HomeNewsAnalysisWhy Talks With Colombia Drug Gangs Will Go Nowhere
ANALYSIS

Why Talks With Colombia Drug Gangs Will Go Nowhere

COLOMBIA / 23 JUN 2011 BY ELYSSA PACHICO EN

A bishop says he is making progress in backdoor negotiations with some of Colombia's most powerful drug gangs. Although well-intentioned, these talks will likely go nowhere, except around in circles.

Bishop Julio Cesar Vidal, whose ecclesiastical district, Cordoba, is among the most violent departments in the country, has reaffirmed the church's commitment to negotiating with Colombia's most powerful criminal groups. These include the Rastrojos, based in the southwest, the Urabeños, based primarily along the Caribbean, and Medellin's Oficina de Envigado.

Close to 5,000 members of these groups may be interested in turning themselves in to authorities, the bishop told Colombian media on June 21. This follows similar statements made in February, when the bishop told InSight that intermediaries from these criminal groups had expressed an interest in disarming.

Vidal said he has been in touch with the criminal groups, which the government calls BACRIMs ("bandas criminales"), since September 2009. According to the bishop, in a gesture of good faith, the gangs in Cordoba agreed to a temporary ceasefire in December 2010, convincing him of the legitimacy of their intentions.

InSight, however, remains unconvinced. Publicly, the government is taking the usual precautions, emphasizing that these are drug-trafficking gangs with no political agenda, who can expect no offers of amnesty from the state. At the same time, it is clear that Vidal has been working on developing these contacts for some time. If there has been contact, it has likely happened with the government's knowledge, although perhaps not with their encouragement.

The push to negotiate with the BACRIMs comes at a time when the authorities have described them as Colombia's most serious security threat. The government has launched several military and police surges across the country, in an attempt to contain the armed groups. In some ways, Vidal's claims that many top gang leaders are willing to surrender (even, in some cases, if this would mean extradition to the U.S.) seem intended to provide a non-military alternative approach to tackling the BACRIM threat.

But if Vidal's push for dialogue is well-intentioned, the likelihood of success is still minimal. Due to the diverse nature of the BACRIMs, it's unclear who the bishop is even referring to when he says that 5,000 gang members are willing to disarm.

In essence, there are two levels to the BACRIMs. The first is the core: well-structured, organized and hierarchal, with a clearly delineated leadership. Commanders handle sophisticated operations, concerned primarily with the international export of cocaine. Vidal has tried to suggest that he does have contact with the very top levels of this core, claiming that the leaders of the Rastrojos, the "Comba" brothers, have expressed interest in disarming.

The second level of the BACRIMs is their base. These are local criminal gangs, often with little to no military training, nor the international contacts needed for exporting cocaine overseas. This lower level of BACRIM operations is formed when core lieutenants arrive to a given area and start recruiting local gangs. The gangs are charged with moving drugs, carrying out assassinations or acting as street informants. They use the franchise name of their "sponsor" BACRIM, but otherwise cannot be said to form part of the group's core of seasoned drug traffickers.

They also cannot be said to have a clearly structured or delineated leadership. Bishop Vidal was previously involved in talks with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colomiba - AUC), which had a clear chain of command that made serious negotiations possible. But the BACRIM base -- who may make up the 5,000 estimated combatants who Vidal claims are willing to disarm -- are undisciplined and disloyal, frequently selling their services to the core BACRIM which acts as the highest bidder. In some ways, asking the BACRIMs to enter a disarmament process is attributing a formality to their operations which in fact does not exist.

The absence of leadership among the BACRIM base makes it unlikely that the Church's negotiations will succeed. Colombia's last demobilization process, involving the AUC, gives even less reason to hope for success. The AUC was treated as a political actor during negotiations with the government circa 2005, and many top commanders were initially granted sentence reductions in return for disarming.

This inspired other drug trafficking groups to try to win amnesty from the state. The Rastrojos, then the armed wing of the Norte del Valle Cartel, tried to enter the demobilization process, calling themselves the Popular Peasant Patrols (Rondas Campesinas Populares - RCP). A rival gang, the Machos, tried to do the same, styling themselves as the United Self-Defense Forces of Valle (Autodefensas Unidas del Valle). This was done in hope of winning concessions from the government, including protection from extradition to the U.S.

In 2011, with the current supposed negotiations, it looks like history is repeating itself. If the BACRIMs have voiced interest in dialogue, this is just another bid to position themselves as a group that deserves incentives to demobilize. Especially given the failures of the AUC demobilization process, the government is unlikely to again concede any benefits.

Vidal has said that the BACRIMs have expressed no interest in winning concessions, only in disarming. But this only raises the question of what the BACRIMs stand to gain from talking with the government. The answer: nothing. This makes it hard to believe that the talks will go anywhere.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

AUC / 13 JAN 2012

Retired General Mario Montoya, former head of the Colombian Army, has denied having any links to the AUC, despite being…

COLOMBIA / 16 MAR 2017

Information has surfaced on apparent frictions at the heart at one of the Western Hemisphere's most powerful drug trafficking organizations.

COLOMBIA / 29 JUL 2014

Extradited Colombia paramilitary leader and mafia boss Diego Fernando Murillo, alias "Don Berna," has claimed his brother fired the shot…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Venezuela's Cocaine Revolution Met With Uproar

6 MAY 2022

On May 4, InSight Crime launched its latest investigation, Venezuela’s Cocaine Revolution¸ accompanied by a virtual panel on its findings. The takeaways from this three-year effort, including the fact that Venezuela…

THE ORGANIZATION

Venezuela Drug Trafficking Investigation and InDepth Gender Coverage

29 APR 2022

On May 4, InSight Crime will be publishing The Cocaine Revolution in Venezuela, a groundbreaking investigation into how the Venezuelan government regulates the cocaine trade in the country. An accompanying event,…

THE ORGANIZATION

InDepth Coverage of Juan Orlando Hernández

22 APR 2022

Ever since Juan Orlando Hernández was elected president of Honduras in 2014, InSight Crime has provided coverage of every twist and turn during his rollercoaster time in office, amid growing…

THE ORGANIZATION

Venezuela's Cocaine Revolution

15 APR 2022

On May 4th, InSight Crime will publish a groundbreaking investigation on drug trafficking in Venezuela. A product of three years of field research across the country, the study uncovers cocaine production in…

LA ORGANIZACIÓN

Widespread Coverage of InSight Crime MS13 Investigation

8 APR 2022

In a joint investigation with La Prensa Gráfica, InSight Crime recently revealed that four of the MS13’s foremost leaders had been quietly released from…