Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

Illegal Armed Groups and Local Politics in Colombia

Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

Illegal Armed Groups and Local Politics in Colombia

Article excerpt

This paper studies the factors associated with the presence of guerrilla, paramilitary, and drug trafficking groups in the municipalities of Colombia. Statistical analysis shows three kinds of results. Some of these tend to corroborate explanations that are commonly accepted in Colombia, while others defy deeply rooted beliefs. As a result, some rather curious associations emerge. The availability of energy resources appears to be a crucial factor of attraction for guerrilla and paramilitary groups, but not for drug traffickers. The conflict also seems to affect both the municipalities' ability to impose taxes, as well as the tatter's composition. Against conventional wisdom, drug traffickers appear to have the closest ties to the political sphere. This group shows the greatest capacity to influence civil society, has the most corrosive effect on elections, and exerts the greatest influence on the composition of municipal expenditures. A very popular explanation of violence in Colombia posits a strong and positive association between economic conditions, the so-called objective causes, and the armed conflict. The data does not support the arguments that poverty is responsible for it. In contrast, the data suggest that the age of the population, a purely demographic factor, is determinant. The effect of other social variables is more ambiguous. Curiously, the existence of communications infrastructure is the best indicator of the conflict's geography. The administrative disorganization in public expenditures also appears to be related to the influence of armed groups. However, on an almost anecdotal level, an office for municipal planning is positively associated with the influence of drug trafficking.


There is abundant testimonial evidence in Colombia about the complex ties between guerrilla, paramilitary, and drug trafficking groups and local politicians. This article attempts to identify the mechanisms through which a peculiar symbiosis arises between these illegal armed organizations and political activity, as shown by available indicators of political activity and public finance at the municipal level. Using logit regression, we seek to detect those political and fiscal variables that distinguish those municipalities where armed groups are present.

The article is divided in two sections. The first briefly reviews the literature available in Colombia concerning the relationship between the armed conflict and public administration at the municipal level. The results of the statistical analyses are summarized in the second section.


In Colombia, the literature concerning the relationship between armed groups on the one hand and municipal public finance and the administration of justice on the other shows a relatively wide consensus that there is a growing interference by the former on the latter (Castro, 1998; Correa, 1998). This interference is extended to other aspects of local politics. There also seems to be agreement that the decentralization process that was consolidated with the new Constitution of 1991 was a turning point in this process. This fiscal, administrative, and political decentralization granted a greater degree of autonomy and decision-making capacity to the municipalities and regions. In the political field, the most important change was the popular election of mayors and governors that previously were appointed.

During the 1990s, a new national dynamic took shape in Colombia, with the municipalities as its core. The armed organizations played a leading role during this new phase, strengthening themselves regionally and thus generating an important expansion process. Municipalities are particularly appealing to illegal organizations. Municipalities plan and implement their local budgets, which are financed by government transfers as well as by their own income. Moreover, while municipalities are the seats of local and regional politics, they lack autonomy with respect to public order and the administration of justice. …

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