Small Wars Journal

BACRIM in Colombia

Tue, 03/11/2014 - 7:06am

BACRIM in Colombia: Security Micro-Ecosystems and Violent Non-State Actor Fragmentation

Juan-Camilo Castillo


Over the last 40 years, the Colombian internal conflict has showcased how the human battlespace can be a heavily contested ground between the state, its security forces and a variety of non-state actors. Marxist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and a mosaic of criminal organizations have shaped the often-violent nation making experience of this South American country. In recent years, it would appear that this continuum of violence might suddenly change with the ongoing peace negotiations between the Government of Colombia (GoC) and the largest left wing insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).[i] The GoC under the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos has made it clear that the peace negotiations are vital to end the longest armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere and propel further development in the country.[ii]  Furthermore, thanks to the revolution of military affairs that occurred during the first decade of the 21st century combined with an ongoing effective population-centric COIN strategy, the GoC has put itself in a position where bargaining with FARC is a more feasible political process than it was back in the 1990s and 1980s.[iii]

Nevertheless, it is precarious to assume that a longstanding peace would be achieved if the negotiations with FARC succeed and if the GoC would be able to emulate the same with Colombia’s second active left wing insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN). In the Colombian experience, the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of Violent Non-State Actors (VNSAs) has helped to decrease violence in significant levels but by no means accomplished its total eradication. During the presidency of Alvaro Uribe (2002 – 2010), the GoC was able to persuade the umbrella right-wing paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), to demobilize as part of an overall strategy to bring further legitimacy to the fight against the left-wing guerrilla groups.[iv] Yet this did not stop paramilitary and criminal activities to cease in heavily contested areas across the country. Instead, a new threat has emerged in the form of Emerging Criminal Bands (BACRIM), which are splinter paramilitary organizations that have continued to carry out the criminal and violent activities previously associated with AUC. This new typology of VNSA represents a new actor that seeks to obtain economic and political goals by taking advantage of existing conditions that led to paramilitarism in the first place. In other words, the BACRIM have managed to maintain a niche in dynamic security environments spread across Colombia.

In this context, the purpose of this piece is to discuss the relationship that exists between the fragmentation of AUC, the birth of the BACRIM and the security micro-ecosystems in which they operate as dominant actors. This will highlight how in some instances segments within large violent non-state organizations might seek to de-associate from their parent organization in order to pursuit political and economic goals within a limited geographic area of responsibility where they exercise a high degree of influence. In order to accomplish this, the article will be divided in three sections. First, the concept of security micro-ecosystems and the role they play in VNSA behaviour and fragmentation will be explored. The second section will apply the theoretical approach to the BACRIM as fragmented VNSAs operating in specific security micro-ecosystems. Finally, the conclusion will highlight the considerations regarding the link between VNSA fragmentation and security micro-ecosystems.

Security Micro-Ecosystems in Irregular Warfare

British biologist Sir Arthur Tensley defined an ecosystem as a living community and its associated physical environment located within a defined geographic space.[v] This notion sought to capture how within a basic spatial unit, different living actors participate in complex fluxes where the production, distribution, exchange and consumption of energy is taking place among living organisms while simultaneously they react to local environmental conditions.[vi] These ecological units are not exclusive but rather can form part of much larger systems, which can sometimes reach global levels.[vii] Hence, there are relationships in which interactions are able to generate effects at the macro-systemic level, while simultaneously macro-systemic events will also have the effects at the basic unit level.[viii]  Therefore, an ecosystem is a pertinent analogy to asymmetrical warfare systems or overall conflicts in which the state its pitched against non-state actors where there is competition, exchange and transfer of political legitimacy as well as of economic and social goods.

According to David Kilcullen, an overall theatre of irregular warfare is an ecosystem in the sense that actors seek to “feed from the output of others,” while simultaneously generating effects in other actors through their input.[ix]  Indeed, the VNSA operating within a security ecosystem will generate outputs or flows containing information, tangible goods, economic activity and kinetic action that will affect the civilian population, other non-state actors and existing socio-political institutions. Clearly, the survival of both a VNSA and the state is dependent from the support and legitimacy awarded by the civilian population or at least from key segments within it. Most of these flows seek to secure this support, while at the same time denying it to the opposing party. Moreover, as an autonomous actor, a VNSA’s outputs can help achieve desired environmental end-states by influencing economic and social conditions within its security ecosystem, which simultaneously will affect the behaviour or status of other actors. Mark Dapreau noted that ecological models such as ones based on interference competition are useful tools for mapping the interaction between the VNSA, the state and the civilian populace.[x] However, there are circumstances, just as in nature, in which the non-state actor may develop symbiotic relationships with segments of both the civilian population and state institutions in order to be successful in the ecosystem where it resides. For instance, Hezbollah in Lebanon managed to co-opt legal political institutions in order to become part of the Lebanese government and thus advance its political goals.[xi]  Similarly, VNSAs may share interests with particular segments of the state, which also facilitates co-option.[xii] Ultimately, the flows within the ecosystem can be highly complex, dynamic and oriented towards theatre-specific political end-states.

Parallel to ecological macro-ecosystems an asymmetrical warfare theatre is a rather complex construct that resembles a mosaic of numerous interlinked sub-units, which can be defined as security micro-ecosystems. Although these sub-units participate in the overall macro-systemic flows, each “contained” security micro-ecosystem has its own inner dynamics and relationships that are dictated by its resident actors as well as by its specific environmental (political, social, economic and geographic) conditions unique to that area of operations. For a VNSA, the development of a niche within a larger ecosystem normally starts through a process of expansion in which the actor is able to find security micro-ecosystems where it is able to thrive. Certainly, classic irregular warfare theory was able to pinpoint these micro-systemic characteristics and highlight their overall importance for a VNSA’s campaign. For instance, Mao Tse-dong noted that the presence of the state is not egalitarian across a theatre of operations, and instead, there are areas within “the rear of the enemy” where guerrilla formations can originate and gain momentum.[xiii] Moreover, due to the lack of government presence in these areas, the VNSA can become in a direct competitor of the state through indoctrination of the population, substitution of state functions and co-option of any existing institutions.[xiv]  Likewise, Robert Taber stated that the principal weapon of non-state organizations engaged in asymmetrical warfare is neither firearms nor melee weapons but rather their “relationship with the local community.”[xv] Therefore, the VNSA success resides in its ability to exploit the inherent characteristics of specific security micro-ecosystems, while generating end-states that are coherent with an overarching strategy that seeks to accomplish a specific political outcome at the macro-systemic level.

To achieve this, the VNSA needs a high degree of operational flexibility that will allow it to tailor its activities according to the features and dynamics of the security micro-ecosystems where it operates. Furthermore, the VNSA might seek to provide a high degree of freedom of action to subordinate units and their leadership, thus they are able to develop close ties with key local actors, exploit environmental conditions and ultimately acquire influence. In addition, it becomes greatly beneficial for the subordinate VNSAs if their leadership and members are recruited from the civilian populace within the security micro-ecosystems. Nevertheless, this same freedom of action that facilitates success can generate a second order of effects in regards to the physiology of the VNSA. Walter Laqueur argued that if two violent organizations are operating within similar socio-political context, they are most likely to behave, use violence and act politically in differ manners due to the idiosyncratic beliefs and interests of its leadership.[xvi] This notion can also be applied to subordinate VNSAs in which their freedom of action and leadership interests can generate partial or absolute divergence from the parent organization. Indeed, the subordinate’s leadership and members may become autonomous rational actors or conflict entrepreneurs that severe ties with the parent VNSA in order to fulfil proprietary political and economic goals, hence creating a new VNSA that operates exclusively in its host security micro-ecosystem. In other words, the sub-ordinate VNSA as an entity calculates that it can advance its interests independently, and achieve end-states that are particularly beneficial for it.[xvii] Consequently, fragmentation occurs and the subordinate VNSA becomes in a wholly independent entity. By no means, this is an overarching phenomenon that occurs universally in irregular warfare; however in certain circumstances the parent VNSA’s organizational gaps combined with strong micro-ecosystem flows and locally goal-oriented leadership can strongly facilitate the fragmentation of a non-state armed organization. Recent examples of this phenomenon include dissident republican paramilitary organizations that fragmented from the IRA after the Good Friday agreements in Northern Ireland or the Zetas, which fragmented from the Gulf Cartel in Mexico.[xviii]

Emerging Criminal Bands as Fragmented VNSAs

The model described above facilitates understanding the BACRIM’s emergence and their significance as a pervasive feature in the current and future security environment in Colombia. Hence, it is significant to highlight the relationship that exists between the BACRIM and both their legacy organization, AUC, and the security micro-ecosystems in which it operated. The origins of AUC can be traced back to the 1960’s as paramilitary groups spawned as a direct response towards the organization of the first left-wing guerrilla movements in the country.[xix] The Colombian security forces, landowners, mine owners as well as drug cartels sponsored paramilitary organizations, as they felt pressured by the quick expansion of Marxist guerrilla groups. Indeed, these local “self-defence forces” provided security goods to specific segments of the civilian community within their areas of operations (i.e. ranchers, land owners and mining tsars); however, their kinetic activity was also responsible for numerous civilian casualties as well as millions of internally displaced persons (IDPs).[xx] These organizations kept on growing thanks to their civilian and state sponsors to the extent that their amalgamation occurred in order to catalyse the anti-guerrilla fight at a national level. In the mid-1990s under the leadership of former Medellin Cartel henchman Carlos Castaño, the final stage of amalgamation was reached under the umbrella of the AUC.[xxi]   

As a new entity, the AUC was able to coordinate military strategy, political interference and illicit economic activities nation-wide. Indeed, during the height of the Colombian conflict in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when both left-wing guerrillas and paramilitary had virtual control of the country, the AUC made itself present in various contested security micro-ecosystems while facilitating the transfer of political and economic goods among the organization. The distribution of fighting manpower, flow of narcotics, emeralds, gold, weapons and other commodities was facilitated by this VNSA as part of its efforts to consolidate itself at the national level.[xxii] Nonetheless, its core strategic action was to dominate security micro-ecosystems through the persuasion or coercion of key civilian population segments. In most of these security micro-ecosystems the GoC maintained a weak presence creating political space for non-state actor growth.[xxiii] This condition allowed both guerrillas and paramilitaries to become apex actors in these environments. For example, in several regions across northeastern Colombia AUC leaders co-opted political elites in order to access political goods and funding by taking advantage on the VNSA’s local monopoly on violence.[xxiv] Similarly, AUC commanders in the emerald regions of the eastern Andes and the northern oil producing regions developed strong ties with key personalities and organizations involved in the natural resources extraction sector.[xxv] Yet, the strongest relationship was made with drug trafficking criminal organizations including key leaders, brokers and growers of illicit crops. Indeed, these relationships provided the local AUC commanders with strong economic assets, which combined with flows of political support from the local elites, made subordinate paramilitary units dominant actors within their host micro-security ecosystems.[xxvi]

Subordinate units such as Bloque Centauros or the Autodefensas Campesinas de Casanare, became powerful autonomous entities within the AUC; however, this autonomy also generated episodes of violent competition for narcotics and political goods.[xxvii] The more autonomous the subordinate units became, the more likely their local interests trumped the AUC’s national goals. Subsequently, VNSA fragmentation was ultimately triggered thanks to the strategic decision made by AUC to accept the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration offer made by President Alvaro Uribe in 2005.[xxviii] Although approximately 30,000 alleged members of AUC demobilized, key leadership elements that were successful in specific micro-ecosystems continued to operate intimately supporting the narcotics traffic as well as illegal mining across the country, and thus, giving birth to the BACRIM.[xxix] According to the Colombian National Police, in 2006 the number of BACRIM factions was estimated to be 33 which later decreased to 5 in 2012; however, the membership numbers have increased indicating that the factions have been consolidating along geographic lines.[xxx] Furthermore, in 2012 the GoC estimated that only 12 percent of the current BACRIM’s members are ex-combatants, which reflects that these VNSAs have been able to tap into the local populace for manpower.[xxxi] In the end, the niche vacated through AUC’s demobilization and stagnant socio-economic conditions facilitated the emergence of new VNSAs in contested security micro-ecosystems.

The Colombian Minister of National Defence Juan Camilo Pinzon as well as President Juan Manuel Santos have stated on several occasions that the BACRIM are an emerging security concern and that countering them is a strategic priority for the GoC.[xxxii] However, with the prospects of FARC ‘s demobilization there is the likelihood that these VNSAs will receive an influx of human and materiel assets, especially since the relationship between the BACRIM and the guerrillas is more complex and less competitive than it was with AUC. It is well known that several subordinate units of FARC and the ELN have strong business ties with BACRIM in regards to the production, taxation and traffic of narcotics.[xxxiii] In addition, some of FARC’s subordinate units, such as the Teofilo Forero Mobile Column, have shown early signs of autonomy and fragmentation in light to the peace prospects with the GoC.[xxxiv] In other instances, media reports have noted that FARC insurgents have left the guerrilla group in order to become members of the more profitable BACRIM.[xxxv] Another close nexus between the left-wing insurgents and BACRIM is the People’s Liberation Army (EPL), which is Colombia’s third standing guerrilla organization. After its demobilisation in 1991 one of its subordinate units continued to operate in northeastern Colombia while acquiring the same characteristics and modus operandi as the BACRIM.[xxxvi] Indeed, this rather small VNSA still identifies itself as the original EPL organization; however its core activity shifted from achieving political goals to protecting its stake in the drug trade.[xxxvii] Ultimately, even if the peace negotiations succeed the most likely prognosis for the Colombian conflict is that it will still be present in the form of a criminal insurgent nexus. Certainly, the GoC could enter in a new phase of disjointed irregular warfare against VNSAs as the demobilization of guerrilla traditional organizations leaves open strategic niches in the various contested micro-ecosystems across Colombia.


The premise proposed in this piece was not meant to be universal in its application when studying episodes of VNSA fragmentation. Instead, it seeks to highlight the influence that the relationship between the security micro-ecosystems and subordinate VNSAs can have in this phenomenon. This model can help understand current and future conflicts where the state is pitched against criminally involved fragmented VNSAs such as is the case of Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mexico and Northern Ireland. As a policy prescription, it should be noted that it is imperative for host nation governments to be able to maintain a dominant position within contested security micro-ecosystems by strengthening their presence and distributing public goods (including security) to the local population and other relevant civilian actors. This can be accomplished by understanding the inner dynamics, flows and actors within the various security micro-ecosystems, and thus, determining the environmental gaps strengthening the fragmented VNSAs. Ultimately, by conducting simultaneous yet coherent activities in various contested micro-ecosystems, the state is likely to generate favourable effects at the macro-systemic level. In the case of Colombia, the BACRIM were able to flourish thanks to the same micro-systemic conditions and local relationships that previously facilitated the proliferation of paramilitary and guerrilla groups within specific areas of operations. Therefore, it is imperative for the GoC to develop comprehensive and flexible strategies that seek to address state weakness, lack of security and economic development in order to shift local micro-systemic flows against the BACRIM and other armed non-state actors. This can be a resource intensive activity, since the conditions within each micro-ecosystem are diverse; however, it is the ability of advancing locally tailored strategies, which might help weaken and remove the BACRIM from their current ecological niches. It is also imperative for the Colombian security forces and the GoC to maintain momentum in order to reach vulnerable and contested communities regardless of the outcome of the negotiations with FARC in Havana.

End Notes

[i] Buendía, Hernando Gómez. "Colombia: la hora de la paz." Foreign Affairs: Latinoamérica 13:1, 2013, pp. 7-9.

[ii] “Acuerdo de paz permitirá desarrollar el campo colombiano,” EFE, November 27, 2013

[iii] Ortiz, Román D. "Government Negotiations with the FARC and the Future of Security in Colombia."  New Colombia Task Force, University of Miami and U.S. Department of State, 2013, pp. 2-3

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Pickett, Steward TA, and M. L. Cadenasso. "The ecosystem as a multidimensional concept: meaning, model, and metaphor." Ecosystems 5:1, 2002, p. 2

[vi] Ibid. pp. 2, 4.

[vii] Bailey, Robert G. "The factor of scale in ecosystem mapping." Environmental Management, 9:4 , 1985, p. 272

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Kilcullen, David. Counterinsurgency. Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 196

[x] Drapeau, Mark D. So many zebras, so little time: Ecological models and counterinsurgency operations. DIANE Publishing, 2008, pp. 4-5

[xi] Wiegand, Krista E. "Reformation of a terrorist group: Hezbollah as a Lebanese political party." Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 32:8, pp. 676-678.

[xii] Williams, Phil. Violent State Actors and National and International Security, Occasional Paper, International Relations and Security Network (ISN), ETH Zurich, 2008 p .4

[xiii] USMC, Mao Tse-tung on Guerrilla Warfare FMFRP 12-18, Department of the Navy, 1989, pp. 77-79

[xiv] Nagl, John A. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005, p. 22-23.

[xv] Taber, Robert. The War of the Flea: A Study of Guerrilla Warfare Theory and Practice. Citadel Press, New York, 1975, p. 21

[xvi] Zirakzadeh, Cyrus Ernesto. "From revolutionary dreams to organizational fragmentation: Disputes over violence within eta and sendero luminoso."Terrorism and Political Violence 14:4, 2002, p. 85.

[xvii] For further information on “conflict entrepeneurs” see Eide, Espen Barth. “‘Conflict Entrepreneurship’: On the ‘Art’ of Waging Civil War”, in Anthony McDermott, ed., Humanitarian Force. PRIO Report 4/97, Oslo: International Peace Research Institute, 1997.

[xviii] For further info please see: Patterson, Henry, Beyond the 'Micro Group': The Dissident Republican Challenge. In: Dissident Irish Republicanism. (Eds: Currie, P.M. and Taylor, Max), continuum, New York and London, pp. 65-95 and Logan, Samuel and Sullivan, John P. “The Gulf-Zeta Split and the Praetorian Revolt.” ISN Digital Library, 2010 (

[xix] Martin Ortega, Olga. “Deadly Ventures? Multinational Corporations and Paramilitaries in Colombia,” Revista Electronica de Estudios Internacionales, No. 16, 2008, p. 2

[xx] Shumate, C., & Fonseca, D. Neo-paramilitary gangs continue to threaten Colombian civil society and the political arena.  Washington Report on the Western Hemisphere: The Council on Hemispheric Affairs 31:20, 2011, p. 1

[xxi] Huhle, Rainer. “La violencia paramilitar en Colombia: historia, estructuras, políticas del Estado e impacto politico,” Revista del CESLA, No.2/2001, 2001, p. 68-70

[xxii] Ibid. p. 66

[xxiii] Matiz, Camilo Nieto. “Encuentro entre politicos y paramilitares.” Conflicto y territorio en el oriente colombiano. CINEP,  Bogota, 2012, p. 176-178

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Lavaux, Stephanie. "Natural resources and conflict in Colombia: Complex dynamics, narrow relationships." International Journal 62:1, 2006 p. 26

[xxvi] Vargas, Gonzalo. “Armed Conflict, Crime and Social Protest

In South Bolivar Colombia (1996-2004),” Crisis States Working Papers Series, 2:65, 2009, pp.  7-9, 15-16

[xxvii] Pérez Salazar, Bernardo. "La negociación del conflicto armado interno en Colombia: dos escenarios probables y otro, posible pero improbable." Sociedad y Economia, No. 7, 2004, pp. 99-100

[xxviii] Echeverry, Mario Alejandro Neita. “Las BACRIM y Monocultivos.” Vox Populis, No. 12, pp. 161-165

[xxix] Ibid; and Nussio, Enzo. "Learning from shortcomings: The demobilisation of paramilitaries in Colombia." Journal of Peacebuilding & Development 6:2 2011, p. 81

[xxx] Prieto, Carlos Andres. “Las BACRIM y el crimen organizado en Colombia.”  FES Policy Paper No. 47,  2013, p. 2

[xxxi] Nussio, Enzo. 2011, p. 92.

[xxxii] Colombian Ministry of National Defence. “Gobierno ofrece millonarias recompensas por cabecillas de Bacrim y Farc .“ January 30, 2011 ( and “Mindefensa activa grupo especial para lucha contra minería ilegal y las Bacrim.” October 12, 2012 (

[xxxiii] Prieto, Carlos Andres. 2012, p. 3

[xxxiv] Peña, Edulfo. “En contexto: ¿Qué papel juega la Teófilo Forero en el proceso de paz?” El Tiempo. November 14, 2013 (video available at:

[xxxv] Alarcon Gil, Cesar.  “BACRIM: el poder y las sombras del paramilitarismo.” Razon Publica, December 3, 2012 (

[xxxvi] Nasi, Carlo. “ Colombia’s Peace Processes 1982-2002: Conditions, Strategies and Outcomes.” Colombia: Building Peace in a Time of War (ed. Bouvier, V.A.).  U.S. Institute of Peace, 2009, p. 51

[xxxvii] “Megateo: el capo del catatumbo.” Semana. July 20, 2013 (


Categories: El Centro - Colombia

About the Author(s)

Juan-Camilo Castillo has a Master of Science degree in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberdeen and a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of British Columbia. Currently he works as a senior analyst with the Geopolitical Monitor – Global Solutions, a Toronto-based firm that specializes in political risk analysis, due diligence and investigations. He also works for the Canadian Army Reserve as an Influence Activities (Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs) Analyst with the 32 Canadian Brigade Group. He has previously held teaching and research positions with Financial Intelligence Unit of the Royal Bank of Canada, Kroll Advisory Solutions, University of Aberdeen, the United Kingdom Defence Forum, and the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. Juan-Camilo has written several articles in peer reviewed journals including the Canadian Military Journal, The Canadian Army JournalInquiry and Insight and the Review of European and Russian Affairs among others.