rates are sky high. A 2017 report by the Center for Studies on Impunity and Justice (Centro de Estudios sobre Impunidad y Justicia – CESIJ) found that Colombia has one of the worst impunity records in the world. The country also scored poorly in terms of ethics and corruption in the World Economic Forum’s 2016-2017 Global Competitiveness Report.
Despite a raft of reforms and investments, including financial and logistical aid from the United States, Colombia’s prisons are overcrowded, crumbling and riddled with corruption and criminal economies. As of October 2017, the country’s penitentiaries are at 146 percent of their capacity, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies — a situation exacerbated by the fact over a third of inmates have yet to be convicted. This has led to appalling conditions and lack of access to basic services for inmates. Within Colombia’s prisons, illegal economies based on extortion and contraband thrive, although prisons are not directly run by criminal groups as in other countries. Colombia’s prison system is run by an independent body, the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario y Carcelario – INPEC) that has been plagued by scandal and declared unfit for its purpose.