The Colombian government made a critical military pivot in April, shifting strategic focus from guerrilla armies to organized crime groups — formerly known as “criminal bands” or “bacrim” — that stepped in to fill the void left when paramilitaries demobilized in 2006.

Only earlier this month did the extent of that shift become clear.

“The whole force of the state will be used against them to disband these groups of organized crime,” said Minister of the Interior Juan Fernando Cristo in a statement last week.

Since 2011, the national police have been in charge of the fight against so-called bacrim under the assertion that military force could only be legally used against groups that held territory or promoted a political ideology.

Of course the largest such groups have long met that standard.

“These criminal groups have evolved since 2011 toward organized crime, pure and simple”

So in April, the Ministry of Defense issued Directive 15, which defines the largest bacrim organizations as legal targets of military strikes under a new classification.

“These criminal groups have evolved since 2011 toward organized crime, pure and simple,” said Minister of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas in a statement explaining why Directive 15 was necessary to replace the previous policy.

The directive creates two new legal terms: organized armed group and organized delinquent group. The first describes those groups that have an organized structure and leadership, commit violent acts against civilian society and armed forces, and control sizable territory.

At least three organizations that meet those standards — Clan Úsuga, Los Puntilleros and Los Pelusos — will be considered legal targets of military strikes.

“Organized armed groups are targets for the police and military forces. This means that we can use surprise, stealth, preventative action, aerial strikes … and even bombing,” said Minister of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas last week.

The strength of military strikes will vary according to the size of groups and their ability to control territory, according to Villegas.

“Naming them illegal armed groups opens the possibility of more effective actions against them,” said Álvaro Villarraga, a director with the National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH).

President Juan Manuel Santos explains the public forces' successes against organized criminal groups so far this year. (Photo by Presidencia Colombia)
President Juan Manuel Santos explains the public forces’ successes against organized criminal groups so far this year. (Photo by Presidencia Colombia)

The official results even under previous policy are impressive. More than 1,200 members of criminal groups have been captured or killed so far this year, 328 illegal mining operations stopped, 2,100 drug laboratories destroyed, and 91 tons of cocaine seized, according to President Juan Manuel Santos.

On Friday, alias ‘Venado’ was killed during a police operation in Vichada, taking down a key leader of the Los Puntilleros group.

And on Sunday, the Ministry of Defense announced one of the largest drug seizures in Colombian history taken out of the hands of the Clan Úsuga — more than nine tons of cocaine destined for the United States and with a street value of about $250 million in New York claimed National Police Chief Gen. Jorge Nieto.

Just the week before, officials seized another $18 million in cocaine from the same organization.

“We are going to continue these actions in a sustained way, because this is a priority for our public forces, a priority for our government,” said Santos in a recent press conference. “Disbanding organized crime is a priority to give Colombians more security and we are not going to drop our guard.”

But despite advances, organized armed groups remain a serious threat in large portions of Colombia, and getting rid of them will be a challenge, according to experts and public officials.

The national Public Defender’s office believes that organizations formerly known as bacrim have a presence in at least 27 of Colombia’s 32 departments. The largest groups, such as Clan Úsuga (previously known as Los Urabeños), have thousands of members in hundreds of municipalities.

Colombia announced this week what may be the largest drug seizure ever, capturing more than eight tons of cocaine from Clan Usuga. (Photo by Policia Nacional)
Colombia announced this week what may be the largest drug seizure ever, capturing more than eight tons of cocaine from Clan Usuga. (Photo by Policia Nacional)

Combined, criminal gangs and organized armed groups have a membership at least half as substantial as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, the country’s largest armed insurgency. Clan Úsuga alone is estimated to have more members than the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group.

And criminal armed groups can command significant force in some regions.

In April, for example, Clan Úsuga enforced an armed blockade on 36 municipalities located in eight departments, during which most of the population was forbidden from leaving their homes. At least four people were killed, according to the Resource Center for the Analysis of Conflicts (CERAC).

The same group carried out a smaller blockade in 2012.

“ enters a new war, necessary but risky,” said Jorge Restrepo, director of CERAC, in an interview with Verdad Abierta. “Militarization implies that operations no longer require a judicial process because they will become military rather than police operations, but that brings political risk.”

Of course, the police haven’t turned their back on the situation.

Over the past two months, Colombia’s National Police have run more than 300 operations against organized crime groups breaking up rings dedicated to everything from cell phone theft to international drug trafficking.

Though the government continues to officially deny a direct connection to demobilized paramilitary armies, multiple international non-governmental groups — and several public officials — have referred to bacrim as “neo-paramilitary organizations.”

“It was an error to think that the paramilitary phenomenon had disappeared completely,” said Álvaro Villarraga, a director with the National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH), pointing to new organized armed groups as descendants of former paramilitary operations.

Defense Minister Villegas maintained that, “In Colombia there are no paramilitaries. There is organized crime, and we are going to confront it with every component of the public forces.”

Nonetheless, the country risks stirring up a new internal conflict on the eve an old one winds down.

As far back as 2013, the country’s High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo warned that peace with FARC could not be successful without also combating bacrim.

On the other hand, the very existence of the organized armed groups previously known as bacrim points to a very real challenge in the FARC peace process — ensuring that combatants are reintegrated into lawful society rather than remaining on its lawless fringes.

That didn’t go according to plan during the demobilization of the United Autodefenses of Colombia (AUC) a decade ago, as former AUC members simply reformed smaller but similar organizations.

Even if a group like Clan Úsuga decided today to demobilize and go before Colombia’s judicial system, it would take years to complete that process. Current Colombian law doesn’t allow organized crime groups to demobilize en masse, so each member would have to be tried individually.

But a legislative change currently before congress could change that. The shift would establish criminal organizations as eligible for mass adjudication given that they are “a plural association of persons with a defined structure and command unit, whose purpose is the enrichment of members through punishable conduct that gravely affects security.”

It would not, however, provide for any special legal treatment as has been the case with the FARC accords agreed upon thus far in Havana.

But changing the terminology from criminal gangs to organized armed groups carries weight under international human rights laws, and some have speculated that it could open the door to full-blown peace negotiations in the future.

Government officials have maintained that it would not, and some legal experts agree.

“It’s not true that by fighting organized armed groups militarily they are being elevated to the category of political organization in order to reach a peace deal,” explained Gustavo Gallón Giraldo, director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists in a statement last Thursday.

“On the contrary, without decisive military action respectful of human rights, these neo-paramilitary groups will never be eradicated.”

Three targets for Colombia’s armed forces

Clan Úsuga

Clan Úsuga, previously known as Los Urabeños, is Colombia’s largest organized armed group, commanding somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 members and financing criminal activity through massive drug trafficking operations.

The group’s current leader is alias “Otoniel,” perhaps Colombia’s “most wanted” criminal, with a USD $2 billion peso bounty on his head.

Clan Úsuga operates in more than 20 of Colombia’s 32 departments, with a base in the Urabá region of Antioquia, which spans the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines.

Los Puntilleros

Los Puntilleros formed following the dissolution of the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Subversive Army of Colombia (ERPAC) and hold control over territory mainly in the country’s eastern plains. Illegal arms sales help finance their operations, carried out by some 200 members.

The group’s most recent leader, alias “Venado,” was killed in a military strike last week.

Los Pelusos

Los Pelusos operations are dedicated primarily to drug trafficking, according to the National Police. An estimated 300 members hold territory in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander along Colombia’s northeastern border with Venezuela and are led by alias “David León” and alias “Caracho.”