Two new studies argue that not only has the Colombian government failed to contain the FARC rebel group, but it has not stopped new generation drug gangs, known as BACRIMs, from expanding their activity across the country.
The first report by the Center for Security and Democracy at Sergio Arboleda University agrees with several of the same trends highlighted by other observers of the conflict. Kidnappings overall are going up, and are increasingly carried out by street gangs, not guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the National Liberation Army (ELN).
The university argues that the FARC have increased their military actions and the security forces have not been able to keep up. This is in agreement with the analysis of Corporation Nuevo Arco Iris, but not with the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP)* — two of Colombia’s most important policy think tanks, who have presented radically different views of the country’s conflict this year.
The university study supports the view that the military are growing increasingly reluctant (and in some cases, incapable) of carrying out aggressive campaigns against the FARC. Due to the growing rate of FARC ambushes and sniper attacks against military and police patrols, security commanders choose to bunker up in their encampments for fear of suffering more casualties.
In other regions, the army deploys forces to protect infrastructure and the operations of multinational companies. As a result, it is overstretched and less willing to engage in combat.
The study also notes that a new law, in which the military is tried for human rights offensives in civilian rather than military courts, could also have made the military more reluctant to carry out operations.
Supporting the university report is the latest study by the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (INDEPAZ). The organization paints a similarly grim picture of the government’s ability to slow the expansion of Colombia’s other major criminal actor, the drug-trafficking gangs dubbed BACRIMs.
In 2010, INDEPAZ counted BACRIM activity in 360 of Colombia’s 1,102 municipalities, a significant growth from the 259 municipalities with presence of these gangs in 2008. This year, the government has managed to expel the BACRIMs from just 11 municipalities, according to the think-tank.
INDEPAZ notes that the Urabeños (active in 181 municipalities) and the Rastrojos (active in 201) are the strongest of Colombia’s gangs. The government only recognizes eight BACRIMS, while INDEPAZ counts 14.
The BACRIMs have apparently prioritized moving into territory near Colombia’s borders or along the Pacific coast, INDEPAZ notes. But much of their stronghold overlaps with the territory once held by the most powerful factions of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). This includes the central Coffee Region and the departments of Antioquia and Cordoba, both former hotbeds of AUC activity. Guerrilla activity, meanwhile, remains limited to departments like Cauca (the former hideout of top FARC chief alias “Alfonso Cano“) and border states like Arauca and Nariño. (Map, above, shows the FARC’s level of activity across Colombia).
This includes northern regions like Catatumbo and Montes de Maria, which have been the focus of the government’s “Consolidation” plan, the strategy for building up state presence after expelling the guerrillas. These areas are top recipients of aid from the U.S.