Colombian elections declared a success… really? (November 19th, 2011)

Colombia has certainly had its share of challenges. Born out of revolution, the country has never appeared to shake the legacy of violence and corruption that have become associated with it. Yet despite the weight of its own history, many people now feel as if the worst is behind the beleaguered nation. Successful national elections were held in 2007, with election-related violence at an all time low. Populist president Alvaro Uribe, considered one Colombia’s current national heroes for overseeing the continued dismantling of violent paramilitary groups and leftist guerrilla organizations,  relinquished power peacefully and presidential elections were held in 2010, with Juan Miguel Santos elected to Colombia’s office of head of state. With a successful, democratic transfer of power, a marked decrease in the capabilities of guerrilla movements and the growth of other aspects of the Colombian economy it appears, on the surface, as if the future appears nothing but bright for this beautiful Andean nation. However, to scratch the surface reveals that certain elements have not entirely changed for the better in Colombia.

The 2011 local elections, which were held simultaneously in municipalities across the country, took place on October 30, 2011. In the capital city of Bogota the race for mayor was especially tight, with several right-wing politicians vying for control of what is considered Colombia’s second most important elected office. In a surprise turn of events, Gustavo Petro, a former member of the now disbanded M-19 leftist guerrilla group, was elected to the office, after his main rivals split the conservative vote. While initially this may seem like an issue, but in a country with a past as vibrant as Colombia’s it is hard to find any official that does not have some tie to a former or current underworld entity. Indeed, to many observers the involvement of former militants and revolutionaries in the mainstream political sphere signals that left-wing rebel groups, such as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – Voces de la Nueva Colombia (ELN), are becoming further marginalized within the public consciousness, thus adding to the sense of growing safety and prosperity within the country. And, in truth, such groups formerly maintained control of vast swaths of Colombia’s dense tropical rainforest and maintained significant support from much of the country’s population, both of which have significantly decreased in the past decade. As a consequence of all of these perceived successes, the 2011 national municipal elections were declared by all observers and serving politicians to be a resounding success.

However, something else became apparent besides the increasing involvement of different elements in Colombia’s national political scene, which may signal a return to the disturbing levels of violence not seen in Colombia for years. The 2011 elections were the most violent in over a decade. At least 41 candidates were murdered and hundreds more were threatened, assaulted or nearly lost their lives in coordinated attacks throughout the country. This number easily doubles the figures from the previous national elections of 2007 and indicates that the government’s much lauded militant amnesty program may simply be not having the effect it was once thought to be having. The locations of the violence were not half-hazard either, demonstrating a clear pattern in both causality as well as who exactly was involved in the violence. To properly understand this violence and the implications it has for Colombia’s future it is important to examine the evolution of Colombia’s current militants and paramilitary groups.

Following two decades of rebellion and internecine warfare between the government, drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) as well as left and right wing paramilitaries it seemed that by the end of the millennium the conflict had largely begun to die down. The powerful Medellin and Cali cartels that had terrorized the Colombian population as well south Florida throughout the 1980s and early 1990s had been brought to heel. The FARC and ELN appeared to be in retreat, being relegated to the outlying and rural coca-producing districts of the country. And, most significantly, the right-wing paramilitary death squads of the AUC, formed by Carlos and Fidel Castano to combat the Medellin and Cali cartels, had fractured into many smaller criminal elements, with over 31,000 of them apparently laying down their arms in a government ceasefire and amnesty program in 2003. Yet one crucial element was forgotten in this assumption: the money obtained through the production and sail of cocaine to the outside world.

While being without a doubt politically marginalized to some degree by the Colombian government, by the year 2000 the leftwing FARC and ELN had now further established themselves in the rural coca growing areas of the country, which had always been their strategic heartland. In these isolated regions these groups now became, in essence, coca producing organizations whose primary goal was no longer communist revolution, but making vast sums of money through drug trafficking. More important than these groups was the development and evolution of the rightwing AUC. Following the deaths of most of the original leadership and the government amnesty project in 2003, many initially thought these groups had disbanded or become insignificant players in the drug trade. Instead of fading away quietly, the fragmented AUC – which was only ever a loose umbrella organization for rightwing death squads – became a series of independent and competing factions who controlled vast swaths of territory along key transhipment points for cocaine and heroin smuggling. The majority of the mid level leadership in these AUC groups only submitted tiny portions of their armaments and, in many cases, paid locals to present themselves as reformed AUC militants seeking to join the 2003 amnesty program. This development meant that only a tiny fraction of the 31,000 so-called reformed paramilitaries were actually former members of AUC death squads, a ruse which bought these groups time to embed themselves in crucial regions while being able to claim loyalty to the government.

Almost immediately following the 2003 cease-fire, in the northern regions of the country, several AUC factions re-aligned under the structure of the Norte del Valle Cartel. While the group did not last long, this organization gives an important example of how the priorities of these militants had become entirely focussed on illicit narcotics. By 2006 the cartel had fractured and the first indications of Colombia’s contemporary narcotics picture began to emerge. No longer considered a cartel or paramilitaries, these groups came to be known as Bandas Criminales, (BACRIMS). These BACRIMS now control vast regions of territory and, in many cases are completely militarized and able to adequately defend their areas of interest while launching devastating attacks on their rivals and the Colombian government. These groups also no longer see a profit in establishing themselves outside of South America or even Colombia, preferring instead to simply purchase unprocessed coca paste from the rural FARC and ELN, process the paste, and sell the refined cocaine to Mexican cartels and other Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) based in Brazil and Venezuela. This effort to remain local is simply a reflection of the BACRIMS’ experience that becoming involved in international narcotics shipments on their own invites the unwanted attention of the United States (US) and it’s ability to deploy military assets to hurt and dismantle these organizations; indeed, although never admitted publicly, it has long been suspected that US special forces and federal agents maintained a major presence on the ground in Colombia during the turbulent days of the takedown of Pablo Escobar and Colombia’s major transnational cartels. The most powerful of these BACRIMS groups to date are Los Rastrojos, Los Urabenos, ERPAC (Ejercito Revolucionario Popular Antiterrorista Colombiano) and Los Paisas, most of which began as hit squads or as competition to the now defunct Norte del Valle Cartel.

It are these BACRIMS, as well as elements of ELN and FARC, that launched the wave of violence during the 2011 national elections. As a reflection of their recent evolution and refocus on local territory and sales routes, these groups are now in a position to more thoroughly enforce their will on the territories which they see as their own, which is the direct cause of the intimidation and violence during the 2011 elections. To give a more concrete example, the modus operandi of the Aguiles Negres, or Black Eagles, is to move into a district and distribute pamphlets warning the local population of their arrival. This action is soon followed by the assassination of local intellectuals, union officials and, of course, politicians that oppose them or who are in the pay of other rival BACRIMS organizations; and, it should be remembered, that the Aguiles Negres is a smaller criminal entity, conceived as a loose umbrella organization of 60-plus factions of former AUC members with no central command structure like what is found in the more disciplined and dangerous Los Rastrojos or Los Urabenos, which each possess more than 1200 fully fledged members.

What the violence during this election represents is a cementing of the shift in the Colombian narcotics trade, which despite a minor decrease in recent years, still produces many billions of dollars annually. The leadership of these BACRIMS, following several years of internecine warfare between them, have now established themselves in certain geographic regions with Los Rastrojos taking the Pacific coast, Los Urabenos focussing along the Atlantic Urabe region and ERPAC developing its networks throughout Colombia’s eastern plains districts – to give but a few examples. Most disturbingly, these groups are now, after five years of violent conflict, in many cases cooperating amongst themselves and even with the leftwing guerrilla movements, the FARC and ELN, thus creating ever more stable pipelines for illicit narcotics transportation. This establishment of relationships amongst these former enemies over the past five years has fostered the ability of these groups to now directly challenge the authority of the government through political assassination and corruption; and, it should be noted, that each of the major BACRIMS enjoys established political contacts with both the major Colombian police services and the Colombian military, due to the high-levels of cooperation between the military and AUC groups during the 1990s.

The chaos witnessed during the 2011 elections represents the evolution of the Colombian narcotics trade, which could have many unknown consequences for the future of the country and region. As these groups develop further they could in turn challenge the authority and presence of the Mexican cartels in the North American drug trade. However, this is unlikely due to the working relationship now well established between the major Colombian BACRIMS and Mexican organized crime, most importantly with the powerful Sinaloa, Gulf and Los Zetas Cartels. Also, the local focus of these groups has allowed them fly largely under the radar of the US and Colombian governments, who, while being aware of their existence, do not see the BACRIMS as the same calibre of threat that the Cali, Medellin and Norte del Valle groups once posed. A more likely scenario is the continued subversion of the Colombian government and the further streamlining of the BACRIMS, as major groups dominate and absorb smaller organizations, further increasing the capabilities and wealth of the major BACRIMS. Once these groups achieve a certain level of size, organization and sophistication they will undoubtedly become transnational in their focus, particularly in the Caribbean, Central America and neighbouring South American countries. In fact, much evidence already exists that this process is already well underway by several of the major BACRIMS organizations, who have networks in the Caribbean, Panama, Venezuela and Brazil. The next five years will be a crucial time for Colombia and its leadership as they will have to find a solution for a problem that they claimed they had already solved.

Scott Paulseth, Editor, PanAmerican Crime

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