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Organized crime, Colombia's peace spoiler?

Now that the main potential impediment to a peace deal–a change in government–is out of the picture, it is time to start tackling other threats, not just to securing the agreement, but also to its implementation.

One hundred and twelve bales of cocaine recovered off the Colombian coast, worth more than US $367 million. Flickr/US Navy. Some rights reserved. 

A couple of months ago in Colombia, we held our breath waiting for the results of the second round of the presidential election. This was not only a presidential election, but the campaign turned into a de facto referendum on the peace process that the incumbent president (who was standing for re-election), Juan Manuel Santos, led during his first term. His main campaign theme was about bringing over 50 years of internal armed conflict to an end. Running against him, Óscar Iván Zuluaga (former-President Uribe’s appointee), campaigned for imposing stringent requirements on the negotiations with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). This would have meant, in all likelihood, that the process would soon implode. 

This campaign was a heated battle between two former allies: both had been ministers during President Uribe’s term in office, and both were part of very powerful elites. Although many polls predicted a swift win in the first round for Santos, Zuluaga managed to capture the majority of votes, though not enough to avoid a second round. For weeks before the second round, people supporting the peace agreement flooded the media with articles, closing ranks around the incumbent president in an attempt to convince skeptical voters that peace was worth the sacrifice of voting for Santos. And it worked. Santos won the second round with 50.95% of the vote. 

Organized crime’s interest in disorder 

Now that the main potential spoiler of the agreement–a change in government–is out of the picture, it is time to start tackling other threats, not just to securing the agreement, but also to its implementation. And if reaching an agreement seemed like a monumental task, maintaining peace will be much messier. 

On the bright side, Colombians already have quite a bit of experience in dealing with peace agreements, and lots of lessons learnt from colossal blunders made during those processes. Still, one of the main challenges for peace in Colombia is the big stake that organized crime has in its failure. Stability and strong institutions are the last thing illicit networks need because they thrive in contexts where their business runs unchallenged. Trying to spoil the peace is precisely what some of these networks did in the aftermath of the 2005 peace process with the paramilitary groups, taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the power vacuum that the process left in some key localities and entered the political arena. Some of these lessons have been compiled in a forthcoming publication entitled Illicit Networks and Politics in Latin America. This publication, the second in a series of regional studies, will soon be released by International IDEA, the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) and the Clingendael Institute of International Relations.

The destabilizing effects of corruption 

There is a limited but growing understanding about how organized crime affects political stability and security, particularly by corrupting politicians and undermining peace. Organized crime criminalizes the nature of politics in states affected by conflict by cementing structural weaknesses and thereby avoiding any confrontation with legitimate authorities. At the same time, systemic corruption and illicit financial flows bleed away resources that could otherwise be used to develop legitimate institutions necessary to avoid relapsing into violence. This happened in South Sudan, and Colombia could follow a similar route if inadequate measures are put in place to counteract the influence of illicit networks in some key localities.

Any effort to counteract these corrupt practices faces an overwhelming enemy: the huge amount of money that organized crime generates, particularly via the illicit drug trade. Globally, UNODC estimates approximately 1.5% of global GDP originates from transnational organized crime, most of which comes from drug trafficking (where the cocaine market is believed to be the most lucrative). Colombia, as the main cocaine producer (now facing some competition from Peru), has experienced a massive inflow of illicit cash.

The tremendous amounts of dirty money needing to be launderedfloating around in proximity to politicians and political parties in dire need of financial resourcescreates a toxic environment for corruption. Money in politics is not a bad thing in itself: it is a necessary ingredient for politicians to campaign and for political parties to become more competent and responsive, especially between elections. However, the high cost of politics coupled with lax regulations and low enforcement levels make it easier for politicians to access this rich pool of money that organized crime has to offer. This issue is canvassed further in International IDEA’s forthcoming handbook on political finance.

Money however, is not the only avenue for organized crime to penetrate politics. Direct involvement of criminals in politics, particularly at the local level, has been facilitated by the politicization of the bureaucratic apparatus at the regional level. One politician I interviewed (under condition of anonymity) for the forthcoming publication mentioned above, told me how once a new mayor is elected, they need to repay ‘favours’ by distributing posts from different levels of the public administration to various individuals in their informal networks of influence. This was a similar story in most of the municipalities I visited. It makes it easier for organized crime to control key institutions–such as customs and border controls–by forging alliances with local politicians or even by entering into politics themselves.

Colombians hope for peace

It is no secret that, just like the paramilitaries, FARC has been involved in the drug business. When the former demobilized in 2005, many groups previously involved in controlling routes and providing manpower simply re-branded themselves into new criminal gangs or ‘bacrims’, and kept the illicit activities going, including drug trafficking, extortion and money laundering.

Other parallels could be drawn between the 2005 process with the paramilitaries and the current process with FARC, particularly the challenges that Santos’ government will face in dealing with local issues from a national perspective. Crime networks are primarily rooted at the local level, and the highly decentralized Colombian political system leaves little room for national accountability and transparency of local level politics.

But the current scenario is not totally bleak. Even with its challenges, the process not only offers an opportunity for peace but to deal potentially with some of the factors which allowed the drug business to flourish in Colombia. As already mentioned, organized crime thrives in a context of disorder, and creates a vicious circle where conflict facilitates crime, which in turn facilitates conflict. But the opposite is also true: addressing conflict cuts the arteries that bring oxygen to organized crime, and as crime diminishes, peace has better a chance of settling. Recent progress suggests that things might be moving in the right direction.

The country has become much better at tackling the flow of illicit money. Cutting organized crime’s flow of money is the most effective blow you can deal. According to some estimates, there has been a 76% increase in government revenue from addressing illicit financial flows in Colombia. Regulations have also become more sophisticated. Punishment for involvement in organized crime does not only focus on individual politicians, but now puts the responsibility on political parties who face the possibility of losing seats in Parliament, due to the ‘empty chair' law. Parties have also made efforts to clean up their ranks, by discussing inter-party agreements during elections to ban criminals and prevent candidates shopping around from party to party looking for endorsements. 

Peace opportunities

The peace process and the institutional transition this will foster could open new opportunities to strengthen democracy at the local level, building stronger and cleaner state institutions:

  • - A strong Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process that includes opportunities for young people to be reintegrated could impact negatively on the structures and manpower illicit networks enjoy.
  • - A transitional justice process that sheds light on the crimes committed during the conflict and exposes some of the networks behind the illegal businesses would also hit crime interests.
  • - The end of the conflict could open the doors for a security sector reform (SSR) to continue cleaning up corruption in these institutions. SSR would also shift security policies towards countering crime away from counter-insurgency military tactics which may affect human rights.   

Most importantly, the cessation of armed struggle and the institutional stabilization in some of the most affected localities would close some safe havens where organized crime operates. It would also make it easier to channel much needed resources into development rather than security. This does not mean securitizing the development and democracy agenda; rather it means that smart policies to foster peace and tackle organized crime need to be sufficiently coordinated and informed by each other.

So the glass is half full. Thus far negotiations have progressed to deal with some of the underlying illicit economic interests that have fuelled the conflict. Albeit with limitations, as Annette Idler points out in her recent article in Razón Pública, they have touched upon the drug issue and FARC’s involvement in it. The last point which was agreed during the discussions between the government and FARC in Havana sets the basis for FARC as a whole to give up its drug trafficking interests, which some estimate to account for 50% (directly and indirectly) of the drug business in Colombia–around US $2.5 billion per year. Part of this feeds local corruption. Some individuals will opt out of the deal and continue with the drug business. However, the structures will be weakened, particularly the activities where FARC is involved, such as coca-base processing and the management of some routes.

Other components of the deal also support these efforts to tackle organized crime’s interests in the conflict. Negotiators agreed on a settlement for territorial and rural development that sets the basis for creating legitimate opportunities in the most remote localities. Such localities are often used by organized crime to create strongholds in collusion with corrupt political structures. There is also an agreement with regards to political participation of former insurgents. This could create opportunities for much needed institutional strengthening at the local level that offer legitimate avenues for politicians, parties and movements to compete without being dependent on dirty money. 

About the author

Catalina Uribe Burcher is a Programme Officer for the Democracy, Conflict and Security unit at International IDEA. She specializes on research and policy-oriented analysis regarding the threats that transnational illicit networks pose to democratic politics, mainly in Latin America, the Baltic States and West Africa. She conducted fieldwork in Latin America as a research fellow for the Social Science Research Council, as part of the Democracy, Security and Drugs Programme. Prior to International IDEA, Catalina has worked as consultant and lecturer.