For the past five years, experts and observers have been warning about the growing power of drug-trafficking gangs that emerged from the remains of demobilized Colombian paramilitary groups. The gangs were basically recycled paramilitary units that either never demobilized or never gave up their drug routes, and allowed the Colombian drug business to continue almost uninterrupted despite the peace agreement.
At first, the government downplayed the threat posed by these new gangs. Simply acknowledging the existence of these groups discredited the Uribe government’s demobilization scheme. Besides, confirming fears of new illegal armed groups threatened to distract the Colombian public from the authorities’ older and far more successful fight against leftist guerrilla groups.
Before long, however, the gangs grew large, powerful and audacious enough that the government had no choice but to acknowledge the problem and promise to address it. Since then, top officials have announced some new approach or new offensive every few months or so, but little seems to change on the ground. In many parts of the country – from former paramilitary strongholds such as Cordoba and Medellin to booming drug routes along Colombia’s coasts and boarders – the gangs remain organized and powerful, while the army remains disproportionately concerned with fighting leftist guerrillas.
Colombia’s most notable recent success in citizen security – last year’s significant reduction in Medellin’s murder rate – seems to have come largely as a result of voluntary ceasefires among gangs and consolidation in the criminal underworld, rather than the government’s success in fighting the mafias. Other key victories – the arrest of neo-paramilitary drug lord Don Mario and the killing of Cuchillo, another major trafficker – were impressive in the military sophistication of the operations, but failed to put a medium- or long-term dent either in drug production or in violence.
So what has gone wrong? The central problem is that Colombia’s security policy is not designed to deal with this new threat, despite all the recent talk of fresh approaches and novel strategies. Even if all of the government’s energy were devoted to dealing with the drug gangs, it would likely be short of ideas. The unfortunate truth is that the Colombian authorities have never achieved major successes in the fight against paramilitaries ever since the groups began to take over the drug trade in the 1990s.
When the paramilitaries finally began to negotiate a demobilization agreement with the government during Alvaro Uribe’s first term, they did so from a position of relative strength, not weakness. The government had not cornered death squads into giving up arms. In fact, they had enough guns, money and friends in the police, military and all levels of government to continue fighting and trafficking drugs. As is now evidently clear, the paramilitaries saw demobilization as a relatively painless exit from the harsh and uncertain world of drug trafficking. Lucrative though it may be for some, life in paramilitary ranks was unbearably violent and risky for some. Many paramilitaries thought it better to risk a jail sentence and the confiscation of some of their assets than to continue living in fear of soldiers, guerrillas and mafia rivals.
Since then, some former paramilitaries have fared better than others. A few of the higher-ranking bosses have been extradited to the U.S. and continue to fight the prospect of spending the rest of their lives in prison. Others have been jailed in Colombia or have entered witness protection programs. Most of the fighters, however, have slowly reintegrated into civilian life and a significant fraction of these have been tempted back into the few paramilitary units that never demobilized or simply pretended to.
These new drug gangs are very different from guerrilla groups, the old Colombian cartels or even the former paramilitary forces. They groups are leaner and more amorphous, with loosely defined hierarchies and constantly shifting alliances. This is one reason why simply capturing or killing top traffickers has been so ineffectual. Subordinates quickly rise to fill the void left by their bosses or join forces with other gangs, and business resumes as before. Lacking any political aspirations or ideologies, these drug gangs simply aim to maintain a favorable environment for the drug business. This often means fighting off pesky police or military raids, but it can also mean collaborating with those politicians and police officials who are willing to turn a blind eye. In the latest example of these gangs’ flexibility, many of Cuchillo’s former fighters have joined the local FARC front.
Until recently, there has been relatively little public pressure to deal with this problem. For the most part, gang violence has not reached Colombia’s influential urban middle and upper classes. In Medellin, the only major city where the gang violence spread well beyond poor slums, a few peace negotiations and the criminals’ own fatigue managed to put a temporary end to the problem. Violence in rural areas rarely becomes a political priority, as long as the criminals did not threaten the urban elites’ country homes and tourist zones.
This is all rapidly changing. Drug gangs seem to be expanding into relatively safe Bogota. The city’s recent crime wave, initially blamed on unemployment, bad public management and petty crime, seems to have taken a new direction with attacks on public officials. As drug gangs move in, distracting and corrupting the police, other criminals become more audacious. Armed robberies have become so common, even in wealthy neighborhoods, that citizens, notably taxi drivers, have started taking matters into their own hands, beating up alleged criminals with frightening regularity.
In recent weeks, crime has been the big story in Bogota. Armed robbers have targeted popular internet cafes and even a girls’ school in broad daylight. But the biggest wake-up call to Bogota’s upper-middle class came when two students from the University of the Andes, an elite private institution in the capital, were murdered while on holiday at a picturesque beach along a known drug route in Cordoba. Since then, two other students from a regional university were also murdered in the north of the country.
As the violence has started to spread beyond urban slums and rural drug routes, the issue of the drug gangs has jumped into the headlines and into the center of Colombian political discussions. Vice President Angelino Garzon tellingly referred to neoparamilitary gangs as Colombia’s “new enemy” in the aftermath of the Bogota students’ murder. Opposition politicians have started blaming the Uribe government’s flawed demobilization negotiations and relatively lax approach to paramilitary-linked politicians. This is a fair criticism, but it also begs the question of where the mainstream opposition has been all these years while the paramilitary threat has been growing.
In any case, public pressure has finally forced the government to take some serious action. Earlier this week, Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera revealed a new strategy, known as “D6”. It involves a more multifaceted assault on the drug gangs, targeting not only their known members but also their finances and their links with local social, business and political circles. In recent days, Rivera also announced Operation Troya, which he described as an unprecedented inter-agency assault on the neo-paramilitaries’ increasingly diverse business activities in Cordoba, including illegal mining.
Almost immediately, these offensives have yielded results. Dozens of alleged gang members have been arrested in multiple departments across the country, but past roundups of gang members seem to have done little in the past to reduce the gangs’ power and military capabilities. Much more interesting was the fact that, shortly after announcement of D6, the bishop of Monteria, capital of Cordoba department, received a letter from a few of the most powerful gangs in Colombia indicating their intentions to negotiate with the government. The neoparamilitaries are willing to give up guns and drug routes, and even to be extradited to the United States, so long as they receive some benefit from the government.
The precise terms of their offer remain unclear, but Santos had previously said he would not negotiate with these criminals. However, after a recent meeting with government officials, the bishop said he was hopeful that this peace offering would lead to a dialogue between the government and the gangs. Opposition leader Rafael Pardo has already opined that such a negotiation would be hypocritical. If the government is unwilling to sit down with guerrillas, why should it negotiate with criminals who betrayed the demobilization agreement?
In short, the latest developments in Colombia’s war on drugs bring a mix of good news and bad news. The good news is that the government finally seems committed to overhauling its security policy, including shifting resources away from the war on guerrillas and toward the difficult task of dismantling new drug networks. What is more, if the abovementioned letter is indeed authentic, then it is clear that the gangs do not feel prepared to confront this new military offensive. This is certainly a step forward from the days of Pablo Escobar’s war on the state, although we will need to know more about the gangs’ proposal of a peace agreement to understand their true intentions.
The bad news is that the government is several years late. Over the past five years, the gangs have grown quite powerful. They can easily corrupt, threaten and recruit local officials, businesses and residents in large swaths of rural Colombia. Their various business interests – from drug routes to illegal mines – remain fairly lucrative and will be hard to give up. Moreover, even if some gang leaders are willing to give up, many of their power-hungry subordinates may still be willing to keep the business going. Life for Colombian drug traffickers may be increasingly unpleasant, but as long as global demand for cocaine remains strong, plenty of poor adrenaline junkies will be willing to risk their lives for a few million dollars.
These latest developments also speak volumes about the deep flaws and inequities in Colombia’s political system. The murder of the two Bogota students was certainly a tragedy, but the fact that the immediate trigger for government action against the gangs was the death of two upper-middle class Colombians is perhaps equally tragic. For years, neo-paramilitary drug traffickers have killed and displaced thousands, in addition to shipping tons of illegal drugs abroad. Even today’s Colombia, the life of a wealthy college student is worth more than the lives of hundreds of peasants and poor teenagers.