After more than half a century of civil war and the rise and fall of drug trafficking empires, Colombia has made huge strides in improving its security situation in recent years. However, it remains beset by guerrilla rebels and criminal networks, and the Colombian underworld is a potent mix of ideological organizations, their remnants and organized crime, where the boundaries between war and criminal activity are fluid. These armed groups and criminal networks are involved in an extensive range of activities including drug production and trafficking, arms trafficking, money laundering, extortion, contraband smuggling and illegal mining.
With access to two oceans and borders with five countries, Colombia is the gateway to South America. Three extensive mountain ranges and large swathes of isolated, inaccessible territories give criminal groups ample space to move, store and produce illicit drugs and conduct other activities such as illegal mining. Colombia’s location has long made it a center of contraband and illicit activities, while its vast mountain ranges have made it difficult for any government to properly unify the nation and provide security. Colombia gives licit and illicit businesses access to Ecuador, Brazil and Peru to the south, Venezuela to the east and Panama to the north.
Colombia’s geographical advantages have meant it has long been a hub for contraband and smuggling. The country’s relationship with the drug trade began in the 1970s when poor farmers began planting marijuana as a far more lucrative alternative to the legal crops they were struggling to survive producing. The development of Colombian organized crime accelerated in the 1970s when criminal groups looked to cash in on the craze for cocaine in the United States and became the primary links for cocaine shipments from Peru and Bolivia traveling north through the continent. In the 1980s, the first major cocaine cartels emerged, Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel and the Cali Cartel in the southwest.
Despite the fact that they were in the same business, the Cali and Medellín cartels were polar opposites. The leaders of the Medellín Cartel began by stealing cars and bribing police officers, employing thugs and local gangs to carry out their dirty work. When the upper classes rejected Escobar’s attempt to enter politics, they rebelled and used violence to constrain the state. The Cali Cartel was much more sophisticated given it emerged from a contingent of the upper classes, the economic elite of the Valle del Cauca, and used political persuasion rather violence to operate. Both established cocaine empires that ranged from the coca fields of Bolivia to the streets of New York.
Around the same time as coca processing was shifting to Colombia, the country’s numerous guerrilla groups were turning to criminal activities, especially kidnapping, as a means of financing themselves. The four main guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), the 19th of April Movement (M-19), and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) began targeting businessmen, cattle owners, and politicians from different regions. However, this strategy proved catastrophic in the long-term. The M-19’s kidnapping of the daughter of a major drug lord led to the organization of one of the first of many paramilitary groups financed by drug money that targeted insurgents and civilians suspected of collaborating with them. The result was a widespread backlash, increased support for right-wing paramilitary groups and brutal military tactics, and little political support for the guerrillas once they had demobilized and entered the political process.
The cocaine laboratories, meanwhile, were a boon for everyone from the criminal syndicates to the rebels, businessmen and government officials. But the consequences in Colombia were catastrophic. Few had any real incentive to slow the trade until pressure to extradite some of the big cartel leaders to stand trial in the United States led to a violent showdown in which hundreds of innocent civilians and dozens of police, judges and politicians were killed by Escobar and the other so-called “Extraditables.” When the government bowed to the pressure and, in 1991, banned extradition, Escobar turned himself in. However, after a year the deal between Escobar and the government soured, and Escobar escaped. Hounded by the Colombian police, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a lethal group of paramilitary assassins and the rival Cali Cartel, Escobar was eventually forced from hiding long enough for authorities to gun him down in December 1993.
Even with Escobar gone, the meteoric rise of the drug trade continued apace. Those who had allied to defeat him simply took over his supply and distribution routes. The new, more sophisticated generation of criminal organizations included the multiple paramilitary groups who worked as state proxies in the battle against leftist guerrillas. It also included a federation of drug lords known as the Norte del Valle Cartel, one of the most powerful criminal organization to emerge following the arrest of heads of the Cali Cartel.
The end of the Medellín and Cali cartels meant the end of direct purchases of coca paste in Peru and Bolivia, and the result was a boom in coca cultivation in Colombia. Much of the cultivation was focused in isolated rural areas and border regions dominated by guerrilla groups, and taxing the drug trade became the rebel’s most important source of finances. In this context, criminal armies began to compete for control of this production. The largest of these, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), was a nationwide movement of paramilitary groups formed in the 1990s ostensibly to fight the guerrillas. The AUC, which at its height had some 35,000 soldiers at its disposal, had long combined military campaigns with illegal business interests.
Later on, some guerrilla fronts from the FARC followed suit and made the leap beyond taxing and regulating coca production and into cocaine trafficking, mostly through Venezuela, Brazil and later Ecuador. However, while Colombian groups were militarily and territorially powerful, their power in the transnational drug trade was slipping. During this time, Mexican organizations such as the Gulf, Tijuana, Juarez and Sinaloa cartels sought to move further down the supply chain and increase their stake in the drug trade by negotiating directly with the cocaine providers, shifting the balance of power in the regional underworld away from Colombia and towards Mexico.
In 2003, the supply chain went through another transformation. The Norte del Valle Cartel began a bloody internal war that coincided with the beginning of a peace process in which the AUC leaders demobilized their armies and handed themselves over to authorities. The Colombian government also began a military offensive against the guerrillas, dislodging them from many of their strongholds in key coca-producing areas.
The breakup of the Norte del Valle Cartel and the demobilization of the AUC marked the beginning of a new era in Colombian crime dominated by criminal-paramilitary hybrids that the government dubbed BACRIM (derived from the Spanish for “criminal bands”). These groups largely consist of paramilitaries that either rearmed or did not demobilize and are led by former mid-level AUC commanders who stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the top paramilitary leaders. There were originally over 30 BACRIM across the country, but the number has now been reduced to a handful as smaller groups have been absorbed by more powerful networks or dismantled by the security forces.
By far the most powerful BACRIM currently active is the Urabeños, also known as the Gaintanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia — AGC). Despite increasing security force pressure, the group still controls a broad portfolio of criminal activities throughout much of the country. The FARC, meanwhile, entered into peace talks with the government in 2012, and finalized their disarmament in 2017. This has contributed to a major shakeup in the underworld as FARC units criminalize instead of reintegrating into society, and other organizations fight for control of the criminal interests vacated by the FARC.
Although the FARC peace deal was a historic step towards ending decades of civil conflict, the departure of Colombia’s last nation-wide criminal group has created new security challenges and contributed to the fragmentation of Colombia’s criminal landscape. Security force pressure has severely weakened the majority of the BACRIM, leaving the last active rebel group, the ELN, and the dissident FARC groups as the principle players in the struggle for control over lucrative criminal economies. As former FARC members disillusioned by the rocky implementation of the peace process or lured by illicit profits continue to flock to the ranks of the ex-FARC dissidence, there is a great risk that criminalized former FARC factions may join or ally with local armed actors to create a new criminal network.
Indeed, although the negotiations with the FARC concluded with the demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of more than 13,200 of its fighters, they also opened the door for the emergence of dissident factions. In 2016, while the negotiations were still ongoing, Géner García Molina, alias “Jhon 40,” Néstor Gregorio Vera Fernández, alias “Iván Mordisco” and Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” three former guerrilla commanders, rearmed their old units to continue controlling illegal economies. In addition to having a strong presence in the southern departments of Colombia, the new faction has spread across the entire border with Venezuela, where it controls drug trafficking and gold smuggling corridors.
What’s more, in August 2019, a new and powerful faction of the ex-FARC mafia emerged when the former number two of the defunct FARC, Iván Márquez, announced his return to arms and the formation of a group called the “Second Marquetalia.” This group, with strong political and ideological ties with the Nicolás Maduro regime, quickly established a presence in the border area of Venezuela to engage in a variety of important illegal economies.
The FARC’s departure from Colombia’s criminal landscape left a power vacuum in the territories they once controlled, and reconfigured the balance of power in these regions. Among the criminal organizations that took advantage of this change, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN) has been the group that has gained the most territorial and criminal strength, followed by the Urabeños, who are considered its main rivals in various regions.
While these two gangs are on top, there are other groups that also maintain significant territorial influence and play key roles in illicit economies like drug trafficking, illegal mining and extortion. Among these groups are those that emerged from paramilitarism, such as Los Pachenca, Los Caparrapos, Los Puntilleros and the Rastrojos. There are also dissident factions of the old guerrillas, such as the ex-FARC mafia cells and dissidents from the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Popular — EPL). In addition, there are smaller, more localized criminal networks ranging from street gangs to rearmed paramilitaries across the country, as well as the Oficina de Envigado, which was at one time at the service of the Medellín Cartel.
In total, Colombia’s security forces — including the army, navy and air force, as well as the police force — have close to 500,000 active members. Each branch has its own intelligence services that work closely with US and European counterparts sharing information and, at times, coordinating operations against organized criminal groups.
Colombia’s courts system is headed by four judicial organs: the Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction over civil and criminal law; the Council of State, which handles administrative law; the Constitutional Court; and the Superior Judicial Council, which serves as a court of appeal regarding jurisdictional conflicts between courts.
As part of the government’s peace agreement with the FARC, a transitional justice system called the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP) was also established to try crimes committed by combatants during the conflict.
Over the last decade, Colombia has gone through a massive judicial overhaul as it moved from the inquisitorial to the accusatory system, aided by the Justice Sector Reform Program (JSRP) directed by the United States Department of Justice. Nevertheless, the system remains hampered by corruption, inefficiency and impunity rates are sky high. A 2017 report by the Center for Studies on Impunity and Justice (Centro de Estudios sobre Impunidad y Justicia – CESIJ) found that Colombia has one of the worst impunity records in the world. The country also scored poorly in terms of ethics and corruption in the World Economic Forum’s 2017-2018 Global Competitiveness Report.
After the signing of the peace agreement between the government of former President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) was created, a transitional court of justice designed to administer justice for all events that occurred in the framework of the armed conflict in Colombia before December 1, 2016.
Despite a raft of reforms and investments, including financial and logistical aid from the United States, Colombia’s prisons are overcrowded, crumbling and riddled with corruption and criminal economies. As of 2020, the country’s penitentiaries are at 120 percent of their capacity, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies — a situation exacerbated by the fact over a third of inmates have yet to be convicted. This has led to appalling conditions and lack of access to basic services for inmates. Within Colombia’s prisons, illegal economies based on extortion and contraband thrive, although prisons are not directly run by criminal groups as in other countries. Colombia’s prison system is run by an independent body, the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario y Carcelario – INPEC) that has been plagued by scandal and declared unfit for its purpose.