Can Chávez make a difference? A challenge, almost, in the Senate
Sep 052007

This column is a week old, but is still very much worth reading. It appeared in last Thursday’s edition of Cali’s El País newspaper, authored by Gustavo Duncan of Colombia’s Security and Democracy Foundation. Duncan is the author of Los Señores 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 Itagüí 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.

Friday was an important day

Gustavo Duncan

El País (Cali, Colombia)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The transfer of “Macaco” and “Don Berna” to the Cómbita prison last Friday and their almost certain extradition, together with ever more insistent rumors of the death of Vicente Castaño, 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 Cómbita.

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 Itagüí. 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.

6 Responses to “Gustavo Duncan: “narcotrafficking and private armies will continue to persist””

  1. Jaime Bustos Says:

    This is but a vicious circle, drug trafficking feeds war, war feeds people discontent, people discontent feeds guerrillas, guerrillas tax drug lords, drug lords finance paramilitaries to protect their assets and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, drug trafficking is an international business so deeply rooted into politics, that talking about legalizing drugs is like telling the elites they are going to be bereft of a good source of income, nothing in return. Colombia is nothing but a wild card in the international drug trafficking industry of our modern double standard world.

  2. Kyle Says:

    I think Duncan is right here. I do agree that the government will try to finish the process completely with some of the upper level commanders. But I disagree that this will necessarily have a disuading effect on future would-be paramilitaries. In fact, if the process goes through, and the top lever commanders get 8 years, that would be incentive for new would-be paramilitaries to get enough power to negotiate with the government, hoping for a similar sentence. What the government needs to do is come down hard on more of the leaders, especially Jorge 40 (Seriously, how is that guy not already extradicted??? If Macaco can correctly be shipped of to American soil, Tuvar should have been months ago.) and others still committing crimes from jail, like Macaco. They need to have a heavy hand to show other re-organizing mid-level commanders and new paracos that in the future, a negotiated settlement like the Justice and Peace Law is not an option.
    This is where Duncan is right that the new drug-trafficking armies will be more “Cali Cartel like” in their strategy, of infiltration and buy-offs. Militarily the Colombian government is doing something to track down these new paracos, but not a whole lot. Thus, if these new paracos make too much noise, the government will be forced to go after them, and they can quickly. With an “invisible but strong presence,” that fundamentally changes. The government may not even know where they are, as we’ve seen with the infiltration of the Army and other bodies.

    What we will see, and have started to see, is a shift in strategy of drug-traffickers in a militarily and security changed Colombia. Drug trafficking can continue to flourish as much as 20, 10, or five years ago, even with the current security-based and military-led changes in Colombia. This is where Duncan hits the nail on the head, and in such few words.

  3. jcg Says:

    Duncan, whose book I also consider essential, does get most of it right as far as I’m concerned.

    One thing is, Kyle, that the government has repeatedly claimed it won’t negotiate with those that are opted out of the process right now, including new paramilitaries or “emerging criminal groups” as they are also called.

    That stance could always change in the future, “politics is dynamic” to cite a certain saying, but I think there’s a reasonable chance that it won’t happen during the remaining years of this administration. Further down the road, of course, all bets are off.

  4. jcg Says:

    Another thing I wanted to say is that the government probably thinks it needs to apply the heavy-hand selectively in some cases, even if many of those thugs don’t deserve it, in and of themselves.

    I suspect, based on press reports, one particular reason why “Don Berna” hasn’t been shipped north yet is the fact that his gangs control the Medellín underworld and they, while relatively quiet right now, could stir up a lot of crap if their leader gives them the nod or if they decide to send everything to hell.

    “Jorge 40″ could also try to do something similar, I imagine, and that may also factor in, as far as the government’s choosing when and how to apply the heavy-hand.

  5. Kyle Says:

    The new narco-trafficking structures, while many are lead my middle-level former paramilitary leaders, do not have to remain as such. Case in point is the murder of “Omega” in Medellin. Omega was one of the high level commanders under Salvatore Mancuso while controlling the Catatumbo region. Omega was also believed to be an organizer of the Aguilas Negras in the region (where they first appeared with some strength). He was killed off, along with two other paramilitary leaders from the region in such short time, thus opening space for new leaders. I think in the future, there are four main issues with possible negotiations between government and new para forces:

    1) Who is actually in charge. While Uribe has stated this, we do not know what a new president may think. I would guess that almost all future presidents would take the current government’s line, but then come the other things.

    2) The future leaders. If there are new leaders, who are not former AUC fighters, that somehow manage to move up the ranks in the new para structures, this may give room to negotiate with some leaders. They could say, well I never backed out on the Ralito process or violated my agreement there because I was never involved. It is possible, if this line becomes accepted, that new structures will put new men at the top while letting former AUC commanders control the show from below.

    3) History/Power. Colombian history has shown that pretty much, no matter what, if an organized armed group kills enough people or gains enough power, negotiations happen. From La Violencia to the M-19 to the FARC to the AUC, the ELN, and to a limited extent Escobar (he did get to build his own prison/party house). Even the current government who has stated that the FARC are nothing more than terrorists has shown a propensity to take some form of negotiations.

    Secondly, with Jorge 40 and Don Berna, I think the main reason is that the government fears the process being cut off. If they send too many leaders up north, they may face a cut-off with negotiations (but for real this time, at least the government thinks for real). I reject this fear and say that the main leaders are in a maximum security jail; if they chose to back out, what forces the Colombian government to say, “OK, then you’re all free. Go fight.”? When peace negotiations with the FARC broke off in 2002, the Army attacked immediately and heavy-handily, with the hope of capturing a high level guerrilla leader or two while they were all in one place.

    The Colombian government already has them in one place, a place which is a lot harder to sneak out of than the demilitarized zone. The government has banked a lot of political capital one this, and it failing would be bad. One reason is that these guys can stir up a lot of trouble. This reason, though, is not the main reason (as Jcg stated with Jorge 40, but with Don Berna I’m assuming it is the main reason as he did not say “factor.” Obviously, correct me if I’m wrong Jcg.). If they stir up a lot of trouble, well, the government can always try to wash its hands of the issue and say, “Those guys should not have kept committing crimes from their jail cells.” Will they do that? Who knows. I’m basing this heavily on the reactions of the Colombian government to earlier peace negotiation break offs by the para leaders.

  6. Henry Giraldo Says:

    Sobre nuestra republica

    Mi nombre es Henry Giraldo, soy de San Carlos Antioquia; uno de los pueblos más violentos de Colombia. Yo nací y crecí en la crudeza de la guerra colombiana. A la edad de seis vi el primer asesinado; su cabeza con huecos de bala emanaba sangre, sangre que vi la Madre Tierra recibir generosamente. Progresivamente, como todos saben, fueron aumentando las masacres. La mayoría de los que asistieron conmigo a la primaria, fueron asesinados. Para mi la realidad colombiana es básica: vivimos en la barbarie.

    En las comunidades existen conspiraciones, por parte de los grupos criminales. La gente es asesinada y solo quedan los rumores. En Colombia ya no podemos hablar de la muerte de una manera objetiva, nos rodea, pero no podemos entenderla ni enfrentarla. El desconcierto y el negativismo son derivados normales de nuestra guerra interna.
    Desde mi punto de vista, la guerra perpetua, en si misma, no es el problema. Dicha guerra es uno de los síntomas de nuestra Democracia Fallida. Colombia carece de Independencia y Participación Ciudadana en los asuntos gubernamentales. Porque carecemos de la facultad para analizar y juzgar las acciones del gobierno por nuestra propia cuenta; somos fácilmente manipulados por grupos armados y asta por nuestro gobierno.

    A los colombianos, especialmente a los campesinos como yo, no se nos educa sobre lo que significa ser parte de un Estado. Esperamos que nuestro gobierno funcione bien sin nuestro apoyo, y cuando fracasa lo condenamos. Hemos establecido la doble moral en nuestra relación con el gobierno; ya que no nos consideramos responsables por su fracaso. La doble moral existe, tanto en la corrupción política, como en el anhelo de un proceso de paz con grupos criminales.

    Es mi posición: Que solo un gobierno confundido y sin moral política (la cual solo se deriva del apoyo ciudadano) busca un proceso de paz con un grupo criminal. Lo primero que hacemos con pedir la “negociación de paz” con un grupo criminal, es decidir que su guerra contra el pueblo colombiano tiene legitimidad. La única manera de racionalizar esta decisión es el reconocer dicho grupo como banda político-armada y no simplemente criminal. Recordemos también que, parte de la “negociación de paz” es la reinserción a la vida civil, lo cual incluye perdón de los actos criminales. Con este ultimo paso, los ciudadanos (y no solo el gobierno) le otorgamos legitimidad moral a los actos criminales.

    La Paz, la Justicia y un Gobierno Saludable, son ideales que se nutren mutuamente; estos no se logran con el echo de perdonar miles de actos criminales, por el contrario, dicha negociación y perdón debilita la legitimidad de nuestro gobierno. ¿En que tipo de país se da el lujo la guerrilla de asesinar a 11 parlamentarios, y al mismo tiempo de escuchar los clamores de civiles pidiendo un proceso de paz? La paz no es algo que se negocia, la paz tiene que ser construida por los ciudadanos y el gobierno tiene que ser fuerte para velar y mantener dicha paz.

    Deseo que en el desespero por “negociar la paz,” no olvidemos nuestra facultad de razonamiento. Nuestro compromiso como colombianos esta memorializado en nuestra Constitución Política. La estricta vigilancia de los actos gubernamentales, la exigencia de reformas políticas y el castigo a la corrupción política, son responsabilidades ciudadanas; y no pertenecen a grupos criminales.

    Finalmente, quiero ofrecer una solución, sobre la cual los colombianos podemos comenzar a trabajar inmediatamente:

    Los colombianos tenemos la responsabilidad (asumiendo que queremos existir como país-y libres) de asumir de una manera realista los Poderes y Debilidades del gobierno. En mi opinión, la guerrilla, los paramilitares y la corrupción política, no son el problema, solo son síntomas. El problema está en la manera en que asumimos nuestra colombianidad. ¿Qué significa ser colombiano? ¿Qué beneficios conlleva el ser colombiano? ¿Qué responsabilidades implica el ser colombiano? ¿Cuáles son los elementos que conllevan a la destrucción de una república? Éstas preguntas necesitan ser adecuadamente debatidas en Colombia; y necesitan ser reflejadas en nuestro sistema educativo desde la primaria.

    Muchas Gracias por su atención,
    Henry Giraldo

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