A Networked Drug War in the Jungles of Colombia

By Antonio Sampaio

This Christmas the Colombian government is sending small shining spheres through the rivers of poor regions controlled by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Inside each shining orb there will be a message: "Do not let this Christmas go by. Demobilize". This is perhaps the first time Christmas decorations have been used for counterinsurgency purposes. After the death of the top leader of the FARC, Alfonso Cano, during an army operation last November, the government hopes to reach a record figure for demobilisations of guerrillas during the festivities and the two following months. 

While the government has dealt some heavy blows to FARC’s command structure in the past few years, the results might not be what ordinary Colombians hope for. Instead of less violence they will get even more groups, smaller than before, but organised in a decentralised, network structure that is more difficult to fight against or negotiate with.

The security scenario in Colombia already resembles a dispersed network of small groups coordinating their actions without a central command. Even FARC has joined the process. The military’s relentless – and often successful – persecution of FARC’s leaders forced Cano to introduce a new strategy in 2010, conceding more autonomy to the regional "blocs" and deploying smaller units. During the months preceding his death, Cano had been gradually losing influence, with his ability to communicate with local commanders undermined by the constant necessity to escape the government crackdown. Although guerrillas receive less direct orders from the Central Committee – now headed by "Timochenko" – they still operate under the leadership’s guidance and philosophy and are still able to traffic large amounts of drugs. Colombia is the second largest cocaine producer in the world. It lost the first position to Peru last October, according to estimates by the US Drug Enforcement Agency.

While the Colombian military, equipped with high-tech military hardware supplied mainly by the US, has focused heavily on FARC’s command and control structure, it has been less successful in curbing the emergence of the bacrims, small criminal organisations operating in a variety of activities, such as illegal mining and the smuggling of drugs and weapons. According to the Institute for Peace and Development Studies (Indepaz), a Colombian NGO, the bacrims are present in one third of Colombian towns. Their numbers are still uncertain, but some reliable estimates point to 14 groups with 5,000 members in total. Up to 30 per cent of recruits are former paramilitaries, who used to be rivals of the FARC. But now they frequently operate in coordination with both the FARC and the ELN (National Liberation Army, another leftist group, smaller than the FARC). Their presence is heaviest at the Pacific and Caribbean costs and the country’s borders, gateways to the most lucrative traffic routes. By holding such territories, they are in position to link their activities to those of the guerrillas, who pay many bacrims to use their territories or sell them coca base (used in the production of cocaine).

Although the small criminal groups often fight among themselves, their links with larger guerrilla forces and with the international drug trade form a truly networked conflict. An investigation by Colombian senator Juan Manuel Galán revealed that the bacrims are much more elusive than the guerrillas. Instead of setting up jungle camps, they only gather in groups when called by the bosses for an attack or a smuggling operation, a style which resembles what in strategic studies is often called "swarming": dispersed units of a network converging toward the same objective or target. This networked strategy has increased the groups’ mobility and decreased direct tactics of attrition against security forces. Guerrillas resort to antipersonnel mines and sniper attacks while the bacrims intimidate civilian populations and penetrate the state structure through corrupt officials in order to maintain their grip on profitable trafficking routes.

The government’s military strategy has failed to produce significant results against a networked structure despite being able to kill or capture major and minor figures, especially from FARC. The Red Cross states that the bacrims are now its "major concern" in terms of human rights violations in Colombia. The national homicide rate dropped from 56 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2003 to 34 in 2010. But border regions, where both the bacrims and the FARC are most active, have registered only modest improvements, and the homicide rates in departments bordering Ecuador and Venezuela are much higher than the national average. Kidnappings are on the rise.

There have been some signals that the Colombian authorities are slowly adapting to the changing developments of their networked adversaries. Last September the new commander of the Colombian Armed Forces, General Alejandro Navas, stated that he plans to train his soldiers to fight smaller guerrilla battalions. But army and police commanders themselves are sceptical that this will be enough to make a difference. They point to other "nodes" in the network that could be targeted: unemployed youths, who are recruited by the groups, receiving up to 500,000 pesos (GBP£165) to perform missions or to keep an eye on the security forces’ activities. Colombian armed groups thrive on the gaps left by poverty, which has persisted in the country while neighbouring countries have achieved much more impressive economic and social improvements. The UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) reports that 44,3 per cent of Colombians live in poverty. Even more significant for the fight against drugs is that Colombia has done poorly in curbing inequality among its population. According to a study by the University of the Andes, inequality in Colombia in 2010 was the second highest in South America, losing only to Paraguay. With armed groups heavily concentrated in rural areas in order to escape the military crackdown, socioeconomic fragilities there have become a major strategic threat.

As the government’s "shining spheres" navigate the rivers of rural Colombia, the government should follow up with measures that prevent more members of the poor communities along the banks from joining the armed groups in the first place. Although recent "consolidation" programmes, partially financed by foreign governments, have aimed to bring better civilian governance to areas recently stabilised by military operations, most rural areas lack strong civilian institutions able to provide efficient public services. It is what many in Colombia call the transition from the "rule of guns" to the "rule of law". A focus toward occupying these spaces with better education, employment programmes and a better justice system can cut the links of these illegal networks with the population, succeeding where the purely military approach has failed.


Antonio Sampaio holds a BA in Journalism from the Pontificia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro and an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society from King's College London. He is a Resarch Analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS). 


12 December 2011