The Colombian newsweekly Semana published this interview Sunday, translated below, with outspoken Colombian economist Luis Jorge Garay. Working with the FundaciÃ³n MÃ©todo, Garay recently co-published a study about one of Colombia’s most severe challenges: the difficulty of eliminating organized crime’s influence over the state.
Colombia’s government has been repeatedly penetrated by criminal groups. Examples include Pablo Escobar’s domination of local politics in MedellÃn and his 1982 election (as an alternate legislator) to Colombia’s Congress; the Cali cartel’s donations to the 1994 presidential campaign of Ernesto Samper; and the ongoing “para-politics” scandal, in which several dozen legislators, governors, mayors and other officials have made common cause with drug-funded paramilitary groups.
Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe, who remains a very close parner of the U.S. government, has made gains against leftist guerrillas and cut a deal with paramilitary groups to demobilize their national structure. He has extradited several top paramilitary leaders, as well as most leaders of the North Valle cartel that dominated narcotrafficking in the late 1990s and the early 2000s.
The power of Colombian organized crime, however, remains great. Narcotraffickers are estimated to control about 10 million acres of land, including about half of the most fertile and sought-after land in the country. Recent scandals have revealed their infiltration at the highest levels of institutions like the presidential intelligence service (DAS) and the MedellÃn branch of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (FiscalÃa). And Garay contends that, with the emergence of “new” paramilitary groups throughout the country, the mafia – and its penetration of the state – is evolving.
How is it evolving? Garay’s study performs a fascinating network analysis of narco-state ties. Though the study doesn’t discuss it in these terms, we can identify several characteristics of the “successful mafioso” in today’s Colombia.
- Control of territory, using private militias.
- Alliances forged with local politicians, usually cemented by support for campaigns and sharing in corruption.
- Investments in legal enterprises, particularly productive projects like biofuels and palm oil, usually pooling resources with local economic elites.
- Alliance with, or acquiescence of, local security forces – through ties of corruption rather than a common counter-insurgent cause.
- A low profile, avoiding a protagonistic role in politics, and avoiding confrontation with the security forces.
- Usually, benign treatment of the population, including financial support – with the exception of organized civil society, who are subject to threats and intimidation.
Though they are responsible for much of the illegal drugs coming from Colombia to the United States today, it has not been easy to convince policymakers, many focused on Colombia’s recent “success,” that this new generation of organized crime poses a threat, and that the United States must work more actively to limit its influence over a government that Washington continues to aid generously.
Here is the Semana interview with Luis Jorge Garay.
The economist and researcher Luis Jorge Garay coordinated for the FundaciÃ³n MÃ©todo a study about what, in boldly simple terms, could be labeled organized crime’s infiltration of the state. …
Gustavo GÃ³mez, Semana: What does cooptation of the state consist of?
Luis Jorge Garay: It is the exercise through which a person or group, legal or illegal, taking advantage of its power of influence, intermediates before the state to favor its own interests. Within the law, a business association for example is coopting when, through the exercise of its power of influence, it gets the state to adopt sectoral policies that favor it, even against the collective interest. On the other hand, the case of illegality takes place with organized criminal groups, on occasion in alliance with legal sectors, who seek to reconfigure state institutions for their advantage, through the state itself.
GG: It is inevitable to think of Pablo Escobar and his election to Congress…
LJG: Since the time of [Escobar associate] Carlos Lehder the mafia understood that politics is an efficient means to infiltrate the state and society. Escobar managed to get a seat in Congress, but he ran up against the counterweight of Luis Carlos GalÃ¡n [a Liberal Party leader assassinated in 1989], who got in the way of his political cooptation strategy.
GG: Did the mafia learn from that mistake when it penetrated Ernesto Samper’s campaign?
LJG: It learned much, so much that it realized that participating openly and visibly in politics implied risks of criminal and social exposure, and it decided to advance in the financing of parties and campaigns, and reached the point of trying to coopt the presidential agenda.
GG: Who was the counterweight then?
LJG: There was indignation in some sectors, but the determining reaction didn’t come from society, nor was there any definitive political leadership like in GalÃ¡n’s case. The determining actor was foreign: the U.S. government.
GG: What advance did the paramilitaries make with regard to infiltration, compared to these previous experiences?
LJG: The scenario of an intensification of the fight against the guerrillas, to the point at which, with the active participation of legal sectors and with the intervention of illegal groups, illegal armies were established. They understood that a mafia without territorial dominion would not reach power, and that a mafia without a state has no reason to exist. These armies, to their very central nucleus, were penetrated by narcotrafficking in their attempt to coopt the state. This even took them to the Congress, so that it is possible to talk about the narco-para-political phenomenon.
GG: The objective as to re-found the state?
LJG: Their advance with regard to Lehder, Escobar and the Cali cartel was the consolidation of new, regionally based political movements, through alliances resulting from intimidation but, above all, of shared interests between criminals and politicians to use the legislature and advance in the coopted reconfiguration of the state.
GG: What role does the Supreme Court play in this panorama?
LJG: It is the counterweight power par excellence, first in the scenario of the conspiracy charges faced by the narco-para-politicians, and later, in proving that in participating in pacts to reconfigure the state, they abetted the use of force that cost the lives of 25,000 people. Recently the Court gave itself the power to judge them as the authors of crimes against humanity.
GG: It did so to avoid impunity?
LJG: The thing is, we are facing a paradoxical scenario in which the United States, which was the counterweight during the Samper period, now seeks to privilege its domestic interests by judging the paramilitary leaders for narcotrafficking, and subordinating to those interests much more serious crimes commmitted in Colombia. The risk of impunity for crimes against humanity has diminished with the Court’s current position which, in fact, is establishing new jurisprudence regarding extradition.
GG: Is the Court not exceeding its competence?
LJG: In the case of judging narco-para-politics, it acts absolutely within the law and there is no possibility of debating its right to make these judgments.
GG: The government insists that it strangled paramilitarism. Does this mean selling us the idea that we are living in a period of post-conflict?
LJG: We are not living that because, as I say, cooptation continues.
GG: Should we mistrust the successes of Democratic Security?
LJG: There are evident advances, like the weakening of the FARC, and effectiveness in the dismantling of the top narco-paramilitary leadership. But at the regional level, agreements with some sectors of the political class continue, and organized crime has regrouped as “emerging bands.” There are still armed groups that have created “a new social order” in some regions, to the advantage of some legal actors.
GG: Have the media been an effective counterweight?
LJG: We have analyzed the last 12 years and we find a permanent scrutiny of what has happened with respect to narco-paramilitarism. They informed, but they came up short in the task of building broad consensus in rejecting processes of this nature.
GG: What consequences might another reelection have?
LJG: If it happens, there will have to be a simultaneous, integral change to guarantee an adequate system of checks and balances under the constitution.
GG: What will the next cooptation scenario be?
LJG: If the currently germinating elements of the current stage of cooptation are not uprooted, there will be a transition to another with a similar basis but with more sophisticated processes and new actors seeking a change in the regime. THe actors are accidental, temporary and substitutable.
GG: Would you prefer to avoid optimism when you think of Colombia’s future?
LJG: I realistically view the deep problems we face in order to develop as a true democracy, but I’m optimistic that we, as a society, can react. Much is lacking, that is true, to arrive at true social justice and democracy.