by Kate Dinnison, an American student of International Relations at KCL. Editor of the North America section.
Ask any Colombian: they understand the worldwide reputation they hold. They have been defined by drug-related violence and the not-so-invisible hand of powerful cartels since the 1960s, but a major metamorphosis is underway. Today even the most powerful cartels in Colombia are more like suppliers to the larger and more connected Mexican cartels due to diminishing returns in traffic to the United States. Because of this, organized crime in Colombia has diversified and expanded into a wide network of human and arms traffickers, corrupt officials and paramilitary groups threatening the stability of their country in different ways than before.
Colombia was only recently replaced by Peru as the world’s leading producer of cocaine in 2013 due to a combination of increased corruption in Peruvian government and police forces, increased effectiveness of Washington’s war on drugs (some say), and the arrival of (mainly Russian) transnational criminal organizations to Peru’s jungles. What South America’s leaders are worried about today is both the balloon effect and the power vacuum that is occurring in the region because of this transfer. Hence, the question is: can a peaceful transition occur as the cartels lose money and, subsequently, power?
In conjunction with Colombia’s consistent cocaine problem is its struggle to negotiate with the FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a left-wing paramilitary group who has made 7 million Colombians victims of their conflict, 220,000 of which have died because of it. President Juan Manuel Santos’ government, accompanied by UN officials, started a new round of peace talks with the FARC last Thursday after an unexpected unilateral ceasefire. However, many are pessimistic about what could come of these talks in Havana considering continued failed attempts since 2012. Despite low public support from Columbian citizens, President Santos asserts, “Those who want to force me to end the peace dialogue are also mistaken. I will persist, even if that means sacrificing all of my political capital.”
Like many of today’s security problems, Colombia has been further destabilized because of the increased competition in drug trafficking – the increasingly diversified and competitive black market on cocaine has made things more dangerous for citizens, as opposed to the days when the Cali and Medellin Cartels reignined supreme. Over the last 20 years, Colombia’s drug trade has fragmented. Escobar was the unchallenged head of the Medellin Cartel – a vertically integrated, hierarchical criminal enterprise that initially flew in coca from Bolivia and Peru processed it in Colombia’s jungles, then flew it to the mainland US in staggering quantities. Leaders from these powerful cartels learned to expand their influence and support through politics, by supporting citizens more than their own government. For example, before the dismantling of the Medellin cartel, Carlos Lehder formed a populist movement, funding free education and health programs in rural areas and the construction of homes for slum-dwellers.
One cannot help but see glaring similarities in many of history’s insurgents – both the Taliban and ISIS have gained popular support by promising Afghanis and Syrians similar comforts that their fragmented governments do not. Though supporting different ideologies, the FARC and insurgents in the Middle East and Africa all share similar tactics terrorizing the population: capitalizing on abundant and profitable goods for revenue, corrupting from the inside to normalize their daily criminal pursuits, and violence as a mean of control through fear.
President Santos has secured the backing of key European and regional leaders for the process of becoming a “post-conflict Colombia”. Reaching this goal will depend on a combination of successful peace talks, popular support and enough resources to continue the targeting of cocaine production. The death of Pablo Escobar over twenty years ago was the end of one structure that defined Colombia. Its successor, a fragmented and hence more chaotic system, is one that the government has to now successfully tackle in order for the nation to transition to a safer, more egalitarian society.
The Changing Face of Colombian Organized Crime – Jeremy McDermott
The New York Times