The politics of drug traffic

Drug traffic is a pervasive phenomenon, in Latin America and beyond. The sociological study of drug traffic faces a number of challenges, chiefly among many the clandestine nature of the practices studied and the diversity of discourses produced by variegated actors (media, police, the judiciary). The links between politics and drug traffic can be studied from a twofold standpoint: first, the ways in which drug traffic transforms the relations of domination, dependence, and social control at the scale of specific territories; second the production of anti-drug policies by transnational networks of security professionals, experts, and politicians.

The relationships between armed groups and criminal markets are often described in essentialist terms, which purport the image of a ‘contamination’ by crime of armed political struggles. In reality, war and crime maintain very complex relations, which cannot be reduced to a dichotomy between greed and grievance. The various forms of accumulation deployed by armed groups are not external to politics, as they contribute to reinforce their social grounding and lead them to seek an influence on political arenas. However, they can also provide a basis for disqualification, when they interact with the objectives of security and law enforcement agencies, such as the police of the military.

This project explored a configuration illustrative of these complex interactions. The case of guerrilla groups and paramilitary militias in Colombia – two groups that everything seems to oppose. I argue that practices of accumulation, in this specific case the engagement in the cocaine economy, need to be analyzed in relation to the power relations they create, the competitions for territory and the struggles for political influence.

In then analyze the ways in which the state’s attitude towards these armed groups was influenced by a drug-traffic approach. In the case of the guerrilla, their disqualification as drug smugglers was mainly the result of a competition between the police and the military; in the 1980s and 1990s both of these institutions were striving to appear as the most suitable to meet the challenge of transnational drug traffic. The access to the United States’ policy of security and financial assistance provided the motivation and the resources for this competition. The criminalization of guerrilla groups and the portraying of rebels as a powerful criminal organization threatening the stability of the country and undermining US efforts in the war on drugs was a crucial manner of competing for the position of anti-drug leader agency.

The transformations of the state’s position towards the paramilitary militias followed a completely different path. While the criminal background of most of their leaders provided a basis for their categorization as criminal groups, this criminalization was long-time inconsequential. Their categorization as drug traffickers did not, per se, create an obstacle for their underground collaboration with the military. Criminalization only became a problem with the engagement of negotiations between the government and paramilitary militias in 2003. The dichotomy between political offenders and ordinary criminals posed a veritable quagmire for paramilitary leaders. The government’s strategy was to hold that these categories were blur and undifferentiated, and that paramilitaries were not more criminal that the rebels. Paramilitary militias, on their part, deployed a great wealth of efforts to correspond to the image of a politically motivated group. However, they met a successful opposition led by congress members, but also high ranking officials of the judiciary, to reinstate a clear-cut differentiation between crime and armed politics.

This project relied heavily built on archival research, in order to retrace the history of anti-drug policies in Colombia. These sources were completed by data made available by the Colombian historical memory centre, and through my own research on the legal strategies of paramilitary groups.

This project was partially funded by the British NGO Christian Aid, within an external advisory contract.

Academic output linked to this project:

  • Grajales, J. Forthcoming. Medellin, des bandes à la contre-insurrection. In Allal, A., G. Dorronsoro, and O. Grojean (eds.), Logiques de la violence politique, Paris: Karthala.
  • Grajales, J. Forthcoming. Les bandits que se voulaient héros. Crime, violence et groupes paramilitaires en Colombie. In Le Bot, Y. (ed.), Violences extrêmes, comment en sortir ? Ce que nous enseigne l’Amérique latine. Paris: Presses de la FMSH, forthcoming.
  • Grajales, J. Forthcoming. Narco-guérilla. Contre-insurrection et anti-drogues dans la guerre colombienne. In Alix, J. and O. Cahn. Terrorisme et infraction politique. Paris: Mare et Massé.
  • Grajales, J. 2018. Où sont passés les criminels ? Transformations de la guerre et qualifications de la violence en Colombie, Politix. 2018, n°123/2.
  • Grajales, J. 2016. Faire la « guerre contre la drogue ». Relations asymétriques et adoption d’un régime répressif, Cultures & Conflits, no 101, p. 181-198
  • Grajales, J. 2015. Legalizing the illegal in Colombia: Criminals as political actors. In Gutierrez, E. (ed.) Drugs and Illicit Practices: Assessing their impact on development and governance. Christian Aid occasional paper series.

Check the publications page for a complete list