Colombia's Ombudsman's Office warns that the country's narco-paramilitary groups are expanding, suggesting that these organizations could be lining themselves up to dominate a post-conflict Colombia in which the guerrillas have made peace with the government.
According to the report, the BACRIM (from the Spanish for "criminal band") are present in 168 municipalities across 27 of Colombia's 32 provinces. The office identifies seven operative BACRIM: the Urabeños (known as the "Usuga Clan" by the government), the Rastrojos, the Empresa, the Oficina de Envigado, the Aguilas Negras, the Paisas and two factions of the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army (ERPAC) -- Bloque Meta and Libertadores del Vichada.
The report says that the Urabeños are expanding within the southwestern province of Nariño, a traditional stronghold of guerrilla groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The BACRIM group has caused high levels of violence in the Nariño town of Barbacoas.
The report also highlighted the poor security situation in the city of Cali, and noted a "latent" BACRIM presence in parts of Cordoba, Antioquia, Vichada and Guaviare.
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The expansion described by the Ombudsman's Office suggests that the BACRIM -- specifically the Urabeños, who are arguably Colombia's only real remaining BACRIM, and certainly the only one with a national reach -- may be preparing for a post-conflict scenario, in which the FARC rebels have made a peace deal with the government.
Certain factions of the FARC are deeply involved in the drug trade and sell product to the BACRIM. By increasing their presence in regions like Nariño (a major coca-growing province), the Urabeños may be hoping to take control of all links in the drug chain in the event that the FARC demobilizes. The Urabeños' expansion is also a sign of the weakening of the Rastrojos, a rival group that formerly controlled the strategic Nariño port of Tumaco.
Indeed, a recent study by the Fundacion Ideas para la Paz (FIP - pdf) indicates a weakening of guerrilla presence in some traditional strongholds in recent years, while the Urabeños have increased their power, presence and size, and a number of new, "low-profile" criminal groups have emerged.
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However, the Ombudsman's Office statistics on BACRIM presence differ considerably from those released in September by Colombia's national police, who reported that BACRIM groups were present in 130 municipalities across only 15 provinces.
This discrepancy appears to be due to the bodies' different classifications of which groups qualify as "BACRIM." The government currently recognizes just three such organizations: the Urabeños, the Rastrojos and the ERPAC. The Ombudsman's Office, on the other hand, includes largely defunct groups like the Aguilas Negras and the Paisas, as well as the Empresa -- a criminal group that formerly served the Rastrojos, operating around the Pacific port of Buenaventura and lacking the national reach or structure of the major BACRIM.