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Organised crime during the pandemic

Latin America in a post-Covid world

The signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016 raised hopes of long-lasting peace in Colombia after a decades-long conflict. Yet, the pandemic has provided a window of opportunity for organised crime organisations to bolster their legitimacy.


Nicolás Forsans*


In the southwestern port city of Tumaco near the Colombian border with Ecuador, several armed groups, including ex-FARC dissidents have a permanent presence in low-income neighbourhoods. Soon after Covid hit Colombia, the ‘Oliver Sinister Front’ announced a curfew between the hours of 8pm and 6am. A curfew accompanied by ‘sanctions’ for businesses that defied the orders of the group. With it came the explicit threat for those who ‘do not comply’ of becoming ‘military targets’.

After decades of civil war and drug trafficking conflicts, Colombia has made some security improvements across the country.

In its final report published over the summer, The Comisión de la Verdad (or Truth Commission) reckoned the conflict cost the lives of at least half a million people since 1985 and displaced 7.7 million others.

Today, 121,768 people are still missing.

The Duque government, in power until July 2022 was widely criticised for lacking conviction and political will power to implement the peace agreement in its entirety. Gangs have remained a threat to State authority, especially in low-income neighbourhoods and underserved, rural areas.

Bolstering power over local communities

In the northern regions of Colombia, covid-19 brought with it a system of local co-governance. Newspaper reports abound on criminal organisations increasing their power over local communities by imposing curfews, ordering locals to stay at home and controlling the distribution of governmental support.

Despite the National Liberation Army (ELN) announcing a ‘one-month ceasefire as a humanitarian gesture to the Colombian people, who are suffering from the pandemic, their fighters in Bolívar, northern Colombia claimed in a pamphlet they would feel ‘forced to kill people in order to preserve lives’ should the population not respect orders to prevent Covid.

Only ‘people working in food stores, bakeries and pharmacies’ could work while others should ‘stay inside their houses’, claimed the pamphlet.

Yet gang responses to the pandemic varied widely from one neighbourhood to another. The presence of criminal gangs is common in Medellín, Antioquia where a majority of poor and middle-income neighbourhoods are governed, to some varying extent, by 350 combos.

While the urban core of Medellín benefits from strong State presence, the situation is somewhat different on the outskirts of the city. In neighbourhoods to the north-east, centre-east and far west of Medellín, combos remain the dominant service providers.

A local system of co-governance

A team of researchers at Universidad EAFIT in Medellín spent four years studying criminal groups in the city. Their paper demonstrates that in Medellín ‘most welfare support came from the State, rather than gangs’, and State authorities played ‘a far greater role in providing welfare and enforcing the rule of law’ during the first year of the pandemic.

However, they point out that a small number of gangs in a small number of neighbourhoods were heavily involved in providing welfare and enforcing lockdowns.

Like in La Loma, a geographically strategic corridor for drug and weapon trafficking in Medellin – where an ‘invisible border’ divides the neighbourhood into criminal territories. There, all combos (illegal armed groups) enforced curfews and ordered ceasefires, and within a week local gangs began to go door-to-door offering hand sanitiser, medicines and food parcels where people received ‘little help’ from the local authorities.

Even more telling are reports that Medellín authorities are ‘consulting with different combos across the city’ on the best way to provide similar assistance to other neighbourhoods, ‘coordinating on distributing and supplying official assistance’.

What happened in La Loma is not unique to La Loma.  Nor is it unique to Colombia. In Mexico, the Clan del Golfo provided assistance taking the form of food parcels, medicines, money and face masks to residents of Ciudad Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas. But what is striking in both countries is the opting for ´actions of solidarity and care, rather than traditional violent coercion’. This approach increased the legitimacy, power and social capital of gangs and drug cartels, helping them to ´co-opt social society and the state to support their criminal operations´.

Organised crime as governing bodies

Organised crime organisations have worked in partnership with, or sometimes replaced the State during the pandemic where state presence is weak or dysfunctional. They did so by appealing to ‘positive emotions’ in order to bolster their legitimacy and power.

Where inequalities and poverty still define Colombia and Mexico, these organisations argued the State is not only ineffective, but also that it is not needed.

Criminal organisations derive their ultimate source of power from the control they exert over territories and the people who live in these.

In some areas, they partially co-opted the State and delivered on the ground some of the State’s core functions.

Only robust alliances between both parties will promote peace and State involvement.
* Nicolas Forsans: Professor of Management and MBA Director at the University of Essex, UK. Co-director of the Centre for Latin American & Caribbean Studies and a member of many Latin American societies and think tanks, Nicolas investigates the economic and societal challenges in the region generally, and in Colombia more specifically.

(Photos: Pixabay)

The Series:

Latin America in a post-Covid world:  Assessing the damage from the pandemic.

Latin America in a post-Covid world: The economic damage, a depressing picture.

Latin America in a post-Covid world: Work during the pandemic.

Latin America in a post-Covid world: The cost of inequalities.

Latin America in a post-Covid world:  Those our governments forgot.

Latin America in a post-Covid world: The urban poor and the pandemic.

Latin America in a post-Covid world: The case for framing Covid as a social problem.

Latin America in a post-Covid world: Organised crime during the pandemic.

Latin America in a post-Covid world: Migration during the Pandemic.

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