The New Political Face of Colombia’s Drug Gangs

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Colombia’s new generation criminal gangs, known as BACRIMs, have set their sights on infiltrating local politics, following the tradition of their predecessors in the paramilitary army AUC. InSight Crime outlines five trends to watch as they move forward with their plan.

Criminal participation in politics is a tradition in Colombia that has evolved with each generation of traffickers. Pablo Escobar was elected to a seat in the House of Representatives in 1982, while another member of the Medellin Cartel, Carlos Lehder, tried running for Senate four years later. In the mid-1990s, drug cartels focused instead on openly funding their select candidates, including President Ernesto Samper (1994-1998). The next decade saw the “parapolitics” scandal, in which the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) opted instead to cultivate political allies in select regions where they already had the support of Colombia’s economic elite.

Now, the inheritors of paramilitary power, dubbed “criminal bands” (bandas criminales – BACRIMS) by the government, are entering the fourth stage of the drug trade’s political evolution. There are several important differences between how this generation of drug traffickers strive for political influence, contrasted with elections past. Here are a few top points:

The BACRIMs need to be much more subtle than the AUC in courting political allies.

The AUC wanted cronies in political office for two main reasons: access to municipal budgets, and ability to influence the security forces and the judiciary. These are still important incentives for the BACRIMs, but they lack the AUC’s connections to the upper ranks of political power. Neither have the BACRIMs been capable of fully controlling their territory, fighting with each other or withguerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In essence, the BACRIMs lack the organization and the national structure needed to set up mutual-support agreements with large groups of politicians at once, as seen with the AUC’s signing of the Santa Fe de Ralito and Pivijay pacts.

In general terms, the BACRIMs have favored a much more subtle modus operandi than the AUC, operating in civilian clothing and usually opting to work with the FARC rather than against them. The lack of open conflict with the FARC allows the BACRIMs to deflect attention and concentrate on their main business interests, mainly the drug trade. In marked contrast to the AUC, this generation of drug gangs do not bother to put on a political facade. Their ideology is making money, even if it means collaborating with their former guerrilla rivals.

There’s no denying that the BACRIMs still need allies in political office to protect their many business interests. But due to their own structural weaknesses, they will have to pursue these goals much more quietly — and on a much smaller scale — than the AUC.

The BACRIMs have more incentive to focus on infiltrating local political office rather than the national government.

AUC commanders were heavily involved in selecting which local candidates they wanted to run for office: mayors, councilors, members of departmental assemblies. According to Colombian think-tank Corporacion Nuevo Arco Iris, the AUC backed some 251 mayors and over 4,000 councilors in the 2003 municipal elections. They were also heavily involved in the election of members of Congress: almost a third of congressional candidates elected in 2006 were eventually investigated for alleged paramilitary ties.

Dozens of senators, congressional representatives and governors were investigated by the Attorney General’s Office, tried by the Supreme Court, and, in at least 25 cases, actually sentenced. But nothing like these investigations has yet been seen on a regional scale, involving local courts, judges and prosecutors. For the most part, the BACRIMs can still rely on the necessary impunity to buy off local politicians, who have little reason to fear that they will end up being investigated or convicted.

The “parapolitics” investigation did a good job at apprehending big names, like President Alvaro Uribe’s cousin, Mario Uribe or the former head of Colombia’s intelligence agency, the DAS, Jorge Noguera. Local politicians did not receive the same attention due to limited resources on the part of the attorney general.·This may provide the BACRIMs with an opening to again penetrate the political class — but this time, their targets are the lower rungs of the ladder.

The area most vulnerable to “parapolitics” has shifted from the Caribbean to the Pacific southwest.

During the peak of paramilitary power, the AUC had their tightest grip on politicians from northern departments like Sucre, Cordoba and Bolivar. In 2011, the criminal group that is most powerful, and organized enough to intimidate the political class, is the Rastrojos, whose powerbase is in the country’s west and southwest departments: Choco, Valle del Cauca, Cauca and Nariño.

Drug trafficking routes and coca production have shifted, in part, away from the Caribbean coast to this area. This gives the Rastrojos additional incentive to enlist political help in protecting their turf: they need to secure access to coca crops and maritime smuggling routes. According to a government study, Nariño and Cauca are among the departments most likely to see the elections influenced by criminal gangs, with a combined 45 municipalities deemed to be at risk.

The Rastrojos also need political protection in order to give them an advantage in fighting off their rivals, the Urabeños, who are trying to gain a foothold along the Pacific coast. In Cumbitara, Nariño, where an ideological faction of the Rastrojos is locked into a fierce battle with the FARC, this could explain why the Rastrojos have been particularly aggressive in intimidating candidates. According to La Silla Vacia, this Rastrojos cell recently ordered 74 local community leaders to show up at their Cumbitara encampment to receive instructions about which political candidates should be supported. When some did not appear, the Rastrojos killed and dismembered four people.

The BACRIMs have expanded the economic interests they want to protect.

Drug trafficking was just one revenue stream for the AUC. Others included cash siphoned from public contracts, mining and oil royalties, the contraband gasoline trade, and protection fees charged to multinationals like Chiquita. Co-opting politicians was one way to assure that the “para-economy” would continue to run smoothly.

The BACRIMs are·also juggling multiple sources of income, and need political allies to ensure they can continue to do so. They are likely to become even more dependent on other criminal enterprises like extortion and kidnapping, if the security forces continue squeezing the drug trade. There is some evidence that they are already more deeply involved in illegal mining projects than the AUC, partly because the rising global price of gold has made the industry that much more lucrative. This gives the BACRIMs a special incentive to sponsor political candidates in Colombia’s mining areas, including departments like Antioquia, Norte de Santander, and Bolivar.

The BACRIMs have another key interest to promote during these elections: making sure that Colombia’s land restitution project moves as slowly and with as much blood spilled as possible. This is especially true for the Eastern Plains, where Colombia’s biggest oil reserves are found, as well as a great deal of fertile, undeveloped farmland. For the political elite looking to defend the status quo and keep President Santos’ land reform project from moving forward, the 2011 elections may be the perfect opportunity to cultivate alliances with the BACRIMs.

With a surge of new political parties and independent candidates, the BACRIMs have fresh opportunities to select candidates who will not be subject to careful background checks.

Colombia’s multiparty democracy is still relatively young. Up until 1991, power mainly rotated between the two main parties, the Liberals and Conservatives. Now there are seven major parties and several smaller ones. This can be a sign of a healthy democracy, but the downside is that many political parties remain weak and lack the internal structures to properly vet their candidates.

Several political parties have already been accused of acting as a vehicle for the interests of economic elites and their paramilitary allies. The National Integration Party (Partido de Integracion Nacional – PIN) is the best known example; other young parties like Afrovides and the Movement of Inclusion and Opportunities (Movimiento de Inclusion y Oportunidades) have a similarly tainted history, involving some of the same shady characters.

In other cases, politicians jailed for collusion with the AUC have picked relatives to run for office. One troubling case this year involves the brother of paramilitary warlord Carlos Maria Jimenez, alias “Macaco,” now extradited, who is a mayoral candidate in Dosquebradas, Risaralda.

On a final note:

The BACRIMs lack the ability and the interest to fully replicate the AUC’s model for winning political control. What we are likely to see this year is the quietest attempt yet by the criminal gangs to link themselves with the political class. Should politicians plan to contact BACRIM leaders, there will likely be intermediaries who themselves send intermediaries in their stead. Should money from government budgets end up in the BACRIMs’ pockets, tracing the path of the laundered funds may have more twists and turns than ever before.

Colombia’s drug gangs have never been so furtive about their political interests as they have during the 2011 elections. In one cynical way, this could be read as a sign of progress for Colombia’s democracy.

View Dosquebradas, Risaralda in a larger map

– See InSight Crime’s report on violence against candidates
– See InSight Crime’s report on the government’s efforts to clean up the election

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