Why Talks With Colombia Drug Gangs Will Go Nowhere

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A bishop says he is making progress in backdoor negotiations with some of Colombia’s most powerful drug gangs. Although well-intentioned, these talks will likely go nowhere, except around in circles.

Bishop Julio Cesar Vidal, whose ecclesiastical district, Cordoba, is among the most violent departments in the country, has reaffirmed the church’s commitment to negotiating with Colombia’s most powerful criminal groups. These include the Rastrojos, based in the southwest, the Urabeños, based primarily along the Caribbean, and Medellin’s Oficina de Envigado.

Close to 5,000 members of these groups may be interested in turning themselves in to authorities, the bishop told Colombian media on June 21. This follows similar statements made in February, when the bishop told InSight that intermediaries from these criminal groups had expressed an interest in disarming.

Vidal said he has been in touch with the criminal groups, which the government calls BACRIMs (“bandas criminales”), since September 2009. According to the bishop, in a gesture of good faith, the gangs in Cordoba agreed to a temporary ceasefire in December 2010, convincing him of the legitimacy of their intentions.

InSight, however, remains unconvinced. Publicly, the government is taking the usual precautions, emphasizing that these are drug-trafficking gangs with no political agenda, who can expect no offers of amnesty from the state. At the same time, it is clear that Vidal has been working on developing these contacts for some time. If there has been contact, it has likely happened with the government’s knowledge, although perhaps not with their encouragement.

The push to negotiate with the BACRIMs comes at a time when the authorities have described them as Colombia’s most serious security threat. The government has launched several military and police surges across the country, in an attempt to contain the armed groups. In some ways, Vidal’s claims that many top gang leaders are willing to surrender (even, in some cases, if this would mean extradition to the U.S.) seem intended to provide a non-military alternative approach to tackling the BACRIM threat.

But if Vidal’s push for dialogue is well-intentioned, the likelihood of success is still minimal. Due to the diverse nature of the BACRIMs, it’s unclear who the bishop is even referring to when he says that 5,000 gang members are willing to disarm.

In essence, there are two levels to the BACRIMs. The first is the core: well-structured, organized and hierarchal, with a clearly delineated leadership. Commanders handle sophisticated operations, concerned primarily with the international export of cocaine. Vidal has tried to suggest that he does have contact with the very top levels of this core, claiming that the leaders of the Rastrojos, the “Combabrothers, have expressed interest in disarming.

The second level of the BACRIMs is their base. These are local criminal gangs, often with little to no military training, nor the international contacts needed for exporting cocaine overseas. This lower level of BACRIM operations is formed when core lieutenants arrive to a given area and start recruiting local gangs. The gangs are charged with moving drugs, carrying out assassinations or acting as street informants. They use the franchise name of their “sponsor” BACRIM, but otherwise cannot be said to form part of the group’s core of seasoned drug traffickers.

They also cannot be said to have a clearly structured or delineated leadership. Bishop Vidal was previously involved in talks with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colomiba – AUC), which had a clear chain of command that made serious negotiations possible. But the BACRIM base — who may make up the 5,000 estimated combatants who Vidal claims are willing to disarm — are undisciplined and disloyal, frequently selling their services to the core BACRIM which acts as the highest bidder. In some ways, asking the BACRIMs to enter a disarmament process is attributing a formality to their operations which in fact does not exist.

The absence of leadership among the BACRIM base makes it unlikely that the Church’s negotiations will succeed. Colombia’s last demobilization process, involving the AUC, gives even less reason to hope for success. The AUC was treated as a political actor during negotiations with the government circa 2005, and many top commanders were initially granted sentence reductions in return for disarming.

This inspired other drug trafficking groups to try to win amnesty from the state. The Rastrojos, then the armed wing of the Norte del Valle Cartel, tried to enter the demobilization process, calling themselves the Popular Peasant Patrols (Rondas Campesinas Populares – RCP). A rival gang, the Machos, tried to do the same, styling themselves as the United Self-Defense Forces of Valle (Autodefensas Unidas del Valle). This was done in hope of winning concessions from the government, including protection from extradition to the U.S.

In 2011, with the current supposed negotiations, it looks like history is repeating itself. If the BACRIMs have voiced interest in dialogue, this is just another bid to position themselves as a group that deserves incentives to demobilize. Especially given the failures of the AUC demobilization process, the government is unlikely to again concede any benefits.

Vidal has said that the BACRIMs have expressed no interest in winning concessions, only in disarming. But this only raises the question of what the BACRIMs stand to gain from talking with the government. The answer: nothing. This makes it hard to believe that the talks will go anywhere.

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