A new report concludes that there is little chance Colombia’s new generation of criminal gangs will achieve the same degree of political control as their paramilitary predecessors — but this doesn’t mean they won’t try.

According to a page report released July 25 by think-tank the International Crisis Group, Colombia’s criminal bands — called “bandas criminals” (BACRIM) by the government — lack the organization to seriously penetrate the state in Colombia’s October municipal elections, when voters will pick mayors, governors and council members.

BACRIMs like the the Urabeños and the ERPAC are made up of ex-members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), some of whom never fully demobilized during the peace process of 2004-2006 or returned to criminal life after surrendering. The AUC was the shadowy backer of many politicians in Colombia, resulting in the “parapolitics” scandal which so far has seen some two dozen members of Congress tried and sentenced, and another 121 investigated.

But unlike their predecessors, the AUC, the BACRIMs lack a centralized command structure, meaning they are unlikely to create a national strategy for the 2011 elections. According to the ICG, if the BACRIMs end up backing any political candidates, it will likely be a regional phenomenon, confined to the areas where large-scale landowners — in many cases former allies of the AUC — are still interested in using armed groups to protect their interests.

The AUC were highly organized when it came to buying off candidates during previous municipal elections. In 2000, paramilitary leader Rodrigo Tovar, alias “Jorge 40,” held a meeting with hundreds of politicians in order to handpick candidates to run in Colombia’s central Magdalena region, the heartland of the AUC. Similar meetings took place in which AUC commanders selected and financed candidates in the Eastern Plains and in Uraba, close to the border with Panama. Now, at least 103 current and ex-local officials, elected to office between 1997 and 2010, are under investigation for receiving support from the AUC. According to Colombian think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris, in 2003 alone, the AUC played a hand in the election of at least nine governors, 251 mayors and more than 4,000 council members.

The subsequent “parapolitics” scandal was so damaging it is now unlikely that candidates will seek support from illegal armed groups on the same mass scale. However, the BACRIMs still have many incentives to finance candidates in the 2011 elections. If the BACRIMs are able to place political allies in office, this will grant them access to crucial information about the movements of the security forces in areas of interest.

More importantly, seeing their political allies elected will give the BACRIMs access to the municipal budgets, as well as the budgets for public works contracts. Such pay-offs became an important crutch for AUC finances, especially in Colombia’s top gold and oil-producing regions, where royalties were paid to local government. Last June, a Bogota court sentenced six former majors from the department of Casanare. It is here where much of Colombia’s oil wealth is found, and the mayors were condemned for having sought support from an AUC faction during their electoral campaigns, in exchange for paying the paramilitaries up to 50 percent of the municipal budget, and 10 percent of the department’s public work contracts.

Pilfering such funds is a relatively low-risk, attractive way for the BACRIMs to make money, compared to drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping. But in order to access this money, the BACRIMs need to make political connections to the same degree as the AUC. It is not clear that the current generation of criminal groups have the ability — or perhaps even the will — to do so.

On some level, it appears as though the BACRIMs are concentrated more on the business of drug trafficking, rather than achieving the level of political and social control seen under the AUC. This partly explains why groups like the Popular Revolutionary Antiterrorist Army of Colombia (Ejercito Popular Revolucionario Antiterrorista de Colombia – ERPAC) and the Rastrojos, once enemies of Colombia’s left-wing guerrilla groups, are now working with rebel groups in the drug industry. For the BACRIMS, pushing a political philosophy is less important now than pushing product.

There are still plenty of reasons why the BACRIMs may seek to clandestinely fund their preferred candidates come October. Even with the current ongoing “parapolitics” investigations, the majority of cases have not resulted in sentences. The high impunity rate may yet encourage political candidates to take a chance and seek funding and support from armed groups. The BACRIMs may yet be enlisted to influence elections in areas like Uraba, the Eastern Plains or the Middle Magdalena region. Here, the AUC displaced and massacred thousands of people; swathes of land ended up in the hands of large-scale landowners, agribusinesses or other multinational companies.

With the passing of the Victims Law, the government has signaled its intent to redistribute some of this lost property to Colombia’s displaced. The economic elites who once funded the AUC’s rise still have vested interests to defend. They may yet enlist the BACRIMs to intimidate or kill the political candidates and community leaders who voice strong support for land restitution. And with at least 19 pre-candidates assasinated so far this year in Colombia, the fall election season may yet be a bloody one.

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