The head of the Colombian National Police, General Oscar Naranjo, declared this week that the biggest threat to national security is now the activities of what the government calls emerging criminal bands (BACRIM). These declarations come a few days after the Washington-based NGO, Human Rights Watch, again warned of the large-scale abuses committed by these groups.
These BACRIM, often called “neo-paramilitary groups,” are the heirs to the multi-million drug trafficking operations formerly run by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which officially ceased to exist in 2006. Despite their paramilitary background, the BACRIMs have no political facade and are almost exclusively dedicated to drug trafficking.
These organizations have successfully replaced the AUC in many of the most strategic regions that the paramilitaries once controlled, particulary those with access to drug crops, trafficking corridors and departure points for illegal drug shipments.
However, as InSight Crime has noted, the success of President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) in battling the drug trade ironically may have helped these BACRIMS and their street gang allies gain a firm footing a new, local drug market. As international drug exports suffered because of increasing interdiction, these groups have turned to the domestic market to make up for the lost revenue. This led to a shift in the dynamics of violence, with increasing insecurity in urban centers as activities such as extortion and micro-trafficking took hold. The result: Today, organized crime produces more murders than the internal conflict with the rebel groups.
Police statistics show that almost half of the homicides in 2010 (7,200 out of 15,400) were related to fighting between BACRIMS, and between street gangs, some of whom are connected to the BACRIMS, for control of local drug markets. These same figures show that homicides related to the civil conflict account for less than 4 percent, or a little over 600 deaths.
The BACRIM modus operandi in the urban centers includes outsourcing and subcontracting local criminals and having them on their payroll as hitmen (“sicarios”), drug distributors and debt collectors. In 2010, according to the Ministry of Defense, the BACRIMs were responsible for 20 of the 471 “terrorist attacks” perpetrated during the year (100 less than 2009). Nevertheless, these statistics may have been misleading since 141 of the attacks were attributed to common crime (groups that often work for the BACRIMS) and 135 had unknown authors.
Interestingly, the National Police’s statistics and Narajo’s comments coincide with the what Human Rights Watch says in its 2011 annual report, which highlights the increased territorial control of these “paramilitary successor groups.” They also echo warnings issued by other governmental bodies like Colombia’s National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (Comision Nacional de Reparacion y Reconciliacion – CNNR), which published a report, reviewed by InSight Crime, in late 2010, claiming that over 15 percent of demobilized paramilitaries have joined the ranks of these BACRIMS; and the Ombudsman’s Office which has released many warnings on the threats of these new groups.