Collaboration with Criminal Organisations in Colombia: An Obstacle to Economic Recovery

By Hays, Christopher M. | Forced Migration Review, June 2018 | Go to article overview

Collaboration with Criminal Organisations in Colombia: An Obstacle to Economic Recovery


Hays, Christopher M., Forced Migration Review


To date, the Colombian government has registered over 7,300,000 victims of forced displacement as a result of the nation's many years of conflict.1 Given that forced displacement is known to result in high levels of extreme poverty (affecting 85% of those displaced from rural to urban environments2), economic development is a priority. Among the many factors which create challenges for the economic recovery of victims of the Colombian conflict, one that is often not sufficiently taken into consideration is the incidence of collaboration by internally displaced persons (IDPs) with armed groups and criminal organisations.

These armed groups - guerrilla organisations, paramilitary groups, drug cartels, and local mafia and gangs - have a dramatic impact on the local economy of displaced communities. Furthermore, collaboration with armed groups can significantly undermine third-party efforts to foster economic development through the creation of new income-generating activities and the pursuit of formal employment. It is therefore vital that those involved in economic development with Colombian IDPs appreciate how and especially why IDPs collaborate with armed groups and criminal organisations.

Numerous obstacles impede the study of this phenomenon, in particular the risk of reprisals facing both the researcher and the research population. Additionally, displaced people settle in highly diverse and sometimes remote locations, and so research must be similarly wide-ranging. In undertaking this research, the author interviewed 15 community leaders and NGO workers in three major cities (Medellin, Bogotá and Cartagena), two municipalities (Tierralta and Puerto Libertador, in Córdoba) and two small rural communities (in the regions of Córdoba and Cauca).

Forms of collaboration

Given their isolation and economic vulnerability, and the lack of government and police presence, IDP settlements are seen as conducive to organised crime. IDPs are known to collaborate with criminal groups both directly and indirectly; some will engage directly in the illegal activities of the criminal groups, most prominently drug trafficking and the extortion of protection money (called vacunas, 'vaccinations'), while others will provide the groups with support, for example, providing supplies or transporting gasoline to those cultivating illicit crops.

Additionally, armed groups in certain communities will control the supply of water and the sale of basic foodstuffs such as eggs and arepas (a Colombian staple, made from maize dough). They also control transportation in and out of the community. Under such conditions, local vendors, drivers and anyone who needs water are all drawn into various degrees of complicity with or submission to the criminal groups.

Reasons for collaboration

It is essential to understand why IDPs collaborate. Without such understanding, economic development efforts can founder, and agencies may put themselves and those they seek to help in danger, should their activities be perceived to threaten illegal actors. The reasons that IDPs are complicit with or directly participate in the activities of armed groups are far more complex than many appreciate.

One reason given is the perceived lack of economic opportunities. Interviewees report that, at least for some IDPs, having an alternative way to support one's family would dissuade them from engaging in criminal productive activities. Interviewees also highlight the inducement of 'easy money'. María Esperanza3 (a social worker with a community development faith-based organisation in Bogotá) summarises the dynamics as follows:

"Marginalised, excluded, segregated communities are an excellent environment for hiding organised crime. The trafficking and the fact that these communities have such needs, especially economic ones, and the culture of easy money make it very likely that they [the IDPs] will resort to illicit businesses."

The culture of 'easy money' is no doubt the result of a combination of factors, chief among which are probably the influence of drug cartels and the dependency dynamics created by government and nongovernmental aid. …

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