The power of Colombia’s elites is founded upon one of the most unequal divisions of land in the world. As of the early 21st century, one percent of landowners own more than half the country’s agricultural land. Under Spanish rule, Colombia’s agriculture was organized on the hacienda system, in which “landless peasants” worked, often as sharecroppers or indentured labor, for the landowners. The fight for land redistribution began with the struggle for independence and continues to this day.

This is one part of a multipart series concerning elites and organized crime in Colombia. Read the full report (PDF). See other parts of the series here.

Bolstered by a relatively stable economy, Colombia’s elites have been able to repeatedly block attempts to redistribute land or carry out significant political reform. The country largely avoided the military coups and economic crises that beset its neighbors in the 20th century, but this very stability helped store up a legacy of social problems that remain unresolved. Colombia is, “the only Latin American country in which the traditional parties and elites neutralized all political reform efforts,” Francisco Thoumi argues. “There were never reforms that challenged the power structure and weakened its control over society.”2

Land and Trade – Colombia’s Elites

The landowning elite of the 19th century used its land to develop agriculture and cattle ranching businesses. For the first half of the century, the economy remained small, isolated and undeveloped, with a low level of exports, dominated by gold. The development of the tobacco and then coffee export industries from 1850 helped create a merchant class. The associated export booms disproportionately benefited the economic elites — both landowners and commercial middlemen. While much of Colombia’s coffee was grown on small farms, the industry was run by a wealthy elite of distributors who controlled the sale and export of the crop.3 The coffee boom of the 1910s to 1930s was also the motor for the country’s industrialization. Centered on the city of Medellín, it catapulted the city’s merchant-industrialists “to national pre-eminence.”4

Though the elite has been able to prevent major reform that would disrupt its power, it has not itself remained static. Successive generations of capitalists have been able to clamber into the ranks of the elite by generating wealth, first through industrial manufacturing and later through the drug trade. “The dominant groups — large-scale owners of the means of production and the main political power brokers, who might or might not be the same people — have always been open to new blood from outside or from below,” argues Forrest Hylton.5

As Colombia’s economy grew and modernized in the early 20th century, the old landowning class joined forces with the expanding commercial class created by the coffee boom, protecting its position and avoiding disruption to the existing social order. The manufacturers and industrialists created by the coffee boom also found common ground with the landowners, allowing the old elites to maintain their position.6 The traditional elite has been flexible enough to absorb and co-opt rising groups, who “end up reproducing the exclusionary behaviors that many criticized before.”7

Colombia’s elite has always been made up predominantly of Colombian nationals unlike other Latin American countries, such as Honduras, where the export industries were largely foreign-owned. The country’s economic and political elites overlap to a large extent, and the wealthy exert political power. Still, there are some divisions within them. The political elite can be considered as two groups: the elites of the country’s periphery — everything outside Bogotá — and the elites of the center, or capital. The periphery elites can exert great power in their local sphere, while the elites of the center largely determine national policy. For its part, the economic elite can be divided into the modern industrial-financial bourgeoisie and the traditional landowning elite. A super-elite has developed since the 1970s, made up of several family-owned economic conglomerates that dominate the business world.8

The state has lacked effective presence in many areas of the country for much of Colombia’s history, allowing local elites to grow powerful and largely autonomous in their regions. Until the mid-20th century, communications were very poor, and the capital was isolated, several days of hard travel away from the coast or the other major cities. Many parts of the country continue to lack basic public services such as electricity and adequate roads.

Since independence, the local landowners and ranchers have often maintained private armies and successfully resisted attempts to centralize control and increase taxation. As Nazih Richani puts it, “large landowners, cattle ranchers and the agribusiness elite conspired to resist the growth of state power.”9 As a result, the tax base has remained weak — Colombia had South America’s second smallest tax revenue per capita into the 1990s.

Liberals and Conservatives

Power was administered in these isolated regions through two dominant political parties — the Liberals and the Conservatives. Both represented the interests of the elite. Broadly speaking, Conservatives defended the Church and were closer to the landowning class, while Liberals favored a secular state and were closer to the commercial class.

Though the parties lacked a strong central administration, allegiance was fierce at the local level, based on strong clientelist relationships between the population and local party bosses, who were often the biggest local landowners. The parties were “one more mechanism of social control whereby upper-class leaders manipulated lower class followers.”10 Party loyalties were not divided along class or systematic regional lines, but were passed from generation to generation.11 Colombia’s elites would maintain a stranglehold on politics through these two parties until at least the 1980s.

The Liberals and Conservatives fought a series of bloody civil wars from the mid-19th century, as the elites battled each other for the spoils of government via peasant farmers recruited into the militia of their local party boss.12 This continued into the 20th century in a long period of “inter-elite factional conflict.”13 Clashes between supporters of the two parties were particularly fierce from 1930, after the Conservatives lost grip of a 45-year hold on power. This political fighting was accompanied by unrest in the countryside over unequal land distribution, and violent repression of collective action, most notably with the army’s massacre of hundreds of striking banana workers near Santa Marta in 1928.

There was an attempt at land reform and greater protection for unionists under President Alfonso López Pumarejo, who came to power in 1934. López was the son of a powerful business family, but recognized the danger of ignoring Colombia’s social problems. His reforms, however, did not go far enough to quell growing discontent in the countryside.

One rising politician set himself up in opposition to Colombia’s elites. Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was born into Bogotá’s lower middle class, outside the traditional political elite. He first attracted attention by investigating and denouncing the government’s handling of the 1928 banana strike. Though he was a Liberal politician, Gaitán rose to national prominence on the back of fiery speeches railing against Colombia’s “oligarchy,” accusing the two parties of dominating the political system for their own ends and collaborating to prevent real reform.14 Gaitán gained great national popularity, capturing the imagination of peasants and the urban working class by promising land redistribution and an end to the dominance of the oligarchy. He was considered a sure bet for Liberal presidential candidate, until he was assassinated in Bogotá in 1948 by an unknown culprit.

La Violencia

News of Gaitán’s death triggered riots in Bogotá and across the country by Liberals who accused the Conservative government of the assassination. This unrest marked the official beginning of a conflict known simply as “La Violencia” — The Violence. In the following years, guerrilla forces organized by local Liberal bosses went to war across the country with Conservative vigilantes, who were sometimes backed by the state security forces. The pattern of the conflict was one of ambushes and counterattacks, each action in retaliation for the last, rather than of direct military confrontations between the two sides.15 Amidst the turbulence came not just longstanding political acrimony but also banditry and criminal organizations that thrived on the chaos.16 The conflict would continue until the 1960s, killing some 200,000 people, or about 1.8 percent of the population.17

The elites suffered far less from the conflict, which was mostly confined to the countryside and fought by peasant farmers. As David Bushnell writes, La Violencia pitched “Liberal peasant against Conservative peasant, while the larger landowners of either party, to say nothing of business and professional people and politicians, stayed in the relative safety of the cities.”18 At first, some members of the urban elite considered the mass violence to be a matter for the barbaric peasantry. Some Bogotá elites, for example, saw the conflict as a passing phenomenon, which confirmed their “stereotypes” of the locals.19 The idea developed “within the elite that La Violencia was a cancer of the ‘pueblo’ — or, to use another of their metaphors, a bloodletting — that had little to do with them,”20 Herbert Braun writes.

Indeed, La Violencia broke out at a time when the ideological differences between the two parties were less significant. There was broad consensus over economic policy, and the “elites were united in a common devotion to Cold War capitalism and anti-communism.”21 Despite this, the fighting was savage, with massacres, mutilations, and targeting of the civilian population. While in Bogotá the leaders of the two parties may have had a lot in common, in the countryside party allegiance was worth killing for. In the absence of the central government, the parties had become the primary vehicle for identity across Colombia, and the fighting tapped into old hatreds. Allegiance to party came before allegiance to country in the nation’s fragmented periphery, and “the great ‘irrational’ violence,” Rensselaer W. Lee III and Francisco E. Thoumi write, can only be explained “if one accepts that peasants had party loyalties comparable to national loyalties in other countries.”22

The conflict was also a product of tension over the unresolved land issue. There was mass displacement, as armed groups drove enemy sympathizers from their land, and some landowners took advantage of the chaos to grab land for themselves. The conflict increased land concentration, allowing agro-exporters to consolidate their holdings, and thus accelerated the process of economic modernization.23

Many members of the urban elite would benefit from the economic boom that, curiously, accompanied the years of the worst violence. Displaced country-dwellers flooded the cities, driving construction and supplying cheap labor.24 GDP grew by 5 percent annually between 1945 and 1955, while industrial output grew by 9 percent a year.25 Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle argue that “for the urban elite, particularly the industrialists, La Violencia was an economic success.”26

But as the violence wore on, the two political factions of the elite saw that the continued turmoil in the countryside would threaten their position. The parties joined forces, first to support a 1953 military coup against Conservative President Laureano Gómez, replacing him with General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, who promised to end La Violencia. Four years later, alarmed by the general’s Gaitán-style anti-oligarch language and populist policies and by the ongoing violence, the parties joined forces with the other most important elite institutions, the Church and the industrialists, to force Rojas out.27

In 1958, the two political parties formally agreed to share power, excluding all other movements from the political process. The pact, called the National Front, dictated that the parties would take turns holding the presidency and would allot all government jobs equally between them for the next 16 years. This ushered in several decades of power-sharing, lasting in practice until the mid-1980s, turning the political system formally into “a pure machinery of common elite interests.”28 The National Front was, according to Lee and Thoumi, “a cartel that monopolized power and excluded other political alternatives,” depoliticizing the two parties and transforming them into “clientelistic electoral machines.”29

The elite’s exclusion of all other voices from the political process would help fuel the rise of Colombia’s rebel groups. La Violencia was officially over by 1964, but some groups of guerrillas held out in isolated parts of the country, calling them “Independent Republics.” They refused offers of amnesty from the government. By the mid-1960s, the conflict had morphed from a Conservative-Liberal conflict into a class war between the government and Communist-aligned guerrillas.

A number of guerrilla groups would consolidate over the next decade to fight Colombia’s elite. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC) were Marxist and pro-Soviet. They grew out of peasant “self-defense” groups that were hardened during La Violencia. The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN) had many members from the middle classes and were aligned with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. These groups were joined by the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación — EPL), a Maoist group based on peasant fighters, and later by the 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de Abril — M-19), an urban guerrilla that carried out high-profile actions to attract students and other disaffected youth.

These groups did not at first pose any serious threat to Colombia’s elites. They were fractured, poor, and riven by internal conflicts, and by the early 1970s had been ground down by the military.30 However, a bonanza was about to arrive in the form of the illicit drug trade.

Organized Crime and Elites in Colombia

Crime, Cocaine and Guerrillas

The roots of organized crime in Colombia were sown since independence by the lack of government presence in many parts of the country. The tradition of contraband smuggling created trafficking expertise and a tolerance for illicit activities. Near constant political tumult, like during La Violencia, also opened the way for bands of marauders, thieves and kidnapping groups, who often thinly disguised their criminal activities under the banner of one political party or the other.31

The failure of land reform also pushed populations to colonize remote areas, where illicit crops were the only viable means of support.32 These crops included marijuana, poppy — the raw material for heroin — and coca, the raw material for cocaine. In the 1970s, Colombians moved to take control of the most important of these illicit businesses: the cocaine trade. Coca was not produced in large quantities at the time in Colombia, but Colombians began developing the most efficient means of processing it into a consumable white powder and transporting this byproduct to points north.

The pioneers were, of course, Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel and its lesser rival, the Cali Cartel. These first-generation Colombian trafficking groups were hierarchical, vertically integrated organizations that controlled each stage in the business, from production to distribution.33 They sourced coca leaf from its primary production points in Peru and Bolivia, processed it in Colombia, then shipped the cocaine to the United States, where their operatives sold it on the streets.

Illegal drugs created regional economic booms in the 1970s and 1980s, kick-starting certain industries, such as construction, bringing a flood of illicit dollars into the country, and creating massive wealth for some of those involved in the industry. By the 1990s, revenues from the trade made up an estimated 4 to 7 percent of Colombia’s GDP.34

Economic crises in the 1970s also pushed some members of the commercial classes to seek new economic opportunities, particularly the industrialists of Medellín. In Colombia’s second city, which would become the cradle for the cocaine business, “local businessmen turned to the cocaine industry for infusions of capital,” which later helped to “cement the [drug industry’s] ties to the Colombian elite.”35 The economic downturns also swelled the ranks of the unemployed, creating a large pool of manpower for the drug trade.

The FARC gradually moved to take advantage of this new source of funding. The group first began taxing marijuana growers in the 1970s, then coca growers. In the early 1980s, they decided to impose taxes on the traffickers themselves. This would be an enormous boost to their finances and change the face of the civil conflict.36 The FARC used the new revenue stream to expand its areas of operation, to increase its number of fighting units — or “fronts” as they are known — from 17 in 1978 to 28 in 1984, and to invest in weapons, uniforms, and communications devices.37

In the same period, the guerrilla groups ramped up extortion and kidnapping, targeting rural landowners, businesspeople, and any members of the population who appeared as if they could pay a ransom. For the first time, Colombia’s guerrilla insurgencies were really hurting the elites, and the elites decided to act. In the Middle Magdalena Valley, valuable farming land that would be a crucible of the conflict, local elites began meeting with representatives of the army to discuss founding rural “self-defense” groups to help the military to fight the rebels, which was legal under a 1968 law. The landowners would soon gain a powerful new ally.

Emerging or periphery elite (aka ‘Narco-elite’)

As well as fueling the rebels’ bid to overthrow the government, the influx of drug money created a new elite. As Thoumi says, the accumulation of “very quick and large individual fortunes … changed the power structure and nature of the elite in many regions.”38 Members of the working classes were quickly propelled to wealth, forming a “clase emergente” (emerging class) or what some called a “narco-elite.”

Escobar and most of his partners in the Medellín Cartel, for example, were from humble social backgrounds. The Medellín Cartel members were able to use their new-found wealth as a shortcut to join the landowning class. Escobar and his business partner José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, alias “El Méjicano,” for example, bought up swathes of land in the Magdalena Medio Valley. The land was sold cheaply by people escaping the rising guerrilla threat, and traffickers used it both as a status symbol and a means to launder their wealth. They were, in the words of Steven Dudley, “purchasing their way into the landed gentry.”39

The mass purchase of land by drug traffickers was so substantial that it is known as the “counter-reform” — skewing Colombia’s land further into the hands of the few. In all, it is estimated that the drug traffickers bought up to 5 million hectares of grazing land in Colombia, some 15 percent of the total.40

With their ranches, the traffickers formed a “new rural elite,” in some places completely replacing the old landowners.41 The traffickers’ ascension into the landowner classes would eventually allow them a deeper integration into the elite, as they became useful to the political class in the fight against the guerrillas.42

This was not just a political struggle. As landowners, the traffickers themselves became vulnerable to the same guerrilla attacks that threatened the traditional elites. They soon joined forces with local elites to fund what were called “self-defense” forces, which were supposedly set up to fight the rebels, but which often targeted social “undesirables,” unionists, and other groups perceived to be a threat to elite interests. These groups were precursors to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) paramilitary army.

A New Politics

As drug traffickers consolidated their gains in the 1980s, a change was taking place in the ranks of the political elite. The three-decade power-sharing agreement between Liberals and Conservatives came to an end in 1986, when the Conservatives refused to join President Virgilio Barco’s Liberal government. Colombia was moving towards increased decentralization. A 1986 reform meant that mayors were directly elected, rather than appointed by the governors. The new constitution of 1991 bestowed increased autonomy and control over resources to local governments, and established the popular election of governors. All this gave more power to elites of Colombia’s peripheries, who had long been powerful in their local spheres, but removed from the center of national power in Bogotá. It was a profound change. As Francisco Leal writes, “The regional elites ascended to the national stage, to the detriment of the ‘natural bosses.’ For that reason, the so-called traditional political elites are a thing of the past.”43

The drug boom helped propel these regional elites from Colombia’s periphery to the center of power in Bogotá and Medellín. The sudden influx of money to peripheral areas dramatically changed existing power structures and distribution of wealth. The existing elites — landowners, industrialists and political powerbrokers — could see themselves pushed aside by rising figures, often from lower social groups, who were taking advantage of the money and power bestowed by organized crime to convert themselves into a new elite.44

But organized crime also presented the elites with an opportunity. They could be left behind in the new world created by narco-money, or they could throw their lot in with the new narco-elites and hitch a ride to power on the national scale as senators, governors, or party leaders. “When the regional political class obtains financing from an inexhaustible source of capital, and when it receives the armed support of private armies that regulate a significant portion of the social order, then they achieve a level of political influence never before seen in the country’s center,” Gustavo Duncan argues.45

But while the traffickers had gained instant economic power and increasing political power in the periphery, they had to fight for social acceptance in the center. Medellín’s upper classes blocked Escobar’s application to join the city’s top social club. His attempts to enter the political elite were also crushed when he was ejected from the Liberal Party and thrown out of his position as deputy congressman in the early 1980s. Rejected by the establishment, Escobar made the fight personal. He presented himself as a populist figure, persecuted by the political elite for his humble background and efforts to help the poor. And he mixed nationalistic fervor — especially as it related to sovereignty and the question of extradition — to stir up anti-establishment sentiment.

In addition, Escobar resorted to violence. In 1984, his assassins killed then Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara. In the late 1980s, they murdered dozens of judges and police. They also kidnapped elites and exploded bombs in public places where the wealthy and their families congregated. The violence culminated in the 1989 presidential elections, when Escobar’s assassins killed the Liberal Party candidate Luís Carlos Galán. They later exploded a bomb on a commercial airplane in an attempt to murder his replacement, killing all those aboard.

In a public letter sent in 1989, Escobar and a group of other trafficking bosses aptly described this campaign as “total war on the government, the industrial and political oligarchy, the journalists who have attacked and insulted us, the judges who have sold out to the government, magistrates who have extradited us, trade union leaders and all those who have persecuted us.”46

The Medellín Cartel also penetrated the Colombian state, with high-level allies in security and justice institutions that kept them safe from prosecution. The Medellín Cartel offered officials a choice between “silver or lead” — taking cartel money, or taking a bullet. Through this campaign of bribery, intimidation and terror tactics, Escobar eventually bent the Colombian state to his will, forcing it to ban the extradition of nationals in a 1991 constitutional assembly.

The drug trade eventually penetrated politics on every level. Even the national political elites in Bogotá had to contend with the immense power of drug money. The country was forced to recognize this fact, and the costs of co-existence with the powerful cartels, when it was revealed, shortly after he took office in 1994, that President Ernesto Samper had received significant campaign donations from the Cali Cartel.

But the drug trade also had its losers, among them the traditional and commercial elites. Though the traffickers grew rich, the economy suffered. By the 1990s, Colombia had entered into a social, political and economic crisis caused in large part by the drug trade. GDP was lower in the 1980s and 1990s than in the course of the previous 30 years, thanks to capital flight, increased transaction costs, and spending on security at the expense of other projects.47

What’s more, thanks to Escobar, violence had taken on a whole new meaning for the elites. If Colombia’s elites had been removed from the rural killings of La Violencia, the traffickers’ acts of mass terror in the late 1980s and early 1990s brought the violence to their front door.

Eventually, Escobar’s confrontation with the state and the elites would cost him. Although he managed to negotiate his handover and residence in a jail built to his liking in 1991, his power was dwindling. His criminal partners — sensing a shift in the political winds and feeling betrayed and worn down by Escobar’s never ending war — teamed with the government and bit by bit destroyed his empire.

At the core of this fight against Escobar was an alliance of criminal interests — which went by the moniker Persecuted by Pablo Escobar (Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar – PEPES) — and the police. By late 1993, as Escobar scrambled to stay alive, the seeds were already sown for the next phase of Colombia’s criminal development.

The AUC and the Rise of the Periphery and Bureaucratic Elites

As chronicled in one of our case studies, the security forces — with help from the PEPES — killed Escobar in 1993. They then turned on the Cali Cartel and captured its top bosses in 1995, clearing the way for a new generation of criminals. It was during this period that another set of what we call bureaucratic elites emerged in Colombia. These elites draw their power from their government posts, controlling key resources often through their state-held positions. They are also, as we will see, a critical node that criminal groups need in order to function. In some cases, bureaucratic elites and criminal interests can use each other to expand their power in quixotic ways.

Meanwhile, in the Colombian underworld internal rivals stepped up to take over the capos’ drug empires: the Norte del Valle Cartel emerged from the remains of the Cali Cartel, while Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” a former associate of Escobar’s who helped found and run the PEPES, took power in Medellín. Smaller cartels, or “cartelitos,” sprung up around the country.48 They lacked the hierarchical structure and centralized leadership of the old hegemonic cartels. They controlled a smaller section of the drug supply chain, working in federation with other organizations.

Right-wing paramilitary groups took on a central role in the Colombian underworld, coming together under the banner of the newly formed United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in 1997. The AUC was a byproduct of the 1980s “self-defense” groups formed by drug traffickers, landowners and their military allies, but it was also an invention of those who had formed the PEPES. Ostensibly it was a loose network of “self-defense” organizations established to fight leftist guerrillas — still acting as a proxy army for the government. In many cases it did expel the rebels from traditional guerrilla-controlled areas. But they also taxed and partook in the drug trafficking business, as well as pillaged government coffers in corruption schemes, robbed trucks, extorted business and kidnapped locals for ransom, among many other criminal activities. Through it all, they cloaked their activities under the banner of anti-communism and counter-insurgency.

Soon the AUC established their own form of order in the underworld as well. The second generation trafficking groups nearly always worked through the paramilitaries.49 The remnants of the Medellín and Cali Cartels both worked closely with the AUC. Don Berna became a key figure in the AUC, heading its drug trafficking activities, and eventually converted his hit squad into a paramilitary fighting bloc, as one of our case studies explores. He eventually became a commander in the AUC. The Norte del Valle Cartel also had close ties to the AUC, relying on it to protect its drug routes, laboratories, and members.50

Collaboration between traffickers and Colombia’s periphery and bureaucratic elites reached an unprecedented level under the second generation of criminal groups. The AUC was born out of an alliance between drug traffickers, the security forces, and local emerging elites who sought protection from the guerrillas. Some of its commanders, like Rodrigo Tovar — the subject of one of our Colombian case studies — and Salvatore Mancuso, were born into these elites and had local and high level political contacts they had known since childhood. The paramilitaries also worked closely with elements in the military, sharing intelligence and carrying out joint operations against guerrillas.

With time, the AUC’s anti-subversive mission melded with the rising political power of the emerging elites. The poster boy for these elites was Álvaro Uribe. Uribe did not have one of the surnames shared by so many of Colombia’s presidents. The traditional elite is highly insular, dominated by a small number of powerful families. Uribe came from outside the national ruling clique, and the old families had to join forces with him in order to keep their positions.

Uribe was born into a prosperous ranching family in Antioquia, the state where Medellín is located. A charismatic orator and an unflinching ideologue, he served as Medellín mayor, Antioquia governor, and a Liberal Party senator before running for president in 2002 as an outsider candidate. He shot to the front of the race supported by a public appalled and disillusioned by violence, kidnappings and the breakdown of peace negotiations with the FARC rebels.

As noted, the drug trade had also altered the insurgencies that had grown immensely in the preceding years. A series of spectacular assaults on the military resulted in dozens of soldiers held captive by the FARC rebels. The ELN was regularly blowing up one of the country’s key oil pipelines, and both groups were setting up checkpoints along major highways to kidnap defenseless civilians. This was now the war of the commercial elites, as well as their counterparts on the periphery.

President Andres Pastrana sought peace with the FARC, ceding a 42,000-square kilometer area of land the size of Switzerland to negotiate with the guerrillas in the late 1990s. The FARC, however, used the area to build up their military strength and launch attacks on the government. Pastrana eventually broke off talks. Disillusioned, Colombia’s war-battered elites were ready to do whatever was necessary to win the war, including electing an emerging elite in Uribe to the presidency in 2002. Uribe imposed a widely-accepted “war tax” on the economic elites. The tide began to turn in the war, and the government gained ground against the rebels.

However, Uribe’s rise also reflected darker forces — the power of the new emerging elite and of the paramilitaries, who supported his presidential campaign. His father had made his money through connections to the Medellín traffickers, and Uribe has often been accused of dealings with these shady groups. With Uribe’s rise, “the outlaws” became “the establishment.”51


The AUC embarked upon a project to build alliances with politicians at all levels. It used intimidation tactics to ensure that favored candidates won office, and in return gained access to protection, public funds and to the levers of power, not only at the local and regional level, but reaching the top ranks of national politics. Investigations into these ties give an indication of the scale of the AUC’s infiltration of politics, known in Colombia as “parapolitics.” At one point in 2008, a third of the Senate was under investigation for paramilitary ties. As of 2014, 61 members of Congress had been convicted for ties to the paramilitaries, and more than 60 others had been investigated — many of them allies of President Uribe.52 Nationwide, more than 11,000 people have come under investigation, including more than 900 politicians, 800 members of the military, and 300 other officials.53

However, the AUC was becoming a liability, attracting attention from the traditional and commercial elites’ most important ally, the US, due to its drug trafficking activities. Uribe oversaw negotiations with the AUC leaders, and an eventual peace deal saw over 30,000 members demobilized. The top leaders agreed to turn themselves in, getting short prison sentences. However, revelations of the depth of the paramilitaries’ involvement in politics in the parapolitics scandal made it opportune for all the elites to get the AUC leaders out of Colombia, where they might make inconvenient revelations. In a surprise move, Uribe extradited 14 of the AUC’s top leaders to the United States in May 2008.

The paramilitary commanders saw this as a betrayal on the part of the elites. The elites’ need for the alliance was over, and the paramilitaries had become a threat to their power, reputation and relationship with the United States.

“Elites may ally themselves with criminals as they perceive themselves threatened by counter-hegemonic groups,” Alfredo Schulte-Bockholt argues. “The ability of mafia groups to integrate themselves into existing power structures depends on the need of elites for this partnership. If its services are no longer required, or if perceived as a threat, elites can and do turn against organized crime using the power of the state.”54

BACRIM and the Guerrillas

The extraditions cleared the stage for a third generation of drug traffickers and underworld organizations. From the ashes of the Norte del Valle Cartel emerged two groups called the Rastrojos and the Machos, while something known as the Oficina de Envigado took over Medellín. Several groups were born from the AUC, often led by mid-level commanders and maintaining the paramilitaries’ financial structures — these included the Urabeños, the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (Ejército Revolucionario Popular Anti-subversivo – ERPAC), the Paisas, and the Águilas Negras. The government refers to these organizations collectively as “bandas criminales” or “BACRIM,” from the Spanish for “criminal bands.”

These third generation criminal groups are more decentralized than their forebears. Some consist of networks of semi-independent criminal groups operating on a franchise model — these nodes operate under the same name, but are not directly controlled by the group’s leadership. As well as moving drugs themselves, the BACRIM offer protection services to other traffickers, using their territorial control over key drug movement corridors and departure points to guarantee the safety of shipments.55

The BACRIM play a still-smaller role in the drug supply chain than the second generation groups, as Mexican cartels increasingly extend their reach into South America, buying processed cocaine directly from producers. As a result, international drug trafficking is a less significant part of the BACRIM’s business operations, making up only about a half of their income. Domestic enterprises like drug sales, extortion, and illicit mining operations make up the rest.56

Through a process of battles and alliances, the group known as the Urabeños has emerged as the most powerful of the third generation of trafficking groups, and may now be the only BACRIM left with a national presence and the ability to send multi-ton drug shipments abroad. Even the powerful Oficina de Envigado has been brought into the fold, through a 2013 deal in which the two groups agreed to peaceful co-existence in Medellín.

The new-generation groups have weaker ties to the elites than their predecessors. The BACRIM have no overarching political project to match that of the AUC, and their commanders have fewer ties to the emerging elites. However, as for any trafficking group, it remains important for the BACRIM to corrupt officials in the judiciary, security forces and local politics, in order to gain access to intelligence, launder their profits and operate unmolested. There is evidence that the BACRIM backed candidates in the 2014 Congress elections, but this took place on an ad hoc basis, region by region, rather than being coordinated on a national level.57

A key example of how strong ties between local emerging elites and organized crime can continue unbroken into the third generation of criminal groups is provided by one of our case studies on Colombia. A former governor of Guajira state, Juan Francisco “Kiko” Gómez, is accused of having worked for more than three decades with generations of criminal groups — contraband smugglers, the AUC, and later with a local group linked to the Urabeños — profiting from their illegal businesses, using their influence to win elections, and employing them to eradicate his enemies. Though Gómez is now in jail, his allies still hold political power in the region.

The BACRIM who descended from the AUC have largely abandoned the right-wing ideology of their paramilitary predecessors. Though in some parts of the country the BACRIM have been linked to attacks on left-wing groups, such as trade unionists and land restitution activists, this is generally because the BACRIM are hired to do this work by landowners or business interests, rather than because they have their own political agenda.58 Indeed, the BACRIM often have dealings with the same leftist guerrillas that the AUC set out to destroy.

The FARC guerrillas retained an important role in the drug trade as generations of drug trafficking organizations came and went, though they always held back from stepping into the role of the country’s biggest drug syndicate. The guerrillas admitted to charging taxes from coca growers, buyers, labs and drug flights, which mean that they earned a minimum of $200 million a year from the trade.59 The BACRIM were dependent on coca controlled by the rebels, forcing the two groups from opposite sides of the political spectrum into an uneasy coexistence.

The FARC and other rebel groups have always worked to infiltrate politics, influencing local elections through money and intimidation, and indeed took on the role of the state in some regions, but they lacked the same capacity to penetrate high-level politics as the right-wing groups.

*Jeremy McDermott provided research and input into this section. Map by Jorge Mejía Galindo. Graphics by Andrew J Higgens. 


[1] United Nations Development Programme, “Informe sobre Desarrollo Humano Colombia 2011. Colombia rural: Razones para la esperanza,” 2011.

[2] Francisco E. Thoumi, Illegal Drugs, Economy, and Society in the Andes (Washington, DC, 2003), p. 278.

[3] Forrest Hylton, “An Evil Hour in Colombia,” New Left Review, vol. 23 (September-October 2003), p. 57.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 11. See also: David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself (Berkeley, 1993), p. 284.

[6] John Martz, The Politics of Clientelism: Democracy and the State in Colombia (London, 1997), p. 49.

[7] Rensselaer W. Lee III and Francisco E. Thoumi, “The Political-Criminal Nexus in Colombia,” Trends in Organized Crime, vol. 5, no. 2 (1999).

[8] Jorge Pablo Osterling, Democracy in Colombia: Clientelistic Politics and Guerrilla Warfare (New Jersey, 1988), pp. 35-36.

[9] Nazih Richani, “Caudillos and the crisis of the Colombian state: fragmented sovereignty, the war system and the privatisation of counterinsurgency in Colombia,” Third World Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 2 (2007), p. 406.

[10] David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself (Berkeley, 1993), p. 94.

[11] Forrest Hylton, “An Evil Hour in Colombia,” New Left Review, vol. 23 (September-October 2003), p. 56.

[12] Charles W. Bergquist, Coffee and Conflict in Colombia, 1886-1910 (Durham, NC, 1978), p. 6; Alfredo Schulte-Bockholt, The Politics of Organized Crime and the Organized Crime of Politics: A Study in Criminal Power (Lanham, 2006), p. 101.

[13] Forrest Hylton, Evil Hour in Colombia (New York, 2006), p. 12.

[14] David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself (Berkeley, 1993), pp. 197-198.

[15] Leslie Bethell (ed.), The Cambridge History of Latin America (Cambridge, 1991), p. 617.

[16] Gonzálo Sánchez and Donny Meertens, Bandits, Peasants, and Politics: The Case of “La Violencia” in Colombia (Austin, 2001).

[17] Francisco E. Thoumi, et al., “The Impact of Organized Crime on Democratic Governance in Latin America,” FriEnt, July 2010, p. 5.

[18] David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself (Berkeley, 1993), p. 206.

[19] Leslie Bethell (ed.), The Cambridge History of Latin America (Cambridge, 1991), p. 610.

[20] Herbert Braun, The Assassination of Gaitán: Public Life and Urban Violence in Colombia (Madison, WI, 1985), p. 201.

[21] Forrest Hylton, “An Evil Hour in Colombia,” New Left Review, vol. 23 (September-October 2003), p. 66.

[22] Rensselaer W. Lee III and Francisco E. Thoumi, “The Political-Criminal Nexus in Colombia,” Trends in Organized Crime, vol. 5, no. 2 (1999), p. 61.

[23] William Aviles, Global Capitalism, Democracy, and Civil-Military Relations in Colombia (Albany, NY, 2006), pp. 32-33.

[24] Leslie Bethell (ed.), The Cambridge History of Latin America (Cambridge, 1991), p. 620.

[25] David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself (Berkeley, 1993), pp. 207-208.

[26] Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle, Cocaine, Death Squads, and the War on Terror: U.S. Imperialism and Class Struggle in Colombia (New York, 2011), p. 25.

[27] Forrest Hylton, “An Evil Hour in Colombia,” New Left Review, vol. 23 (September-October 2003), p. 68.

[28] Ibid, p. 69.

[29] Rensselaer W. Lee III and Francisco E. Thoumi, “The Political-Criminal Nexus in Colombia,” Trends in Organized Crime, vol. 5, no. 2 (1999), p. 63.

[30] Forrest Hylton, “An Evil Hour in Colombia,” New Left Review, vol. 23 (September-October 2003), p. 72.

[31] See: Gonzálo Sánchez and Donny Meertens, Bandits, Peasants, and Politics: The Case of “La Violencia” in Colombia (Austin, 2001).

[32] Rensselaer W. Lee III and Francisco E. Thoumi, “The Political-Criminal Nexus in Colombia,” Trends in Organized Crime, vol. 5, no. 2 (1999), p. 62.

[33] Jeremy McDermott, “20 years after Pablo: The evolution of Colombia’s drug trade,” InSight Crime, 3 December 2013. Available at: /news/analysis/20-years-after-pablo-the-evolution-of-colombias-drug-trade

[34] Rensselaer W. Lee III and Francisco E. Thoumi, “The Political-Criminal Nexus in Colombia,” Trends in Organized Crime, vol. 5, no. 2 (1999), p. 66.

[35] Ibid., p. 64.

[36] These days, the rebels effectively “admit to earning up to $450 from each kilo of drugs produced and moving through their territory. Even if this were their only involvement in the drug trade, it would earn them a minimum of $50 million a year just on the coca base trade in their areas of influence, and up to $90 million on the movement of cocaine.” See: Jeremy McDermott, “The FARC and the drug trade: Siamese twins?” InSight Crime, 26 May 2014. Available at: /investigations/farc-and-drug-trade-siamese-twins

[37] Steven Dudley, Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia (New York, 2004), pp. 42-43.

[38] Francisco E. Thoumi, Illegal Drugs, Economy, and Society in the Andes, (Washington D.C., 2003), p. 181.

[39] Steven Dudley, Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia (New York, 2004), p. 62.

[40] Rensselaer W. Lee III and Francisco E. Thoumi, “The Political-Criminal Nexus in Colombia,” Trends in Organized Crime, vol. 5, no. 2 (1999), p. 62.

[41] Gustavo Duncan, “Del Campo a la Ciudad en Colombia. La Infiltracion Urbana de los Señores de la Guerra,” Universidad de los Andes, 2005, p. 70.

[42] Alfredo Schulte-Bockholt, The Politics of Organized Crime and the Organized Crime of Politics: A Study in Criminal Power (Lanham, 2006), p. 166.

[43] Francisco Leal Buitrago, “Siete tesis sobre el relevo de las elites politicas,” Colombia Internacional, vol. 66 (July-December 2007).

[44] Gustavo Duncan, “Narcotrafico, Elites y Poder,” 2014 (unpublished).

[45] Ibid.

[46] El Pais, “Lucha a muerte entre la ‘mafia’, y la sociedad colombiana,” 25 August 1989. Available at:

[47] Francisco E. Thoumi, Illegal Drugs, Economy, and Society in the Andes (Washington, DC, 2003), p. 191.

[48] Bruce Bagley, “Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in the Americas: Major Trends in the Twenty-First Century,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, August 2012. Available at:

[49] Ibid.

[50] Department of Justice, “Leader of Norte Valle Colombian drug cartel extradited to United States,” 20 July 2007.

[51] Forrest Hylton, “An Evil Hour in Colombia,” New Left Review, vol. 23 (September-October 2003), p. 51.

[52] Semana, “La parapolitica no ha muerto,” 27 February 2014. Accessed 4 December 2014 at:

[53] Verdad Abierta, “Cinco años de Parapolítica: ¿Qué tan lejos está el fin?,” 12 June 2012. Accessed 4 December 2014 at:

[54] Alfredo Shulte-Bockholt, The Politics of Organized Crime and the Organized Crime of Politics: A Study in Criminal Power (Lanham, 2006), pp. 35-36.

[55] Jeremy McDermott, “The ‘Victory’ of the Urabeños: The New Face of Colombian Organized Crime,” InSight Crime, May 2014, p. 10. Available at: /investigations/the-victory-of-the-urabenos-the-new-face-of-colombian-organized-crime

[56] Ibid., p. 5.

[57] Ibid., p. 10.

[58] Ibid., p. 10.

[59] Jeremy McDermott, “The FARC and the drug trade: Siamese twins?” InSight Crime, 26 May 2014. Available at: /investigations/farc-and-drug-trade-siamese-twins

The research presented in this investigation is the result of a project funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.

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