By Nazlı Tekdemirkoparan
It is possible to point out essential transnational organized crimes as illegal drug trade, human trafficking, money laundering and arms trafficking. In spite of the fact that transnational organized crime poses a threat at the human, state and global level; one can observe that organized crime groups may be legitimized and used by government for their political purposes. Moving from this motivation, the fundamental reason why Colombian case is worth to analyze is that the Colombian government apparently tries to benefit from the transnational organized crime groups in the country, although it is a substantial threat to Colombian people and Colombian state.
In Colombia, there are huge amounts of paramilitary groups that are created by government with the aim of combatting Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups. These paramilitaries are formed after the recommendations of US military officers in the Cold War era, in which US was trying to eliminate leftist groups. One of the most significant elements that need to be highlighted with regard to paramilitary groups in Colombia is their financial support, which is fundamentally based on drug trafficking. In other words, the paramilitaries continue their existence thanks to the illegal drug trade that they conduct all around the world. It is reported that Colombian paramilitaries controlled the largest share of the cocaine trade in the country1. Due to these activities, Colombian paramilitary groups are called as narco-paramilitary groups.
Colombia has been in the country lists that embassies warn their citizens with regard to travel, due to high rates of crime, terrorist violations, and kidnapping.2 The first time that drug trafficking emerged and began to be a crucial economic activity in Colombia was approximately in 1970s. Initially, drug trafficking led to increase in foreign exchange and to decrease unemployment, due to newly emerging economic activity. Taking into consideration the production, transportation and selling the drugs; the drug trade requires numerous workers. By looking at these, one can observe that especially local people residing within rural areas in Colombia usually perceived drug trafficking as positive. As a result, the
1 Beittel, June S., and Liana W. Rosen. 2017. “Colombia’s Changing Approach to Drug Policy.” Congressional Research Service, November. https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=799695, page 19.
2 U.S. Department Of State — Bureau Of Consular Affairs, “Colombia International Travel Information.” https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information- Pages/Colombia.html
revenues acquired from drug trafficking gave rise to grow of underground economy.3 Although it was fundamentally drug cartels that were in the charge of illicit drug trade, Colombian paramilitary groups started to control drug trafficking and eventually became the narco-paramilitary groups as the major actor in contemporary Colombian politics.
Although there are plenty of guerrilla groups especially emerged following Che Guevara’s inspiration in Colombia, one of the oldest and the most influential can be evaluated as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, usually known as FARC.4 After the Cuban Revolution, the number of guerilla movements inspired by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro dramatically increased, especially in Nicaragua, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and of course, Colombia. Although most of these groups were born with the promise of providing social justice especially in rural areas, it is reported that these guerilla groups were responsible for significant amount of “assassinations, hijacks, kidnappings, bank robberies and attacks on military and political targets”.5 Despite the fact that FARC based its financing on kidnapping and extortion; it did not take much time for them to realize the significant profits of illegal drugs trade. Eventually, FARC involved in this illegal industry and started to control significant regions.6 At that point, one can see the correlation between the fight between FARC and Colombian paramilitary groups.
Colombian Narco-Paramilitary Groups
Although Colombian paramilitary groups were created as a result of counterinsurgency strategy the Colombian military adapted to fight against leftist armed groups, mainly FARC, and their potential civilian supporters7, the rivalry between these two groups was not limited to this. It should be underlined that formation of paramilitary groups in Colombia was not the
3 Hartlyn, Jonathan. 1993. Working paper. Drug Trafficking and Democracy in Colombia in the 1980s. Barcelona, Spain: Institut de Ciencies Politiques i Socials, page 9.
4 Douglas Farah. “Colombian Guerrillas Lone Survivors Of Cuba-Inspired Leftist Movements.” Washington Post, 4 Jan. 1992, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1992/01/04/colombian-guerrillas-lone- survivors-of-cuba-inspired-leftist-movements/942f8460-ad5e-4a84-be98-7b8f61d13135/.
5 Jonathan Watts and Sibylla Brodzinsky. “Che Guevara era closes as Latin America’s oldest guerrilla army calls it a day.” The Guardian, 25 Sep. 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/25/farc-che-guevara-era- closes-latin-america-guerrillas
6 Fabio Andres Diaz. “Drug trafficking and the Colombian conflict.” PeaceInsight, 6 May 2014, https://www.peaceinsight.org/en/articles/drug-trafficking-colombian-conflict/?location=colombia&theme=. 7 Tate, Winifred. 2001. “Paramilitaries in Colombia.” The Brown Journal of World Affairs 8 (1): 163–75.
https://www.jstor.org/stable/24590184, page 165.
first solution that Colombian government embraced. After guerrilla groups increased their sphere of influence in different regions in Colombia, the government tried to fight against these groups with its own military forces. However, taking into consideration the conditions of 1960s in the Cold War context, Colombian government could not achieve to eliminate the influence of guerrilla forces. Then, U.S military advisors recommended Colombian government to form paramilitary organizations to facilitate the fight against rebel groups. Following this advice, Colombian government prepared the legal basis for the formation of paramilitary groups with the aim of restoration of public order.8 Unfortunately, since the beginning of formation of FARC and Colombian paramilitaries in 1960s, armed conflict between these two groups continues. It is reported that this conflict gave rise to thousands of casualties.9 What is even more striking and worth to highlight is that the paramilitary organization as the major actor of this conflict is financially supported and legitimized by Colombian government and its official army. Moreover, it is pointed out that Colombian paramilitary organization is responsible for almost half of all acts of political violence in the country. By looking at this statement, one can observe that although the initial purpose of paramilitaries was claimed to eliminate illegal terrorist organizations that harms the political stability and public order by claiming sovereignty in regions of Colombia, paramilitary groups even more complicated the situation and led to more killings and disappearances.10
In addition to mass murders and assassinations, what even made Colombian paramilitaries more dangerous for Colombian security and stability can be accepted as their involvement in drug trafficking, since military struggle between Colombian paramilitaries and guerrilla forces gained a new dimension through this illegal trade. At the beginning, it was mafias and their connections that started and developed drug trafficking in Colombia. The involvement of armed groups including FARC and Colombian paramilitaries started when these mafias and other organizations realized that they need protection for the continuation of this illegal trade, as their business was open to threats due to high amount of money. To put it another way, mafia organizations paid armed people for safety, and eventually both sides were satisfied. However, although paramilitaries and guerillas involved in this business with the aim of protection of Colombian drug traffickers, after a while they started to gain even more control
8 Ibid., page 164.
9 Lee, Chris. 2011. “The FARC and the Colombian Left.” Latin American Perspectives 39 (1): 28–42.
doi:10.1177/0094582×11423227, page 36.
10 Human Rights Watch, Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States, 1 November 1996, 2033, available at: https://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/1996/killertoc.htm
over the fields in which drugs, especially cocaine, were planted.11 In that regard, one can deduce that Colombian paramilitaries from an element of counterinsurgency strategy that is supposed to fight against guerilla groups transformed into narco-paramilitaries that can be regarded as an existential threat to Colombia, both at the individual level and the state level. More significantly, the significant role of involvement in illicit drug trade on this transformation is worth to highlight. Moreover, although drug trafficking is in itself a major crime that poses a threat to human security and state authority; it is even more dangerous when it is conducted by paramilitary groups that are armed, financed and legalized by the government, as it becomes harder to judge and eliminate them.
Armed Conflict between FARC and Narco-Paramilitaries
As mentioned above, the essential reason for the creation of right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia was to combat leftist terrorist organizations that Colombian army was not sufficient to eliminate by itself. Therefore, by looking at this statement, one can comment that the initial relation between FARC and narco-paramilitary group was based on ideology, specifically shaped by Cold War context. Especially taking into consideration US’ recommendations as the initial step for the formation of Colombian paramilitary organization, the ideological struggle between these two groups can be viewed. However, as one can guess, the hostility between them was not limited to abovementioned reason, as their relation gained different dimensions in time. One of the most significant element regarding this relation was no doubt drug trafficking. Before the creation and spread of Colombian paramilitaries, leftist terrorist organizations were in charge of many places in which some villagers planted drugs, especially cocaine. Assuming that these terrorist organizations had no crucial financial supporter since most of their members were irregularly gathered villagers; they needed revenue to continue their activities. At that time, drug trafficking was highly profitable and therefore attractive for leftist organizations. As a result, FARC as the oldest and the strongest organization at the time in Colombia, started to gain essential control over these regions and acted as the sovereign. It can be argued that the creation of paramilitary groups against FARC was primarily based on this phenomenon. In other words, although the subject is usually attributed to ideological
11 Thoumi, Francisco E. 2012. “Colombian Organized Crime: From Drug Trafficking to Parastatal Bands and Widespread Corruption.” Essay. In Traditional Organized Crime in the Modern World: Responses to Socioeconomic Change, edited by Dina Siegel and Henk Van de Bunt, 11:131–48. Boston, MA, U.S: Springer US. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-1-4614-3212-8, page 136.
differences, the competition is in fact based on the fight over the control of strategic regions.12 Eventually, both sides became the controllers of different regions in Colombia and they used the money acquired from drug production and trade for the purpose of increasing military capabilities.13 Consequently, the military conflict continued to grow as there was no significantly stronger side among the rivals. Inevitably, thousands of people were harmed as a result of this ongoing hostility between paramilitary organizations and FARC. CNMH reported that Colombian narco-paramilitary groups led to death of almost 100,000 of these civilian victims, while guerrilla groups killed more than 35,000 people.14 To sum up, it can be argued that narco-paramilitaries in Colombia, in spite of their initial aim to eliminate conflict, actually led to continuation of the conflict. Thus, it is possible to evaluate Colombian narco- paramilitaries as a serious threat to human security, since Colombian civilians were damaged in the fight between leftist guerilla groups and right-wing paramilitary organizations for decades.15
Effects on State Legitimacy
In order to be able to examine narco-paramilitary organizations in Colombia as a threat to the state, one should understand the dependent relationship between the Colombian government and paramilitaries. It is possible to summarize the fundamental argument as that the paramilitaries weaken and confront the state as the sole authority. The illicit drug trade can be examined mainly through production and distribution processes. In order for the drug to be produced and distributed to the customers, “an explicit coordination of many transactions as well as an information-gathering system and record keeping” is needed.16 However, by looking at this statement, it can be observed that it is quite hard for paramilitaries to escape from the surveillance system of the government, as mentioned activities are highly apparent and easy to catch for the observers. So, it is clear that paramilitary organizations need to find a
12 Norman, Susan Virginia. 2018. “Narcotization as Security Dilemma: The
FARC and Drug Trade in Colombia.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 41:8, 638-659, DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2017.1338052, page 645.
13 Díaz, Ana María, and Fabio Sánchez. 2004. “A Geography of Illicit Crops (Coca Leaf) and Armed Conflict in Colombia.” Crisis States Research Centre, no. 1. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/28213/, page 18.
14 Colombia Reports. “Civilian casualties of Colombia’s armed conflict.” 20 July 2019. https://colombiareports.com/civilians-killed-armed-conflict/
15 Stephanie Hanson. “Colombia’s Right-Wing Paramilitaries and Splinter Groups.” Council on Foreign Relations, 10 Jan. 2008. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/colombias-right-wing-paramilitaries-and-splinter- groups
16 Velez, Hernando Wills. 1995. “Effects of the War on Drugs on Official Corruption in Colombia.” Calhoun: The NPS Institutional Archive. Thesis. Naval Postgraduate School. https://calhoun.nps.edu/bitstream/handle/10945/31393/95Dec_Velez.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y, page 30.
way to overcome the surveillance in order to be able to maintain their illicit trade. As a consequent of this need, narco-paramilitaries started to pay huge amounts of money to the Colombian government officials. At that point, with the increasing rates of bribery, the corruption became visible in Colombia. In addition to payments for avoidance of government surveillance, one other reason for narco-paramilitaries to bribe government officials was to get out of the prison. Since the government sometimes catches and judges narco- paramilitaries for their illegal actions, it is possible to observe some paramilitary members sentenced for years. On the other hand, while some narco-paramilitary members bribe officials for escaping years long sentences, a considerable portion of these members are not even judge in the courts.17 These examples can be considered as the proofs for ongoing corruption in Colombia. It is possible to evaluate this corruption as the weakening of the state authority; since such examples undervalue the legitimacy of the government. Normally, the states are responsible for protection of human dignity; therefore they are expected to judge criminals who apparently harm public order. On the contrary, in Colombian case, one can interpret that the Colombian government feeds the narco-paramilitary groups and tries to use these criminal groups for its own purposes. However, in the end, it is the state and its citizens that are the target of these paramilitaries. To put it another way, as long as the legitimacy of the state continues to decrease, chaos and ongoing tension is inevitable, which eventually threatens the human security.
All in all, by looking at the negative impacts on state authority and the continuation of armed conflict leading to severe casualties, one can deduce that Colombian paramilitaries pose a crucial threat to Colombia, both at the individual level and at the domestic level. Most importantly, if the state loses its legitimacy and validity, the anarchic atmosphere inevitably gives rise to chaos. In such case, there would be no one to protect citizens. Also, military struggle between leftist insurgents and Colombian paramilitaries appears to continue to harm more lives and to threaten human security in Colombia.
17 Gaviria, Alejandro. 2000. “Increasing Returns and the Evolution of Violent Crime: The Case of Colombia.” SSRN Electronic Journal 61 (1): 1–25. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0304-3878(99)00059-0, page 10.
Beittel, June S., and Liana W. Rosen. 2017. “Colombia’s Changing Approach to Drug Policy.” Congressional Research Service, November. https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=799695.
Colombia Reports. “Civilian casualties of Colombia’s armed conflict.” 20 July 2019. https://colombiareports.com/civilians-killed-armed-conflict/
Díaz, Ana María, and Fabio Sánchez. 2004. “A Geography of Illicit Crops (Coca Leaf) and Armed Conflict in Colombia.” Crisis States Research Centre, no. 1. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/28213/.
Diaz, Fabio Andres. “Drug trafficking and the Colombian conflict.” PeaceInsight, 6 May 2014, https://www.peaceinsight.org/en/articles/drug-trafficking-colombian- conflict/?location=colombia&theme=.
Farah, Douglas. “Colombian Guerrillas Lone Survivors Of Cuba-Inspired Leftist Movements.” Washington Post, 4 Jan. 1992, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1992/01/04/colombian-guerrillas- lone-survivors-of-cuba-inspired-leftist-movements/942f8460-ad5e-4a84-be98- 7b8f61d13135/.
Gaviria, Alejandro. 2000. “Increasing Returns and the Evolution of Violent Crime: The Case of Colombia.” SSRN Electronic Journal 61 (1): 1–25. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0304-3878(99)00059-0.
Hanson, Stephanie. “Colombia’s Right-Wing Paramilitaries and Splinter Groups.” Council on Foreign Relations, 10 Jan. 2008. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/colombias-right- wing-paramilitaries-and-splinter-groups
Hartlyn, Jonathan. 1993. Working paper. Drug Trafficking and Democracy in Colombia in the 1980s. Barcelona, Spain: Institut de Ciencies Politiques i Socials.
Human Rights Watch, Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States, 1 November 1996, 2033, available at: https://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/1996/killertoc.htm
Lee, Chris. 2011. “The FARC and the Colombian Left.” Latin American Perspectives 39 (1): 28–42. doi:10.1177/0094582×11423227.
Norman, Susan Virginia. 2018. “Narcotization as Security Dilemma: The FARC and Drug Trade in Colombia.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 41:8, 638-659, DOI:10.1080/1057610X.2017.1338052.
Tate, Winifred. 2001. “Paramilitaries in Colombia.” The Brown Journal of World Affairs 8 (1): 163–75. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24590184.
U.S. Department Of State — Bureau Of Consular Affairs, “Colombia International Travel Information.” https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International- Travel-Country-Information-Pages/Colombia.html
Velez, Hernando Wills. 1995. “Effects of the War on Drugs on Official Corruption in Colombia.” Calhoun: The NPS Institutional Archive. Thesis. Naval Postgraduate School. https://calhoun.nps.edu/bitstream/handle/10945/31393/95Dec_Velez.pdf?sequence=1&i sAllowed=y.
Watts, Jonathan and Sibylla Brodzinsky. “Che Guevara era closes as Latin America’s oldest guerrilla army calls it a day.” The Guardian, 25 Sep. 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/25/farc-che-guevara-era-closes-latin- america-guerrillas