January/ February 2012 Fighting the Last War

As president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe triumphed over a fierce narco-insurgency. Then the U.S. helped to export his strategy to Mexico and throughout Latin America. Here’s why it’s not working.

By Elizabeth Dickinson

By the time Uribe left office, FARC had been forced to go back to the drawing board. Driven out of urban areas, short on manpower, and increasingly reliant on narcotics trafficking, the group’s then leader, Alfonso Cano, decided that FARC couldn’t contest the Colombian military anymore. So the group returned to its terrorist origins, undertaking high-profile attacks executed by small cells of guerrilla fighters called pisa suaves, or “light-treading” units. In other words, the government’s all-out war on FARC was a success, but a qualified one. “It was very effective— democratic security and the U.S. assistance with Plan Colombia—against a guerrilla force made up of entities resembling an [army] battalion,” says León Valencia, executive director of the Colombian think tank Nuevo Arco Iris, which released a study on FARC last August. Now the rebels have adapted—but the government’s strategy largely has not. In the first six months of 2011, FARC undertook 10 percent more military operations than they did in the previous year, many of them headline-making massacres and bombings.

Still, setting FARC back by more than a decade, and sending it packing into the jungles, is undeniable progress. It is the vacuum created by the formal dissolution of Colombia’s paramilitary force, the AUC, that has sent parts of the country into wrenching bouts of instability. In a complex demobilization process aimed at disbanding militias of some 35,000 men between 2003 and 2007, Colombia attained visible success in clearing out the upper ranks of the paramilitaries. Top leaders were often extradited to the United States to face tough, drug-related sentences. But when it came to draining the middle and lower ranks, the results were more murky. A significant number of the fighters, it is widely believed, simply returned to their work under new, criminal auspices. Others passed the reins to relatives or friends, leaving illicit networks essentially intact. What’s clear is that Colombia, once riven by clashes between FARC and the AUC, has seen a wild proliferation of smaller violent groups that behave very differently from their forebears.

Where there was once a single, cohesive political entity representing paramilitary groups—the AUC—there are now innumerable criminal bands competing over the same objective: to terrorize their way into controlling the drug trade. Like the paramilitaries before them, they thrive when they can infiltrate local governments and become territorial barons. But unlike the paramilitaries, these new groups have neither political aims nor ideologies to control or direct their violence. They have even been known to make alliances with FARC when convenient.

In Medellín, I met a middle-aged woman named Doli Posada who described this new landscape. “There are so many people who are afraid to leave their neighborhoods these days,” she told me, referring to the barrios that creep up from the mountainous city’s high line. In the community where she lives, her neighbors are being asked, once again, to pay armed groups taxes to provide “security.” After a few brief years of calm, today they feel anything but safe. According to many accounts, violence in the barrios took off when Medellín’s once dominant crime boss, a former paramilitary known as “Don Berna” (his real name was Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano)—was extradited to the U.S. in 2008. After Uribe’s military had beaten back FARC, Don Berna had been able to solidify his control over the city and pacify it. Now that he’s gone, new, smaller gangs have sprung up to fight over who gets to fill the vacuum. “By seriously crippling the competing guerrillas, the government had given a monopoly to Don Berna,” wrote Francis Fukuyama and Seth Colby in a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine. “It was peace achieved through market dominance, not demilitarization.”

And the problems are not just in Medellín. An hour’s flight from Bogota, on the Pacific coast, the town of Buenaventura is reeling. During the height of summer, gangs held frequent gun battles to control several of the barrios that have access to the ocean in this seaside port town—the knotted creeks of the coastline are perfect for getting cocaine out of the country fast. In the licit markets too, prices here are much higher than in even the posh areas of Bogota, and the armed gangs control every market, from cocaine all the way to eggs, milk, and ripe plantains.

To make matters worse, many of these mid-level criminals with roots in the paramilitaries have a long history of infiltrating and co-opting local governments. For years, the paramilitaries’ political aims conveniently aligned with those of the state: both groups wanted to defeat the guerrillas. So in many places, the price for security gains against FARC was a blind eye toward paramilitary criminal networks. By 2006, the AUC had become so powerful and so influential that its fingerprints were everywhere in the state itself. High-level representatives, including governors, congressmen, senators, and mayors, had all signed electoral pacts with the AUC that year, with the paramilitaries promising to guarantee a certain number of votes in exchange for influence with the new candidates in office. “When you have that level of penetration, demobilization isn’t going to work completely,” says Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán, a political scientist who worked as a consultant for an anti-corruption commission during Uribe’s tenure and is coauthor of the forthcoming book Drug Trafficking, Corruption, and States. “You can’t destroy all the relationships.”

Officially, the government of Colombia doesn’t buy into the story that remnants of the paramilitaries have become the new torment of the nation. The government calls the post-AUC groups “BACRIM” (an acronym for “bandas criminales emergentes,” or “emerging criminal bands”)— a categorization that portrays them as separate from the past. Joshua Mitrotti Ventura, general manager of the current president’s high council for reintegration, says that less than 10 percent of BACRIM members who have been apprehended can be traced back to the demobilization process: “The BACRIM don’t necessarily correspond with the AUC; the majority are new people.”

Yet Uribe saw the BACRIM coming, according to an American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks that recounts a conversation he had with the U.S. embassy back in 2004. “Uribe speculated that splinter groups of narcotrafficking organizations will follow in the wake of the paramilitaries,” the document says. And when I asked him about the BACRIM in November, he acknowledged the link to demobilization in an e-mail: “In accordance with police reports, 11 percent of BACRIM members and 50 percent of kingpins come from demobilized people.” Then and now, Uribe believed that the same military strategy could combat these new groups. “I consider that these organizations must be confronted the same as Colombia does against narco terrorist guerrillas,” he wrote to me in November.

Elizabeth Dickinson is a freelance journalist. She previously served as assistant managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and Nigeria corespondent for the Economist.


  • Wyatt on January 10, 2012 1:33 PM:

    Fantastic article--Ms. Dickinson is an excellent journalist and got pretty deep into the brush for this one.
    The problem with strategy export is always in the circumstances; the FARC has been dwindling for decades, having alienated most of its leftist Latin American allies years ago and compromised its ideology in aligning itself with not just coca growers but cocaine pushers. The FARC, in essence, was a single entity partly responsible for its own downfall.
    Calderón faces not one diminutive self-styled arch-enemy fighting for hearts and minds, but rather at least a dozen apolitical, amoral, and inhuman groups hell-bent on control and money, nothing more. The motivating factors are different, the nihilism is quite different, and disparities among relevant factors like terrain and development are huge.
    Our collective misunderstanding of Latin America is something so vast and constant that it's worth at least a book or two--and generic false equivalences like the aforementioned are just the most obvious symptom.

  • LarryK on January 12, 2012 1:33 PM:

    The solution is obvious - LEGALIZE IT! ALL of it. Take the money out and the BACRIM has to go get real jobs.

  • Miles on January 14, 2012 1:04 PM:


    If we were to legalize it today, who would supply it? Would cocaine be made in Britain? The US? No. Columbian cartels would still supply it, just as they always have. Prices might go down, but demand would go up at the same time. If we try to tax it to the point that its more expensive than it is now, they'll just go back to smuggling. Legalization doesn't get rid of the violent gangs. A better solution is for the end users of the cartel's product to demand an end to the violence - a boycott of Mexican drugs.

  • Realsteak on January 15, 2012 10:17 AM:


    It is not true that the FARC has been dwindling for decades, as recently as 2002 they had a very strong position just outside of Bogotá and were able to fight as a regular army. The ELN (another leftist guerrilla) held a significant part of Medellín, Colombia's second largest city, it took the army and the police with tanks and helicopters to take them out, it was quite frightening to tell the true.
    It is also no true that it has alienated his leftist allies, it still holds campments in Ecuador and Venezuela and the FARC's current lider, Timotchenko, holds a sort of friendship with Venezuela's defense minister.

    I liked the article, it is well researched, however it does have certain inaccuracies. First of, saying that Uribe comes from the countryside is quite an overstatement. While it is true that he does not come from Bogotá, he is from Medellín and his farm is 10000 acres big.

  • Bryan on January 19, 2012 4:24 PM:

    It seems a controlled regulatory system might be worth some consideration here. The repetitious cry of "democratic security" could be sung a little louder in the U.S don't you think? Covert operations like "The Fast & The Furious" routinely and pathetically cast the DEA and ATF in their usual ineffective, manipulative and military-bravado roles. In a frantic, and arguably failing state of damage control, it seems a stubborn backing of the status-quo fight will continue, claiming more civilian lives and resulting in negligible downsizing of narcotics across the border. Is the U.S. helping?