The mafia in Colombia today is comprised of a maelstrom of localized groups, shadowy power brokers and sub-contracted labor that combine to bring order to the underworld chaos and make billions from trafficking everything from cocaine to influence.
The mafia, a label that covers all of Colombia’s underworld actors except the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the ex-FARC mafia, is organized in multi-tiered networks.
The upper echelons of organized crime still contain a handful of actors that resemble the infamous crime lords of Colombia’s past: commanders of armed groups and powerful drug traffickers whose violent histories are well-known to the security forces and the media. However, these figures are a dying breed. The operational life-cycle of prominent mafia leaders is growing ever shorter, and many of those that remain already live on the run.
Instead, most of today’s criminal elites are not those that control extensive armed structures, but those who can move money and power, and wield influence in both the legal and criminal worlds.
Today’s criminal elites are best epitomized by the international traffickers that keep the drugs flowing: the “Invisibles.” These are the hidden dealmakers of the cocaine trade, organizing multiple-ton drug shipments while living ostensibly respectable lives among Colombia’s social and economic elites. Many started out as money launderers or frontmen for the cartels of Medellín and Cali, or their successors in the Norte del Valle Cartel and the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). They have survived and thrived for decades by distancing themselves from the dirty work and living behind carefully constructed legal facades.
While the criminal elites are nodes in fluid networks of money and power, the underworld still requires structures that can hold territory, directly manage criminal activities and violently enforce rules and relations. In today’s increasingly fragmented criminal landscape, this role is fulfilled by an array of criminal actors.
Some of today’s mafia groups are directly descended from paramilitaries and guerrillas and have retained some of the characteristics and modalities of armed groups; most notably the Urabeños and the Puntilleros, which formed from remnants of the AUC, and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) respectively.
The other groups that populate today’s underworld are a product of the fracturing and recycling of previous underworld actors such the grand cartels of Medellín and Cali, the AUC, and the private armies of drug traffickers and other criminal elites. They have become hybrid organizations that combine the characteristics and personnel of armed groups, drug traffickers and common criminals.
The breakup of the last criminal groups with nationwide reach means they are now primarily localized, with limited territorial control. Among the most prominent of these organizations are the “oficinas de cobro,” or debt collection offices, of Medellín and Cali, the Constru, the Cordillera, the Empresa and local cells of the once national criminal armed group the Rastrojos.
Most of the different criminal groups in today’s underworld are principally dedicated to providing services to drug traffickers and other criminal elites. However, they have also diversified from the drug trade and maintain broad criminal portfolios that include activities such as extortion, microtrafficking and illegal mining.