Why you should care
Because as one war comes to an end, another is starting.
Part of an OZY series on little-known wars.
Finally. After 50 years and some 220,000 lives lost, Colombia’s civil war is taking its last breaths. The left-wing paramilitary group, FARC, and the government have been in peace talks since 2012, and the former has called for a cease-fire. But hold off on that sigh of relief.
In the space left by the guerrillas, new criminal gangs are quickly gaining prominence — and they are arguably more complex and brutal than their predecessors. While the days of Pablo Escobar and the high-powered drug cartels are long done, the new kids on the block have picked up the slack in dangerous ways. Known as bandas criminales, or BACRIM, these seven organizations are now the No. 1 threat to the country’s security, says Colombian social scientist and crime investigator Eduardo Salcedo. “People think the drug traffic and the violence must be over because the guerrillas are dissolving,” he says, “but it’s actually the contrary.”
Most of BACRIM’s members, structures and resources come from the demobilized paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (the FARC’s rival right-wing militia). The government has tried to minimize the appearance of danger by insisting they are merely “criminals.” Yet Salcedo says it’s precisely their lack of ideology or paramilitary structure that makes them such a peril. There are likely around seven BACRIM, with names like Los Paisas, Los Rastrojos and Los Urabeños. Not only do they handle most of the drug trafficking in the nation — police say the biggest gang can export 2,000 kilos to the U.S. and Europe in a week — but the groups also control the Pacific port of Buenaventura and have diversified into dozens of different activities like human trafficking, extortion and gold mining. Meaning it’s going to be harder to root them out. (The government of Colombia indicated willingness to comment for this story but did not reply before time of publishing.)
And the BACRIM are arguably more brutal than the guerrillas. The murder rate in Caucasia (the main place they operate) is 224 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 31 per 100,000 in 2012, according to the World Bank. Their lack of centralized power and absolute lack of ideological entanglements translate to agility. Rather than fighting left-wing guerrillas like the FARC, they are actually cooperating with them to gain access to coca base. Unlike guerrillas, which hoped to gain political influence and control over national territory, the BACRIM have more fluid goals and transnational aspirations.
This lack of structure is also their biggest weakness, says John P. Sullivan, a senior fellow at the Small Wars Journal. Fragmentation and ongoing competition between different groups “creates risk as well as opportunity,” he says, adding that what’s needed to fight the BACRIM effectively will require multilateral, transnational coordination between all law-enforcement areas — from gangs and narcotics to corruption and human trafficking. Colombia’s district attorney’s office is working to organize an unprecedented collaboration between international law-enforcement agencies. Last June, the U.S. took the initiative to indict 17 alleged leaders of the Urabeños drug syndicate.
Still, there’s a long way to go before Colombia’s security forces are even close to neutralizing this scary third generation of drug gangs. Drug lords don’t sign peace agreements.