Criminal gangs are now only present in 10 percent of Colombia's municipalities, according to the country's defense minister, although there is reason to doubt his assertion.
Juan Carlos Pinzon said that the BACRIM ("bandas criminales" or "criminal bands"), the term used by the Colombian government to describe drug trafficking gangs that emerged out of the 2006 paramilitary demobilization process, had been hit "like never before" during 2012.
Pinzon claimed, "All those who were bosses of a criminal gang were captured or killed," reported W Radio, adding that the groups had subsequently splintered and no longer acted under a unified command.
According to the minister, the majority of homicides in Colombia were caused by clashes between BACRIM, reported RCN Radio.
InSight Crime Analysis
Pinzon's figure clashes with that due to be published this month in a study by respected Colombian NGO Nuevo Arco Iris, which claims BACRIM are present in at least 17 percent of the country's municipalities, reported RCN Radio. Just last November, Pinzon said BACRIM were operating in 160 municipalities, which represents around 14 per cent.
According to Nuevo Arco Iris, which rejects the term BACRIM in favor of "neo-paramilitary," the criminal gangs have steadily increased their presence across the country since 2008.The same conclusion was made in a report released last February by Colombian conflict think tank Indepaz, which estimated gangs were present in around a third of the country in 2011.
Whatever the real figure may be, there is no doubt the major criminal organizations maintain a formidable presence throughout the country. While drug trafficking gang the Rastrojos suffered the capture or surrender of three principal leaders last year and has since endured a period of splintering and infighting, its weakening appears to have spurred main rivals the Urabeños to expand to their territory in southwest Valle del Cauca province. The government must therefore work continually to prevent incursion by other groups in order to ensure a decrease in the BACRIM territorial presence.
Indepaz president Camilo Gonzales told news website Colombia Reports last week the Urabeños had not experienced any weakening or significant changes in its leadership, further challenging Pinzon's account. The group did lose one of their main leaders in January 2012, although so far it does not appear to have adversely affected the group.
Pinzon appeared to be "taking liberties" with his estimate, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Senior Associate Adam Isacson told InSight Crime, adding that he would be more interested in seeing the figure for BACRIM presence in municipalities where mining, biofuel and oil production took place and with a high incidence of forced displacement and land restitution disputes, as well as drug trafficking. "I'd imagine the percentage is extremely high," he said.