Surveying Colombia's Criminal Landscape

7 MINS READJun 8, 2016 | 09:15 GMT
A member of the Venezuelan national guard stands watch at the Tachira River, at the Colombian border. Criminal activity, driven in part by smuggling, will persist in parts of the border region.

A member of the Venezuelan national guard stands watch at the Tachira River, at the Colombian border. Criminal activity, driven in part by smuggling, will persist in parts of the border region.

Forecast Highlights

  • Even after Colombia reaches a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), several areas of the country will continue to experience high levels of criminal activity. 
  • Remnants of the FARC are likely to remain involved in criminal enterprises after the group eventually disbands, and the vacuum left by the FARC in specific areas could cause increased — but localized — violence as criminal groups battle for control of areas and resources.
  • In Arauca, Norte de Santander and Meta departments, energy companies will face the threat of extortion by criminal organizations, and similar groups in Antioquia and Choco will likely threaten mining interests.

The Colombian government and the FARC are progressing toward a peace deal that is poised to end more than five decades of armed conflict. Over the next few months, the dialogue is expected to proceed to a final cease-fire and the demobilization of the militants. Though a peace agreement with the FARC would significantly reduce politically motivated violence in the country, criminal violence and illegal activities, including drug trafficking and extortion, will still pose isolated, localized risks to residents and foreign visitors in Colombia. Even as security improves in the country as a whole, areas of prevalent criminal activity will remain dangerous for the individuals and businesses operating there.

The FARC's demobilization may not bring an end to its criminal exploits. Based on the results of past militant and paramilitary demobilizations in Colombia, it is likely that some remnants of the FARC will stay active in lucrative illicit businesses such as cocaine production, extortion and illegal mining. The government's peace process with the FARC, which offers amnesty and potential benefits for demobilized militants, is designed to discourage the former rebels from returning to crime. Even so, that outcome may be inevitable. Without marketable skills, some FARC members will have trouble integrating into Colombia's legal economy.

Long after a FARC peace agreement, moreover, criminal violence will continue to plague Colombia's hinterlands. In these regions, drug production, trafficking and extortion will most likely drive persistent violence among remnants of the FARC; another militant group, the National Liberation Army (ELN); and other criminal organizations such as the Clan Usuga. In fact, the FARC's demobilization could spur clashes between FARC militants and other criminal groups (referred to as bandas criminales, or bacrim) that will vie for control of areas with valuable resources, such as coca fields, cocaine laboratories, energy pipelines, mineral deposits and populations vulnerable to extortion.

Colombia is dealing with a fragmenting criminal class. Compared with the criminal organizations active three decades ago, today's groups are more divided and less nationally influential. The FARC and the ELN remain involved in cocaine production and extortion, as does Clan Usuga, which emerged from the remnants of the now-defunct United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) to create a criminal network spanning the country. Meanwhile, decades of combating insurgents and larger criminal organizations have left the government with extensive military and law enforcement resources that it can devote to targeting the bacrim (and potentially the ELN). To this end, the government is expected to keep using tactics such as aerial targeting that have proved effective against militants to contain and disrupt criminal organizations nationwide.

But the departments outside Colombia's central Andean core will remain a problem. These areas are far removed from the economic development and wealth of Colombia's central urban regions. Over the past several decades, nearly continuous violence — perpetrated by cocaine trafficking groups, leftist militants and paramilitary organizations such as the AUC — has ravaged them. As the AUC disbanded and the FARC weakened in the past 15 years, criminal violence across Colombia has abated somewhat. But criminal activity will endure in Colombia's remote Choco, Antioquia, Cordoba, Meta and Guaviare departments as well as in its southwestern Pacific and the northeastern regions. 

Choco, Antioquia and Cordoba Departments

In Choco department, Clan Usuga is contesting the FARC's and ELN's control of illicit businesses. Some of the groups rely on coca growing for steady revenue, and all three are involved in illegal mining (particularly gold mining). Fights over mining operations, along with extortion, will likely continue to threaten individuals and companies in the department, especially those in the mining sector. Even the provincial capital of Quibdo suffers violence from criminal groups in Choco's remote reaches. Although a FARC demobilization would reduce the group's cohesiveness in Choco, the ELN, Clan Usuga and smaller criminal organizations could create additional violence as they compete for the FARC's holdings in the area.

Criminal activity in Antioquia and Cordoba departments could follow a similar pattern. Clan Usuga runs coca growing and mining operations in Antioquia while conducting extortion campaigns in urban and rural areas of Cordoba. Active remnants of the FARC and Clan Usuga will likely be the major causes of criminal violence in these regions.

Southwestern Pacific

The FARC has had a significant presence in the southwestern Pacific region, which comprises the departments of Narino, Cauca, Caqueta and Putumayo. Over the past three decades, FARC units contributed to the concentration of coca farming and cocaine production in the area, particularly in Caqueta and Narino. Some ports in the region, such as Buenaventura and Tumaco, have experienced rampant extortion and violence related to cocaine trafficking. But most criminal activity in the southwestern Pacific is, and will continue to be, focused in the departments' rural areas. Although there is a notable ELN contingent in Cauca and Putumayo, the greater criminal risk comes from the presence of the FARC, Clan Usuga and La Constru, another bacrim that evolved from the AUC's split. Foreign investors in the energy sector are likely to be in particular danger in Putumayo and Narino, where energy exploration, production and transport endeavors face a risk of extortion from FARC remnants or other groups.

Regions Along the Venezuelan Border

Along the lengthy border with Venezuela in northeastern Colombia — historically a hotbed of insurgency and smuggling activity — some instability will linger in the years after a FARC deal. The FARC is the most prevalent militant organization in the border region, which encompasses the departments of La Guajira, Cesar, Santander, Norte de Santander, Arauca, Guainia and Vichada. For foreign firms and potential investors, the main areas of concern will continue to be Arauca, Santander and Norte de Santander, where larger population centers, notable energy exploration activities and production infrastructure are located.

The FARC and ELN have already attempted to extort energy firms and contractors in the region, a pattern that could carry on.

The FARC and ELN have already attempted to extort energy firms and contractors in the region, a pattern that could carry on. Arauca department, where the Cano Limon oil field is located, and the surrounding areas are also at a high risk of extortion-related attacks on the pipeline or on people involved in energy production. In addition, the departments of Meta and Guaviare, though not part of the border region, are prime locations for extortion. The FARC and other criminal groups have conducted extensive operations in Meta, which boasts significant oil production, and the FARC and other criminal groups have conducted extortion activities there. Meanwhile, the presence of criminal groups in neighboring Guaviare, albeit likely smaller than in some of the border regions farther north, could drive competition over extortion in the near future.

After the FARC disbands, conflict among its remnants will likely spark renewed violence against the ELN, Clan Usuga and other groups present along the border region. Because criminal activity, such as drug and fuel smuggling to Venezuela, as well as trade of contraband food and goods from Venezuela, is endemic to the region, pockets of illicit activity will prevail there.

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