A recent review of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ first four years in power saw Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon champion the reduction of armed criminal groups – labelled BACRIMs by the government – from around 27 eight years ago to just three today.
While on paper this statistic appears to point to a significant achievement, for analysts it reveals nothing but the evolving nature of the country’s organized criminal groups.
According to Luis Eduardo Celis, an analyst at NGO Nuevo Arco Iris, the reduction in groups “just demonstrates these criminal groups are strengthening, centralising, and continue exercising a criminal dominance and authority over at least a third of the country.”
Criminal organizations continue to terrorize the country.
For many analysts, the term BACRIM – an abbreviation of the Spanish for “Criminal Bands” – is an attempt by authorities to mask the fact that, eight years after official paramilitary demobilization, armed drug trafficking groups aligned with rural elites continue to terrorize the country.
Many of the groups sprung up in the immediate aftermath of the 2006 demobilization, led by paramilitaries who had not submitted themselves to the process, former members of drug cartels or ex-guerrillas.
In the following years, groups such as Los Rastrojos and Los Urabeños emerged as dominant, defeating or enveloping their rivals as they expanded.
While up until 2011 Los Rastrojos were considered the leading underworld force in Colombia, since then the Urabeños have emerged as the country’s preeminent criminal group.
Though the groups owed their origins to their paramilitary predecessors, they diversified and maintained a lower profile.
“What these forces have done is reorganize, grow and change their interests. Today they are more urban-based, with a larger portfolio, and are not just linked to drug trafficking,” said Leon Valencia, director of NGO Justicia y Paz.
“Illegal mining, contraband gasoline, they are heavily involved in extortion, and really today organized crime in Colombia is a formidable force with powerful transnational links,” he added.
The expansion model of the Urabeños has seen them absorb or destroy criminal groups as they have swept through the country, leaving them currently bearing down on two jewels of the drug trade – the Pacific port of Buenaventura and Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellin.
Through their growth they have developed a model of criminal “nodes” focused on certain activities or geographic regions, so the command structure remains insulated from individual blows by security forces.
So while authorities may not call them paramilitaries anymore, Colombia’s illegal armed groups – most prominently the Urabeños – represent wider criminal interests and a system of organization that will be harder to defeat than their predecessors.