Criminality and Armed Groups: A Comparative Study of FARC and Paramilitary Groups in Colombia

Bilal Y. Saab and
Bilal Y. Saab Senior Research Assistant, Saban Center for Middle East Policy
Alexandra W. Taylor

May 22, 2009


Terrorist groups and armed insurgents regularly exploit illicit markets to launder money, traffic illegal goods, and purchase arms. In such an environment, the line between armed political organizations and criminal groups appears to break down. However, through a comparative study of paramilitary groups and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) in Colombia, this article finds that group goals, the political environment, and membership strongly influence the types of criminal activities a given armed groups undertakes. Thus, the membership and political agenda of sub-state armed groups not only distinguishes them from criminal groups—organized for and motivated by economic gain—but also shapes their criminal behavior.

Few organizations in Colombia are untainted by the exploitation of illegal rents. Colombia is the single largest exporter of cocaine in the world—supplying approximately 80 percent of the world’s cocaine—and money from this illegal traffic has seeped into the wallets of government officials and the war chests of armed insurgents. The main sub-state armed groups in modern Colombia—the loose coalition of paramilitaries previously organized under the recently demobilized Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) and what was once one of the largest guerrilla organizations in the world, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC)—derive the majority of their revenues from criminal activities, including kidnapping, extortion, and the protection, production, and trafficking of Andean-grown narcotics. However, paramilitary groups and FARC differ in the level and form of their participation in the international drug trade.

After the fall of the Medell´ın and Cali drug cartels in the early 1990s and the subsequent disorganization of the drug market, the AUC and FARC were presented with a unique opportunity to expand their illegal activities. The paramilitaries used the new environment to solidify their participation in the Colombian drug industry and international trafficking and to expand their “in-house” drug capabilities. FARC remained primarily focused on the domestic protection and production of cocaine and strengthened its links to international criminal organizations to move and distribute drugs.

The past four years have witnessed a dramatic change in the position of sub-state actors in Colombia. Against the background of the demobilization of the AUC, new emerging criminal bands (known by the Colombian government as Bandas Criminales Emergentes, or BACRIM) have formed. Defections and successful counterinsurgency actions have resulted in a significant decrease in FARC’s military power and have unearthed evidence of involvement by the guerrillas in cross-border political and possibly criminal activities. In light of these events, this article first examines why the AUC expanded its “in-house” drug producing and trafficking capabilities, while FARC established ties to organized criminal groups to participate in “up-stream” illegal activities during the period from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. Building on this analysis, this article shows how the different paths taken by each group toward involvement in the drug trade have influenced the recent criminal activities of BACRIMs and FARC.

Two main factors explain these differences in the criminal activities undertaken by FARC and the AUC. First, the technical capabilities of each armed group limited their participation in certain criminal activities. Armed insurgents who have not traditionally participated in drug production, trafficking, and money laundering may find it difficult to quickly acquire the necessary skills and networks and may instead turn to criminal partners to carry out these activities. Second, political considerations prompted FARC to limit or at least mask its participation in illegal activities to avoid being perceived as criminal organizations without political grievances. However, the political identity of the AUC did not impose such constraints on its illegal activities. Modern theories describing the relationships and tensions between armed insurgents engaged in criminal activities and criminal organizations outline four main models of crime-insurgency interaction. This article uses the case studies of FARC and the AUC to suggest that two significant factors—technical capabilities and political identity—influence which of these four models armed insurgent groups chose to follow.

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