Insight Crime: Colombian Criminal Groups Gaining Strength, Expanding Under Gustavo Petro’s Administration
One year into Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s “Total Peace” project, a report describes how violence against the state has decreased while the country’s criminal groups have grown in strength.
The report by Fundación Ideas Para la Paz, published August 22, explains that Colombia’s main criminal groups have expanded their territorial control, enhanced their power of recruitment, and diversified their income. All of this has increased the number of clashes between them and generated a worrying humanitarian climate, found the report.
This article, written by Yago Rosado, was originally published by Insight Crime, a Medellín-based foundation dedicated to the investigation and analysis of crime and security in Colombia and Latin America.
Below, InSight Crime analyzes three findings from the report to assess the evolution of Colombia’s criminal landscape one year after Petro’s Total Peace announcement.
Violence Against the State Falls While Inter-Group Disputes Increase
During its first year, the Petro government has overseen a significant reduction in confrontations between state security forces and armed groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), the ex-FARC mafia, and the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC).
Between July 2022 and August 2023, there were fewer than 100 clashes, while in 2021 there were more than 170. According to the report, these groups no longer confront the state “because they have no pretensions or capacity to affect its stability or the seizure of power at the national level.”
But not everything is positive. The report’s data show that disputes between the country’s main armed groups have increased as they look to maintain and expand their territorial control. Clashes between armed groups have grown by 85% during Petro’s first year in office, making it the highest figure in the last decade.
During this period, the ex-FARC mafia, ELN, and AGC have reinforced their ranks. Their combined total membership is now 7,620, according to the report. They are also supported by a network of at least 7,512 people, exceeding the figures reported in previous years, which averaged 6,000.
Armed Groups Continue Killing
Although homicides have decreased by 1.5% in comparison to the last year under former president, Iván Duque (2018-2022), violence has continued unabated in the departments where armed groups have a strong presence.
The island of San Andrés and the departments of Sucre and Vaupes, where the AGC and the ex-FARC mafia have operations, have seen homicides increase by 72%, 59%, and 50% respectively. Bolivar and Putumayo also saw increases of between 10% and 20%.
At the national level, kidnapping have risen by 77% and extortion by almost 15%. In both cases, these are the highest figures in the last decade and contrast starkly against the goals of Total Peace, which has so far failed to establish ceasefire agreements with ex-FARC mafia factions or the AGC. In fact, the government broke off talks with the latter group earlier this year.
The report’s data also shows the populations in rural areas are suffering higher rates of threats, extortion, and forced displacement.
Peace Talks Not Impeding Criminal Armed Groups
Talks to demobilize the multiple criminal groups active in Colombia are stalling.
The report indicates that, after initial momentum in 2022 when many armed groups announced their intentions to talk with the Petro administration, negotiations are progressing intermittently and slowly.
Though not straightforward, negotiations with the ELN are the most advanced. The bilateral ceasefire between the ELN and the Colombian state, and the involvement of the National Participation Committee (Comité de Participación Nacional – CNP), have provided a solid foundation for future progress.
No other negotiations with armed groups have gotten this far. In fact, the negotiation processes with groups such as the AGC, the Pachenca, and a myriad of urban groups, are stalled due to the lack of a clear legal framework in which the two groups can discuss and plan.
Meanwhile, in the case of the ex-FARC mafia, talks are taking place while the group disputes different territories, such as the Colombian Pacific, where they are fighting over drug trafficking routes to international markets.
This article, written by Yago Rosado, was originally published by Insight Crime, a Medellín-based foundation dedicated to the investigation and analysis of crime and security in Colombia and Latin America. It has been generously shared with Finance Colombia under a Creative Commons license.