This column is a week old, but is still very much worth reading. It appeared in last Thursday’s edition of Cali’s El PaÃs newspaper, authored by Gustavo Duncan of Colombia’s Security and Democracy Foundation. Duncan is the author of Los SeÃ±ores de la Guerra (”The Warlords”), a book published last December that, along with Mauricio Romero’s 2005 Paramilitares y Autodefensas (”Paramilitaries and Self-Defense Groups”), is the definitive study of the recent history of Colombia’s paramilitary groups.
Here, Duncan states that huge shifts are occurring in the structure of Colombian narco and paramilitary power because of the imprisonment of top paramilitary leaders, and particularly the surprising transfer of powerful leaders “Macaco” and “Don Berna” out of the ItagÃ¼Ã prison and into possible extradition on Friday, August 24. However, Duncan argues, these moves are not doing away with the phenomenon of drug lords and private armies in Colombia – they are merely changing the way they operate.
Here is a translation.
El PaÃs (Cali, Colombia)
Thursday, August 30, 2007
The transfer of “Macaco” and “Don Berna” to the CÃ³mbita prison last Friday and their almost certain extradition, together with ever more insistent rumors of the death of Vicente CastaÃ±o, indicate substantial changes in the structure of paramilitarism and narcotrafficking. New leaderships, as well as new structures and organizational forms, are bound to appear in the evolutionary process of the nation’s drug trade. And even more importantly, they will manifest themselves in the power that extends from narcotrafficking into control of peripheral regions and into public offices, and, in general, in all the inevitable corruption necessary to maintain a criminal enterprise of such proportions.
What, then, is to come? It is difficult to predict the exact form that the new organizations will take, but several points have begun to become clear after what happened on Friday. In the first place, the power and reach of the former “heavyweights” of paramilitarism are now clearly in decline. It is only a matter of time before their influence over what happens outside their prison is reduced, or until some sort of judicial evidence brings them to a situation similar to that of the two leaders who were taken to CÃ³mbita.
In the second place, beyond the questions of who controls the drug trade and the organizational form of the next generation of capos and emerging armies, it is clear that they will have to act within a context of public opinion that is much less tolerant of irregular armed structures than it was in past periods, when many viewed the FARC’s contention for power as more important than paramilitarism’s collateral effects. The new organizations will have to change their methods not because of changes in the local environment, but because of new demands and interference from national-level political power. And also because of the influence of the part of Colombian society that is at the margins of the power of narcotraffickers and private armies (national media, urban middle classes, NGOs, etc.), which is able to pressure both the security forces and national and regional political leaders. It is very likely that from now on we will see more discrete armed structures, focused on the control of specific spaces and transactions, appealing to the logic of clandestine infiltrations into power structures, instead of an overt military and political dominion.
And in the third place, the President’s action last Friday signals a definitive step for the government’s strategy toward what remains of the peace process with the “self-defense groups.” Its room for maneuver was shrinking until evidence from other branches of the state and from international security agencies demanded of the government a credible action against the paramilitary leaders imprisoned in ItagÃ¼Ã. But the problem is more serious than the retaliations that took place on Friday. Even if all of the paramilitary chiefs in Colombian jails today were extradited, even after the peace process with the “self-defense groups” ends, it will be clear that throughout the country – and probably even more intensely – the problem of narcotrafficking and private armies will continue to persist. As a result, for the government it is desirable to see the process all the way to its end with some ex-paramilitary commanders, in order to minimize the threat of the new generation of narcos and “paras.” And even then, the fundamental question will remain unanswered: whether it was worth it for Colombia to suffer the exhaustion and expectations of the Ralito process, if in the end there has been little real progress against the political violence caused by narcotrafficking.