A report written by Daniel Rico for the Woodrow Wilson Center insists that the current generation of Colombia’s organized crime syndicates, the BACRIM, is doomed to extinction — an encouraging, if controversial, assertion.
In his thought-provoking study, “The International Dimensions of Organized Crime in Colombia: the BACRIM, their Roots and Refuges” (PDF) — published as part of a series of Wilson Center papers on the spread of organized crime in the Americas and into parts of Africa — Rico identifies some of the inherent weaknesses in Colombia’s hybrid criminal organizations, known as “Bandas Criminales” (“Criminal Bands”) or BACRIM.
Rico also compares the BACRIM to their powerful predecessors in the Medellin Cartel and the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). He explores the migration of the BACRIM and their leadership to Colombia’s border regions and into neighboring countries, and their increasingly diverse criminal portfolios.
The BACRIM were born during and after the mid-2000s demobilization of the AUC — a political-military outfit that ostensibly formed to fight leftist rebels during the 1990s — although one of these groups, the Rastrojos, has its roots in drug trafficking organization the Norte del Valle Cartel. The BACRIM’s expansion, pioneered by the Rastrojos, was very fast. The demise of the Rastrojos, after the surrender of their boss Javier Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” to US authorities in May 2012, was equally swift, with a raft of arrests and loss of territory to the rival Urabeños.
As Rico correctly states, the BACRIM are in a far weaker position than their drug cartel predecessors in the cocaine trade, as they have essentially become wholesale suppliers to Mexico’s strongest criminal groups. Whereas in the days of the Cali and Norte del Valle Cartels, in the early 1990s, a kilo of cocaine generated some $16,000 profit (and this may be an underestimate), that same kilo, sold to the Mexicans today, generates only around $5,000 in profit. In the new narco-world, the Mexicans pocket a far greater share of the profits.
The second weakness of the BACRIM, which is not addressed in Rico’s report, is their reliance on rebel groups for coca base, the raw material for cocaine. Whereas previous generations of drug trafficking syndicates controlled coca crops, or had guaranteed access to them, today the BACRIM are largely dependent on the rebels for their coca base, the gooey paste that is the first stage of the cocaine production process. Unlike the AUC, the BACRIM do not have the military muscle to take on the largest of these rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), or even the second largest, the National Liberation Army (ELN), in their strongholds, forcing BACRIM and guerrillas into an uneasy and fragile coexistence.
Should the rebels ever decide to stop selling coca base to the BACRIM, the criminal dynamics in the country would change radically. However, the FARC are currently in peace talks with the government in Havana, Cuba. And as these talks progress towards a settlement, it is more likely that elements of the rebels will criminalize and work with the BACRIM.
Organized crime follows the path of least resistance, and, as Rico details, the Colombian state now presents a serious amount of resistance to drug traffickers. The country now boasts one of the most efficient and capable security forces in the region. While it might be a stretch to state, as Rico does, that “the totality (100 percent) of the leaders that began the BACRIM have been neutralized,” the Colombian security forces do have a remarkable record of identifying and capturing (or killing) BACRIM leaders both inside and outside of the country.
This brings us to the international dimension of the BACRIM. Rico correctly identifies the fact that the BACRIM have a permanent presence in Venezuela and Ecuador. He points to the concentration of drug crops along both borders, though these are, for the most part, controlled by the rebels, who at the moment sell a percentage of their coca on to the BACRIM. Venezuela has been the site for the capture of a veritable “Who’s Who” of BACRIM leaders, foremost among them the Oficina de Envigado’s Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias “Valenciano,” in November 2011, and, more recently, Daniel “El Loco” Barrera, in September 2012.
Ecuador has also been a favorite for Colombian criminals. Several senior BACRIM commanders have been captured there (among them Rastrojos leader Juan Carlos Calle Serna) and the fact that the country has the US dollar as its national currency makes it a natural draw for BACRIM leaders seeking to launder their profits. However, Colombian influence in Ecuador is being challenged as Mexican cartels send representatives down to secure cocaine shipments directly, often from the FARC, seeking to cut out the Colombian middlemen and further maximize profits.
Rico also highlights the presence of Hector Buitrago, alias “Martin Llanos” (a former AUC commander) in Bolivia. The capture in Martin Llanos’ cousin in Santa Cruz in June 2011 is evidence of Colombian drug trafficking links to Bolivia, and this Bolivian city has certainly become a regional center for organized crime, with heavy Colombian involvement. However, the assertion that the AUC warlord sent 1,200 men to Bolivia is unlikely. When InSight Crime interviewed Buitrago in 2002, at the height of his power, his entire organization barely reached 1,200 members.
Moving further afield, Rico speaks of Spain, which has long been the principle entry point to Europe for Colombian cocaine. There, crime syndicates take advantage of the common language and large Colombian expatriate communities to facilitate business. Rico correctly identifies that Europe is now a far more attractive option for the BACRIM. They can earn three times more for a kilo of cocaine than when dealing with the Mexicans. The European market not only offers much better returns than the United States, but far less chance of interdiction, and minimal risk of extradition and incarceration.
Rico also mentions that Southern Cone nations have become far less risky transit points for cocaine heading to Europe. These nations present an increasingly lucrative domestic market for cocaine and its derivatives. Shipments to Europe can experience a delay of weeks, if not months, in payment, whereas selling to local distribution networks in Brazil and Argentina gives an almost immediate return.
Rico also highlights the importance of West Africa, focusing on Guinea-Bissau. This is a key route for cocaine moving to Europe. His assertion that Colombian criminals had a hand in the March 2009 murder of Guinea-Bissau’s president, João Bernardo Vieira, is intriguing, but unsubstantiated. The murder was allegedly carried out by elements of the military, in revenge for the killing of the army chief of staff, Batista Tagme Na Waie, in a bomb blast the day before, which was blamed on Vieira.
Rico rightly emphasizes that the export of drugs has become just one element in the BACRIM criminal portfolio. He identifies the smuggling of gasoline and other goods in and out of Venezuela as a significant stream of income, although the top BACRIM earners after cocaine are extortion, gold mining and domestic distribution of drugs. Indeed, for many BACRIM these earnings now outstrip those from the export of cocaine.
Rico ties up his important paper by concluding that the BACRIM are facing extinction. He writes that only “the Urabeños still maintain the characteristics that the BACRIM had at their beginnings, which does not mean that we are facing the end of criminality in Colombia, rather that what we are seeing is essentially a structural change in organized crime.”
However, the BACRIM are very young, less than a decade old. Their evolution during this period has been dizzying, from more than 30 groups to one principal franchise today, that of the Urabeños. The story of the BACRIM is not yet over, and their evolution into a criminal franchise as strong as any in the region — which is where InSight Crime believes the Urabeños are heading — is still not finished.
Colombia has historically been the pioneer in cocaine trafficking, and what has happened there is being repeated in Mexico, which currently dominates the international distribution of the drug: fragmentation of the major organizations into franchises, with independent groups working together as opportunities arise; groups becoming not only transnational in their business but in their centers of operations; and the development of wide portfolios of different criminal activities, not restricted to drug smuggling.
Rather than being doomed to extinction, it may be that Colombia’s BACRIM will usher in a new chapter and model of organized crime in the Americas.