Crime and Politics in Colombia: Considerations for US Involvement

By Roskin, Michael G. | Parameters, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Crime and Politics in Colombia: Considerations for US Involvement


Roskin, Michael G., Parameters


Very early, the state gave birth to twins--politics, the means of influencing the state, and crime, the means of avoiding the state. The three have always been related. Those with great influence on the state may not need much crime; they get their way chiefly by politics. Those with no influence are naturally drawn to state-avoidance options. For what Latin Americans call los marginados (the marginals), crime may be a rational economic choice. When it suits them, groups may combine politics and crime, using some of one and some of the other. The combination of all three, the interface of the state with politics and crime, is called corruption.

Politics and crime grow from the same impulse, namely, the drive to quickly obtain money and power. Neither are wedded to violence--it's inefficient and costly--but when pushed or threatened, both quickly turn violent. Politics and crime know and understand each other quite well, forming an almost symbiotic relationship. Politics needs money to win elections and influence and pays little attention to the sources of this money (e.g., Japanese Liberal Democratic politicians and yakuza gangsters). And crime needs the protection of politics to continue its enterprises (e.g., the inability of Russian security police to solve a single assassination). At times, politics and crime semipublicly fuse into a single corrupt state, as in Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia. There the fatal shooting of Arkan, a state-protected bank robber (in Sweden) and mass murderer (in Bosnia), removed one of the props of Milosevic's rule and paved the way to his electoral defeat.

Country Without a State

Imagine a country where the state is so weak it cannot do the minimum things a state must do--exercise sovereignty, the quality of being boss on its own turf, able to control unruly elements--and offer citizens a modicum of security and order.

In such a country, politics, because it is unrestrained, easily turns violent. Crime, because it has little to fear from the state, ignores state power, intermingles with politics, and eats into state power. We need not look far for such a country.

Colombia is a feast for Hobbesians (1) in the rawness of its connections between crime and politics, a rawness that long antedates Colombia's massive drug industry and the way it feeds the massive US drug appetite. Drugs may be the ultimate product of globalization. Narcotraficantes (drug traffickers) are among the greatest free-traders; they really believe in a world without borders and practice what they preach. Thanks in large part to them, crime, by dollar value, is now humankind's biggest single economic activity.

Historically, Colombia has never been fully tamed. Its three Andean chains, running north-south and covering its west, are hard to transit and isolate its seacoasts (both Atlantic and Pacific) from Bogota, which lies deep in the Andes. This geographical split between seaboard and mountains was the basis of the US-sponsored breakaway of Panama in 1903 and of Conrad's 1904 novel Nostromo. (2) The volcanic soil of the Andes is rich and the upland climate is healthful, so the mountains became the coffee-growing region and most populated area. The jungled mountains also provide excellent hiding places. Slightly more than half of Colombia is lowland to the east of the Andes--the llanos, tropical, sparsely inhabited, and hard to reach. In Colombia, ground transportation is poor; you get around mostly by air.

The Colombian state has never been able to rule wide areas of the country. Spain was interested only in extracting gold and silver. Creole families with latifundios (big estates) ran them as isolated mini-kingdoms. The "crisis of penetration," the ability of the state to enforce its laws over all its territory, has never been overcome. (3) If you don't like the state in Colombia, you have some of the earth's best terrain to avoid it.

And many dislike the Colombian state, which, in its present form, is not that old. …

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Crime and Politics in Colombia: Considerations for US Involvement
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