Ex-police in two of the most troubled Colombian provinces have allegedly moved up the criminal ladder, shifting from tacitly supporting criminal groups to becoming players in the underworld in their own right.
According to local media, a significant number of police officers in the provinces of Antioquia and Meta have abandoned their posts in favor of a life of crime. El Tiempo, citing a classified report from an unnamed foreign intelligence agency, reports that ex-police in these regions are at the head of criminal networks devoted to extortion and drug trafficking. According to the report, these structures once worked in the service of local criminal groups, but now function independently.
The report says that the city of Medellin, Antioquia, is an epicenter for these groups, who are known in parts of the north of the city as the “poli-band,” a portmanteau of the Spanish words for “police” and “criminal band.” One such group in particular, the “Soto gang,” is singled out as having high degree of control over commerce, politics and extortion in the city. “In the past they [simply] did not report criminal acts,” the report’s authors claimed, “Now they have become leaders and executors.”
Indeed, several recent incidents in both Antioquia and Meta support this claim. In July, three police officers stationed in northern Medellin were convicted of demanding an extortion payment, or "vacuna," from a restaurant owner. In 2008, 14 local police officers were accused of extortion and drug trafficking in the city.
There is evidence of similar corruption in the Meta town of Puerto Rico. El Tiempo claims that some 35 former police officers and soldiers are involved in extortion and drug trafficking in the town. Many of them, according to the newspaper, were previously linked with the Popular Revolutionary Antiterrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC) head Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias "Cuchillo,"·who was killed in a shootout in late 2010.
Police corruption has a long history in Colombia, but it usually involves the officials taking a much less direct role in criminal activity. In most reported cases, the police accept kickbacks from local gangs such as the Rastrojos or Urabenos, receiving the money in return for looking the other way when crimes are committed in their jurisdiction. There are also several reports of police officers accepting regular payments at police checkpoints (usually along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts) in return for allowing drug shipments to pass through undisturbed.
The concern is that Colombia could see the emergence of criminals groups made exclusively of former military or police -- as with the Zetas in Mexico. The group was initially composed almost exclusively of former Special Forces soldiers. Although they were initially formed as the enforcer wing of the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas broke away in 2010, and are now known as one of the most ruthless drug gangs in the country.
The prospect of “police gangs” in Colombia is worrisome not only in terms of its immediate security threat, but also because of what it means for the integrity of the country’s judicial institutions. Those involved in these criminal networks cannot be expected to operate in the same way as other criminal groups. Because of their backgrounds, these individuals have a number of contacts which are still active in law enforcement, providing them with enhanced ability to carry out their criminal operations with impunity.
Colombia has worked hard to screen its security forces in recent years, with the government announcing several different initiatives aimed at screening police departments throughout the country for corrupt elements. Given the severity of the allegations in the El Tiempo article, however, it would seem that much more work remains to be done.