The Colombian government has failed to properly assess the threat posed by the rise of two “neo-paramilitary cartels,” which now aim to control every level of criminal activity in Colombia, according to a new report by a Bogota think tank.
The Nuevo Arco Iris report “From Caguan to Havana” charts how the remaining factions of demobilized paramilitary groups and dismantled drug cartels have converged around two criminal structures: the Rastrojos and the Urabeños.
According to the report, these two groups manage nationwide criminal networks in everything from international drug trafficking and money laundering to street level gambling and prostitution, and have deeply infiltrated the country’s political and economic life. The report claims that the government’s response to this expansion has been ineffectual, and betrays a lack of comprehension of the decentralized, “hydra-headed” nature of these new generation criminal groups.
The Rastrojos and the Urabeños were one of several criminal organizations that emerged following the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the fracturing of the Norte Del Valle Cartel. In 2006, there were 33 drug trafficking and neo-paramilitary criminal groups competing across the country, according to the government. By 2012, there were six. The government claims this reduction is proof of their progress against the so-called “criminal bands,” or BACRIM (“bandas criminales”). However, according to Nuevo Arco Iris, this decreasing number of criminal groups is indication that these networks have consolidated, as smaller groups like the Paisas and the Machos are swallowed up by the Rastrojos and the Urabeños.
Over the last two years, the government has also held up the deaths, arrests and surrenders of high-profile traffickers — among them Rastrojos and Urabeños leaders — as proof that it was winning the war against the BACRIM. However, Nuevo Arco Iris dismisses the arrests as no more than media-friendly blows against the groups, which have brought the government no closer to fully dismantling the networks.
According to Nuevo Arco Iris, the government will continue to fall short because they have yet to come to terms with the very nature of the BACRIM. “The phenomenon reaches much further than the government imagines and it is out of their hands,” the report states, adding, “The BACRIM have become a Medusa, which reproduces infinitely because [the state] has not discovered the real brain.”
The government’s failure to develop effective strategies to counter the BACRIM has facilitated the expansion of the groups, which in 2012 took control of 128 more municipalities, giving them a presence in 337 of Colombia’s 1,119 municipalities, according to the report.
In the areas where they are present, the groups assert their dominance with methods that are rooted in their paramilitary past. “These neo-paramilitary groups reproduce the model of the old paramilitaries, a violence that eliminates all opposition, and the use of atrocities to generate terror and obedience,” the report states.
The groups have also retained the AUC’s influence over Colombia’s weak and corrupt institutions, including in the security forces and in politics, according to Nuevo Arco Iris. The Urabeños in particular have established close relations with the security forces and count both active and retired members among their ranks. They have also maintained the alliances with local politicians established by the AUC, although unlike in the paramilitary era these relationships are frequently based on little more than protecting already established economic interests.
However, despite their ancestry and inherited methods and networks, the BACRIM have different structures and different objectives from the armed groups that preceded them, the report says. “Their objective is not to act against the state, much less to end the guerrilla insurgency or to be private armies to protect productive zones, as paramilitarism was at its birth,” it states. “Instead, the Rastrojos and the Urabeños have organized a complex structure that aims to manage all of the country’s criminal nexuses.”
The fracturing of larger criminal organizations is a common side effect of “decapitation” strategies, which look to break up monolithic criminal or paramilitary structures by either arresting or demobilizing the leadership. Its impact can be seen not only in Colombia but also in Mexico, where the number of cartels has multiplied as organizations splinter as a result of deaths, arrests, and internal fighting.
What Nuevo Arco Iris describes in Colombia is the stage after this fragmentation, in which criminal networks are re-converging. However, this does not necessarily mean a return to a time of hierarchical monolithic cartels run by a handful of all-powerful capos. Instead, the Colombian underworld described by Nuevo Arco Iris is a dangerous combination of the flexibility of decentralized networks with the power and reach of transnational organizations.
While it is the Urabeños who are emerging as the main criminal players in Colombia, arguably it is the case of the Rastrojos that most clearly demonstrates the difficulties in tackling these groups. Over the last year, the Rastrojos have steadily lost a series of top leaders, yet there is little sign that the organization is in its death throes at a national level.
As Nuevo Arco Iris asserts, the Colombian government has largely been unable to check the rise of the Urabeños and the Rastrojos. Currently, the state’s attention is more focused on Havana, where peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are taking place. However, unless the government can learn from the emergence of the BACRIM, this cycle of fragmentation and subsequent re-consolidation may well be repeated with the guerrillas.