The Drug Business Behind it All

By the Ideas for Peace Foundation

This article was originally published on Verdad Abierta on Monday, March 11, 2013 as “Y el narco ahí detrás,” by the Ideas for Peace Foundation.

Illegal armed groups have always been involved in drug trafficking, according to a report from the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP). The zones where paramilitaries originally sewed their presence of blood and fire and where now they make up criminal bands, coincide with territories most infested with the drug trade. And it’s not haphazard.

Camilo Echandía, a professor at Universidad Externado of Colombia, explains in his report “Geographic Dimensions of the Gangs Associated with Drug trafficking: Ruptures and Continuities 1981-2012” that “the character of these actions, the strategies, and the extreme cruelty of the methods used against the civil population” are evidence that the paramilitaries’ primary interest went beyond counterinsurgency, which is how they have historically justified their criminal actions.

According to the study, this is an excuse that covers up their true motivations. “They [paramilitaries] instead concentrated on the protection of their crops and territories, as well as the control of routes and ports, for the export of drugs, all of which today constitute criminal bands’ reason for being,” explained Echandia. FIP’s research analyzes the territorial presence of these groups in the past 30 years (1981-2012), as well as the location of coca crops, murders and massacres.

By bringing together this information, it is possible to conclude that there “exists a line of historical continuity expressed in the geographic pattern of convergence between the armed organizations and drug trafficking.” In addition, this signifies that the counterinsurgency fight was not the main objective of the paramilitary groups— later demobilized—and therefore, “the present gangs have continuity with the organizations that arose over the last 30 years in close relation with drug trafficking,” says the report, which divides the history of illegal armed groups associated with drug trafficking into three periods for study.

During the first period, from 1981 to 1993, MAS—a sector of the drug trade most affected by guerrilla kidnappings—played a leading role. In this decade, the intensification of violence was directly related to the breakdown of the accords which for a long time limited guerrilla activity and drug trafficking to the coca-producing zones, mostly in the southeast part of the country. “The use of violence brought with it a process of agrarian counter-reform which forced campesinos to sell or abandon their lands. By the late 1980s, self-defense groups which had grown alongside drug trafficking, wielded enormous offense power,” explained the report.

Between 1990 and 1991 were the first demobilizations of the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia); however, instead of diminishing their control over land, their control grew. Echandía found that between 1987 and 1992 there was a correlation between areas where the AUC was present with the areas where massacres and murders occurred. With the death of Pablo Escobar, the armed organizations that had grown up with drug trafficking in the previous decade experienced a new boost from the resources provided by other drug traffickers, which in turn led to great territorial expansion and highly elevated levels of violence,” says the report.

The second period, from 1994 to 2002, is when the Mexican cartels entered to compete in the market. “Unlike the previous period, in which the business of drug trafficking submitted to self-defense groups—during this new period in which the defining characteristic was the disappearance of the Colombian cartels only to be gradually replaced with so-called Mexican cartels—is that now the self-defense groups were submitting to the business of drug trafficking.”

The statistics show that in 1997 self-defense groups were active in 279 municipalities and grew to 455 by 2002. Membership also grew: from 3,800 to 12,175; these same years of growth represent the zenith of drug trafficking in Colombia. This is explained by the guerillas’ territorial losses, but also by “the continuity of the close relationship with drug trafficking established in the 1980’s.”

In this period it becomes evident that the self-defense groups’ interests lay far beyond counterinsurgency. Of the 531 municipalities with self-defense presence (between 1997 and 2002), in only 100 (18%) did guerilla activity pose a real threat. What’s more, in 279 municipalities (52%) guerilla activity was low, and in the 152 that represent the remaining 30%, there was no active guerilla presence, concludes Echandia’s study for FIP.

In the maps of territorial expansion of the auto-defense forces from this period, it is clear that their offer of protection does not correspond to security demands, from which it can be deduced that their presence in particular zones was motivated principally by drug trafficking. “This fact is corroborated by the discovery that in 52% of scenarios in which the guerrillas pose an elevated threat and the self-defense groups exert influence, coca cultivation is present,” concludes Echandia. This does not mean that these groups do not confront guerrillas, but that such combat occurs precisely in areas most strategic for drug trafficking.

The report also signals that between 2000 and 2003 self-defense groups’ territorial control grew as drug traffickers purchased land to “strengthen control over regions where the business was concentrated and also to guarantee a seat at the table in the negotiation process initiated at the end of 2002.”

The third period studied by FIP runs from 2003-2012. Evidence from this period shows that after the demobilization of the self-defense groups, criminal bands emerged exactly in strategic drug trafficking zones. “The heads of self-defense groups sold or ceded their participation in the drug trafficking business to factions, but a lack of regulation, a function that AUC had carried out in the past, doomed them to confrontation,” explains the report.

Echandia’s analysis demonstrates that the groups that demobilized did not exercise control in the major coca-producing regions, and for this reason, concludes that demobilizations “had a tactical purpose to not fundamentally alter the structure of armed groups.” This is shown, since 2005, by the presence of armed groups in the same zones in which self-defense groups were active, and which were under the control of drug traffickers that were related to or second-in-commands of demobilized heads of drug trafficking groups.

In 2007 the reduction of coca cultivation and drugs for export explains the growth of disputes between criminal bands for control of the drug trade. At the same time some of the bands sealed alliances with the guerrillas.

According to the report, at least six fronts of the FARC agreed to collaborate on the cultivation of coca, the protection of laboratories and use of different trafficking routes. Still, massacres prove the intensity of the disputes over strategic zones. The authorities have dealt additional blows. According to the police, criminal bands dropped from 33 in 2006, to 21 in 2007, back up to23 in 2008, to 16 in 2009 and down to six in 2011. Today active organizations hover between four and five, with 4,170 members in 231 municipalities.

Los Urabeños are the most powerful band. They have grown and strengthened their presence on the ground in over 100 cities. There power is such that, at the beginning of 2012, they instigated an armed strike that collapsed trade and transport in different zones in Magdalena, Antioquia, Chocó, Córdoba, Sucre and Bolívar.

For their part, Los Paises were absorbed by Los Urabeños, who also cemented an alliance with La Machos. Los Rastrojos, who had managed to consolidate as an organization with access to the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts and the borders with Ecuador and Venenezuela, lost their two highest leaders, which Los Urabeños took advantage of in order to gain access to Pacific shipping routes. The demobilization of 272 members of ERPAC also brought disputes over control of routes, but today everything indicates—according to the report—that it will be Los Urabeños who seek total control.

Even though criminal band membership dropped by 37% in 2012, Los Urabeños and Renacer have been the groups least affected. The former grew by 1.994 members and the latter, which depends on Los Rastrojos, acquired autonomy and acts in the south of Chocó. Los Rastrojos, who lost more than 400 members, have 1,656 members today. Since the official dissolution of ERPAC 335 members remain active and Los Machos membership dropped to 45. All groups remain in the drug trafficking scene, according to the FIP report.

According to Echandia, what happened in the past with self-defense groups and what is happening currently with criminal bands, demonstrates a special interest in the commercialization of illegal drugs: these groups are most interested in controlling trafficking and shipping routes. The FARC, in contrast, are most interested in the cultivation and processing of coca. The current alliances are therefore unsurprising.

It is also necessary to add the illegal mining boom to criminal band’s drug trafficking activities. According to the results of the FIP report, 54% of gold mining occurs in territories controlled by criminal bands or that are under fiery dispute.

Y el narco ahí detrás

Por Fundación Ideas para la Paz

Este articulo fue publicado originalmente en Verdad Abierta el lunes 11 de marzo de 2013.

Las zonas donde los paramilitares hicieron presencia a sangre y fuego y donde ahora lo hacen las bandas criminales, coinciden con los territorios donde se ha enconado el narcotráfico. Y no es fruto del azar.

Así lo explica el profesor de la Universidad Externado de Colombia, Camilo Echandía, en la investigación “Dimensiones geográficas de las bandas asociadas al narcotráfico: rupturas y continuidades 1981-2012”, para quien “el carácter de las acciones, el sentido de las estrategias y la extrema crueldad de los métodos utilizados contra la población civil”, son la evidencia de que el interés principal de los paramilitares iba más allá del argumento contrainsurgente, con el que históricamente han justificado su accionar criminal.

Según el estudio, esta excusa sirvió para cubrir sus verdaderos intereses. “Se concentran (los paras) en la protección de los cultivos y las tierras adquiridas mediante la presión, así como en el control de rutas y puertos para la exportación de droga, todo lo que hoy en día constituye la razón de ser de las bandas criminales”, explica Echandía.

La investigación de la FIP analiza la presencia territorial de estos grupos en los últimos 30 años (1981 a 2012), así como la ubicación de los cultivos de coca, los asesinatos y las masacres.

Al cruzar esta información, se concluye que “existe una línea de continuidad histórica que se expresa en la prevalencia de un patrón geográfico de convergencia entre las organizaciones armadas y el narcotráfico”. Esto, además, significa que la lucha contrainsurgente no fue el objetivo central de los grupos paramilitares –luego desmovilizados–, y por lo tanto, “las bandas del presente tienen continuidad con las organizaciones que han existido en el país en los últimos treinta años en estrecha relación con el narcotráfico”, dice el informe, que estudia tres periodos de los grupos armados ilegales asociados al narcotráfico.

El primero de 1981 a 1993, en el que se evidencia el papel protagónico del MAS, un sector del narcotráfico que se vio afectado por los secuestros de la guerrilla. En esa década, el recrudecimiento de la violencia tuvo relación directa con la ruptura de los acuerdos que por mucho tiempo mantuvieron la guerrilla y el narcotráfico en las zonas donde se producía la coca, sobre todo en el suroriente del país. “Mediante el uso de la violencia se llevó a cabo un proceso de contra-reforma agraria que obligó al campesino a vender o abandonar sus tierras. Hacia finales de la década del ochenta los grupos de autodefensa que habían crecido de la mano del narcotráfico, ostentaban un enorme poder ofensivo”, explica el informe.

Entre 1990 y 1991 se dieron las primeras desmovilizaciones de autodefensas, sin embargo, en vez de disminuir su control territorial, este creció. Echandía encontró que entre 1987 y 1992 coinciden los municipios donde las autodefensas hacían presencia con aquellos donde ocurren masacres y asesinatos. Con la muerte de Pablo Escobar, “las organizaciones armadas que habían crecido de la mano del narcotráfico en la década anterior, experimentaron un nuevo impulso gracias a los recursos aportados por otros narcotraficantes que las llevaron a registrar su mayor expansión territorial y niveles de violencia muy elevados”, dice el investigador.

El segundo es el que va de 1994 al 2002. Es aquí donde entran los carteles mexicanos a disputarse la comercialización. “A diferencia del período anterior, en el que el narcotráfico sometía a las autodefensas, en este, cuando la característica es la desaparición de los carteles colombianos, que paulatinamente fueron remplazados por los llamados carteles mexicanos, son las autodefensas las que someten a los narcotraficantes”, explica Echandía. Además, también ayudó a su expansión acelerada, el apoyo de desmovilizados del EPL y de la disidencia de Francisco Caraballo.

Las cifras muestran que en 1997 las autodefensas estaban en 279 municipios y pasaron, en 2002, a 455. Los integrantes también aumentaron: de 3.800 a 12.175, que es el lapso de mayor auge del narcotráfico. Esto se explica por la pérdida territorial que registró la guerrilla, pero también, porque “hay continuidad con el dispositivo de los años ochenta en la estrecha relación que se establece con el narcotráfico”.

Es en este periodo donde se hace evidente que el interés de las autodefensas va más allá de la lucha contrainsurgente. De los 531 municipios con presencia de estos grupos (entre 1997 y 2002), sólo en 100 (18%) hay actividad guerrillera realmente amenazante. Es más, en 279 municipios (52%) la amenaza guerrillera es baja, y en los 152 que representan el 30% restante, no hay presencia activa de las guerrillas, concluye el estudio elaborado por Echandía para la FIP.

En los mapas de expansión territorial de las autodefensas durante este periodo, es claro que su oferta de protección no corresponde con la demanda de seguridad, de ahí que se deduzca que su presencia en determinadas zonas obedece principalmente al narcotráfico. “Este hecho se corrobora al descubrir que en el 52% de los escenarios donde la guerrilla representa una elevada amenaza y las autodefensas ejercen influencia, los cultivos de coca están allí presentes”, concluye Echandía. Esto no quiere decir que no se enfrentaran a la guerrilla, pero estos combates se dan, precisamente, en áreas estratégicas para el narcotráfico.

El informe también señala que entre 2000 y 2003 se amplió aún más el domino territorial de la autodefensas, ya que narcotraficantes compraron franquicias para “incrementar el control sobre las regiones donde se concentraba el negocio, y también, para garantizar una silla en el proceso de negociación iniciado a finales de 2002”.