Agreement, legal confrontation and war with the mafias

Organized Crime and Political Finance in Colombia

By Mauricio Rubio *

Presented to the Brookings Institution
August 2010

Organized crime and political finance : the parties
Colombian mafiosi : two styles, two generations
     Business, politics and war : the Medellin Cartel
     Mostly business : the Cali Cartel
Global technocrats or warlords : Snitches’ Cartel
Politicians: anything goes
Background : smuggling and clientelism
Unreliable partners
Dealings with organized crime
Two classic incidents : Recoletos and Ralito
Hot money and extradition
Two summits in Panama
War on drugs
The preamble of Recoletos
The preamble of Ralito
Links between the two Panama summits, Recoletos and Ralito
Mafia and politics : lessons from Colombia
A few hypothesis
Public policy issues
Local prevention
Moral persuasion
Global coordination


Colombia currently has a mixed political finance system. Both the State and individuals are involved in financial support for political parties and election campaigns. In addition, limits have been established to both party expenditures and private contributions.

For the presidential campaigns there is an overall cap on the funding as well as a ceiling on individual contributions, that can not exceed 2% of the total. It has been established that the bulk of funding (80%) should be made with public money. For each of the candidates for Congress there is also a ceiling. Finally, internal party referendums to nominate candidates are partially financed with public funds.

The amount of funding depends on the number of votes. In the presidential election there is a foretaste of that amount. These resources are allocated and administered by a National Electoral Council (NEC). All financed political organizations should report to that body their annual income and expenses, the destination and implementation of public funds received and expenditures during campaigns. These reports, once reviewed by the NCE, have to be published in national newspapers

The legal system of political finance in Colombia is based not only on legislation and decisions of the NEC [1] but, since 1991, in the Constitution. Such high standards for this type of norms seems exceptional in Latin America [2].

Despite the historical importance of political parties in Colombian history, concern for their institutionalizing is recent. The law that firts regulated the parties and introduced partial and indirect public financing of election campaigns was adopted only in 1985. That same year the old Electoral Court, with the limited scope of elections, became the NCE which has new responsibilities linked to the legal recognition of the parties, their regulation and the control of funding. This law focused on private contributions and only considered indirect mechanisms of public funding, such as free access to state media, financial help for advertising, free postage and printing services.

With respect to private funds, the Law 58 allowed  individuals or corporations to make contributions both in cash and in kind. A cap was imposed on private contributions and also on the amount that a presidential candidate could spend on his campaign from his own assets. The campaign period was limited to 90 days. Parties were required to register their books with the electoral authorities and also to make this information public.

In 1991, the National Constituent Assembly recognized the need for public funding to political parties and campaigns. It also addressed the issue extensively and political finance norms were elevated to constitutional level. The new Constitution introduced public financing -direct, but only partial- of parties and campaigns. Indirect funding mechanisms were held, including access to public television. Motivation to regulate the parties was twofold: to combat corruption and to promote political participation.

With regards to corruption, in the Constituent Assembly debates one of the arguments for public funding was that this could replace the so-called auxilios parlamentarios. This special kind patronage was a practice by which infrastructure projects in the areas of influence of congressmen were financed. Every elected politician could assign these funds in his region with total discretion. These auxilios reached 1% of the national budget and became a major source of corruption.

Furthermore, weakening the bipartisan structure and encouraging the participation not only of new parties but also of a wide range of associations and movements, was one of the ideological pillars of the 1991 Constitution. A trend coming from the previous decade consolidated. The central idea, which arose in part from efforts to negotiate with the guerrillas, was to move from representative democracy to a more participatory political regime. Redefining the notion of what should be the Colombian democracy, the new charter introduced a set of electoral rules for the basic purpose of weakening an already fragile party system and several mechanisms to promote direct democracy [3].

Law 30 of 1994, the Basic Statute of the Political Parties and Movements, regulated the constitutional directives. The lag of almost three years between this law and the Constitution reflects the difficulties and resistances which stumbled in Congress to give effect to the constitutional guidelines.

The NEC, responsible for the regulation of political parties and electoral campaigns has always been a rather precarious institution. The scarcity of its resources, its limited power, as well as its partisan composition and decision-making mechanisms, have prevented the NCE from exercising a genuine control over the resources of the parties. It looks more like an "instance to resolve conflicts of interest between the parties than one to monitor their excesses." [4]

The limited capacity of the NCE to enforce electoral rules was compounded by the extreme fragmentation of parties. This phenomenon was caused not only by the progressive decline in party loyalty but also by the explicit effort of the legislation to promote and facilitate, by eliminating requirements, political participation. Thus, the number of political players eligible for public funds multiplied and the costs of campaigns increased. By allowing not only the parties but different kind of associations or movements and even individual candidates to receive electoral funds, including public subsidies, and spend them with complete autonomy, the legal regime contributed to an increasing "party anarchy" and a virtual privatization of election campaigns. Consequently, the role of supervision and control by the NCE, with hundreds of lists (near 800) of candidates for the Senate and the House became close to impossible [5].

About the belated interest to regulate the parties in Colombia there are two complementary theses. Although since the late fifties both parties and government presented various legislative proposals, they were never approved by Congress. According to Pizarro (1998) this recurring failure would be an expression of the clear rejection by the Congress of any legislation specifically concerning the parties. The profound lack of interest in key aspects of party organization, in turn, could be explained by the traditional emphasis on democracy as a system to look for social equality rather than a set of procedures for the establishment of government [6].

From the beginning, attempts to institutionalize parties and political finance have been difficult in Colombia. Such issues have led to hard and lengthy discussions, but above all, have taken place in the midst of turbulent political and public order scenarios. By 1985, when the first law was passed, the penetration of drug trafficking in partisan politics was more than evident in the country. A couple of years before, Pablo Escobar had managed to infiltrate the Nuevo Liberalismo (NL), a dissident party whose flag was the fight against corruption; he had been expelled from the NL and joined a faction of the majority party; he had won a seat for House of Representatives and he had even promoted a debate against the NL because of a check from a drug trafficker. Moreover, the murder of the Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla was still fresh. This incident was the summit of a series of disagreements, mutual breaches and retaliations between the Betancur administration and the drug traffickers who had supported his campaign. In turn, the murder had led the government to revive the extradition treaty, intensifying the war with the drug lords.

On the other hand, interest in seeking legal recognition of nontraditional parties was a key part of an ambitious program of peace negotiations with the guerrillas launched by President Betancur. The main component of the diagnosis that supported the peace talks was the recognition of a too closed party structure. The decision was to give way to a more open regime, based on a multiparty system.

The meetings of the National Constituent Assembly of 1991, also took place under intense pressure from both drug traffickers and guerrillas. A substantial fraction of the delegates had been elected by the Alianza Democrática M-19, a political party resulting from the peace agreements with the guerrilla group that, at that time, was closest to the drug lords. Part of the discussions were conducted in parallel with the negotiation of arrest conditions for Pablo Escobar, who surrendered the same day the Assembly approved the ban on extradition of nationals. Rumors, and some evidence about bribery of delegates by the Cali Cartel were common.

For the date of approval of Law 30 of 94 -the basic status of political parties- three months before the funding scandal of the 1994 presidential campaign broke, the terms of such support by the Cali cartel had already been agreed in Madrid. The fact that the NCE's role in solving this scandal was totally irrelevant, even after the adoption of the law, reflects well its shortcomings.

Although the aforementioned scandal arose, again, deep discussions on the topic of political finance and the need of political reform, it did not lead to any concrete legislative action. A few months after taking office, Ernesto Samper, accused of illegally financing his presidential campaign, decided to appoint a Commission for the Reform of Political Parties. One of the key proposals of this commission was precisely to amend the current provisions regarding political financing. The NEC also introduced a bill before Congress. Another political reform bill was proposed by the next government, and it was not accepted by Congress. The main argument was that it did not address the fundamental problems of the country [7].

In Latin America, the fear of infiltration of drug money in politics has been a constant concern. The arguments for regulating political finance schemes has been mixed. Apart from those related to ensuring competition, eliminating financial barriers to political activity and to achieve more transparency, a recurrent concern has been to avoid what happened in Colombia. In short, the aim has been to lower “the risk that dirty or illicit money will corrupt the system and undermine the rule of law” [8].

This essay does not intend to contribute to the refinement of the legal instruments that could reduce the corrosive power of organized crime on democracy. Neither it seeks to analyze the eventual mechanisms for reaching strong enforcement of political finance regulation. The aims are more modest. The first, to which is devoted the first section of the paper, is to suggest that the scenario of a criminal organization corrupting a democratic system by seeking legal benefits is a bit simple. On the one hand, it ignores the fact that not all mafiosi provide financial support to politicians; the Colombian experience shows that some have chosen direct proselytizing and others have shown a total disregard for public life. On the other hand, a fraction of the political class has shown a long tradition of partnerships with informal and illegal activities.

The second section of the paper is a brief description of what occurred in Colombia over the past decades in terms political finance by organized crime. In addition, it is argued that in that country, the dynamics of illegal political finance can not be understood without framing it in a wider range of non-financial agreements, legal confrontations and open war between organized crime and the political establishment.

The final section seeks to draw some testable hypothesis from the Colombian experience and also to discuss some general issues of public policy.

Organized crime and political finance : the parties

Colombian mafiosi : two styles, two generations

Among the first Colombian mafias there are two styles: the entrepreneurs and the politicians or warriors. The business category includes drug traffickers and emerald traders. The guerrillas are easily assimilated to the second group, while the paramilitaries are located at various points between these extremes. The distinction seems relevant also among the drug traffickers. Virgina Vallejo, a former anchorwoman, Pablo Escobar's lover, and also very close to Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, summed it up very well, "I can not help thinking that those surrounding Pablo are always talking about politics, while those surrounding Gilberto only talk about business" [9].

The second generation of mafiosi -the children, lieutenants, employees and persecutors of the first mafia- is more varied and definitely less visible. More specialized, they have focused on the essence of the business. They show less interest in politics.

Without attempting to provide a typical pattern of support to polititians, not even an exhaustive classification, it is worth analyzing how different  have been the attitudes of Colombian narcos towards politics.

Business, politics and war : the Medellin Cartel

Pablo Escobar had a long criminal career. It is useful to refer some of the events and personalities that marked its beginnings [10]. At school, he had many followers. Part of the respect he inspired was because of his money. He distributed smuggled cigarettes in the shops of the neighborhood. It was with Alfredo Gomez, an influential local politician, with whom Escobar and his cousin Gustavo Gaviria became serious criminals. Gomez, known as The Godfather, had made a fortune as a smuggler but was a highly respected public person in Envigado, a small town near Medellín. The story of Escobar's grandfather was similar. According to Doña Hermilda, Escobar’s mother, "my dad lived in Cañasgordas and became mayor of the town, but above everything he was a smuggler" [11]. It was from his grandfather, who carryed liquor in coffins, that Escobar first learned the tricks of the trade. Later, working as a bodyguard for The Godfather, Escobar met weapon experts, including a former police inspector with extensive experience in murders.

Unlike the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers of the Cali Cartel, whose alliances with politicians were late, Escobar showed an early talent for public activity. His childhood was spent in the estate of his real godfather, a wealthy politician from Antioquia, and a former minister of state. At school, Escobar was elected president of the Student Welfare Council and distributed among fellow studenst the test subjects that he robbed from the teachers. He wanted to be leftist but rich.

For the 1974 elections, The Godfather, a known narco, supported Belisario Betancur, the Conservative candidate, who lost the election. This defeat was only partial, since several senators and representatives on the Gomez’s payroll were elected. This incident prompted a debate in Congress. The Godfather was defended by Guido Parra, a skilled lawyer who later became spokesman for Escobar. The discussions were followed closely by the novice mafioso, who carefully guarded the press clippings as an irrefutable proof of the power of his boss. That same year, Escobar was arrested for stealing a vehicle, and he shared his time in prison with The Godfather, who had been arrested for carrying smuggled goods in military trucks. From that time, Escobar remembered the generosity of his boss, who helped the poor prisoners, and the fact that he was visited by politicians of national stature, such as Alberto Santofimio.

Shortly after, Escobar became a populist local leader. He organized nearly one hundred neighborhood committees, and supported them financially for community projects. With the construction of five thousand homes, he sought to eradicate the slums of Medellin. An influential politician, former Director of City Planning joined the project offering a plot of land. Later, this was the person that served as an intermediary for a negotiated solution to the confrontation between the government and the narcos.

Escobar's political vocation was strengthened by leftist people joining his team, by the influence of an uncle who was a union leader, and by the contact with Carlos Lehder, a drug lord from Armenia, a nearby city of coffe growers. Also a member of the Medellín Cartel, Lehder had his own political party, edited a newspaper, and aligned himself with some members of the M-19 guerrilla group. He was famous for his radical speeches and for having given a plane to the governor of his department. With a blend of fascism, marxism, anti-imperialism and patriotic doctrine he acknowledged to use an island in the Bahamas as a base for flooding with cocaine the American enemy.

Social action in the neighborhoods led Escobar to dig deep into politics. In 1982 he campaigned for parliament. The presidential candidates were Alfonso Lopez and Alberto Santofimio by the Liberal Party and the Conservative Belisario Betancur. For the Nuevo Liberalismo, an anti-patronage movement, the nominee was Luis Carlos Galan. Jairo Ortega, a former lawyer of The Godfather, joined Galán and invited Escobar to be his alternate on the list to Congress. At a rally in Medellin, Galán and one of his closest collaborators, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, publicly rejected Ortega and Escobar, an affront the they would never forgive. They then joined Santofimio, who encouraged Escobar’s political career noting that "with your money and intelligence is certain that you will be president of Colombia" [12]. In those elections Ortega won the seat, which he alternated with the rising mafioso-polititian. A few months later, Escobar attended in Madrid, with Alberto Santofimio Botero, the inauguration ceremony of Felipe Gonzalez as president. Both were officially invited by the Spanish socialist party. That same year, the Semana magazine devoted a lengthy cover story to Pablo Escobar. They called him Antioquia’s Robin Hood.

Once elected Betancur appointed Rodrigo Lara Bonilla as his Minister of Justice, who decided to wage a frontal attack against drug traffickers. Irritated, Ortega and Escobar prepared a debate against the Minister in the Congress. Ortega said without hesitation that Lara Bonilla had received hot money to finance his campaign. He presented as evidence a copy of a check drawn by Evaristo Porras to his campaign and a video recording of Lara meeting with drug traffickers. The check-trap had been planned by Escobar in retaliation for the public expulsion from Galán’s movement. Porras, a key link in the trafficking of cocaine base had told him personally knew Lara, so he organized a meeting at a hotel where he had previously placed a hidden camera. Faced with the scandal, the Minister stepped up action against drug traffickers. An arrest warrant for extradition was issued against Lehder. Lara also managed to lift the parliamentary immunity of Escobar to reopen proceedings against him for murder. The capo had to publicly renounce politics.

In March 1984, in conjunction with the DEA, authorities destroyed Tranquilandia, a large cocaine-processing center. In May of that year, the Minister Lara Bonilla was murdered in Bogotá. A couple of months later an important meeting between colombian politicians and drug traffickers took place in Panama.

Excluding the check-trap to Lara Bonilla, and support for local political friends and for Alberto Santofimio, little is known about Escobar financing campaigns or political parties. It is likely that he considered this kind of support ineffective. His big legal achievements, and there were many of them, resulted more from kidnappings than from bribes [13]. Showing his legal muscle, Escobar had even managed, through his lawyers, to make contact with the U.S. attorney general offering information against the guerrillas in exchange for amnesty for his crimes [14].

The vocation and political autonomy of Escobar is confirmed with the simple observation that he claimed to be the ruler of the underworld, living off the taxes paid to him by other narcos. One trafficker who refused to submit to him states that "Escobar was a drone. What he did was to collect, extort, and demand from drug traffickers their contribution with a simple motto: either pay or crack" [15]. He never regretted having gone into traditional politics. This was clear in an interview at the end of his days. “"I do not think it was a mistake. I am sure that if I had participated in the next election I would have won overwhelmingly over all politicians in Antioquia” [16].

Mostly business : the Cali Cartel

The career of the leaders of the Cali cartel [17]was quite different from that of Escobar. In particular, they showed no early interest in politics. Instead, they managed a lawful business in parallel with cocaine trafficking. Gilberto Rodriguez started as a drugstore messenger. Soon he became independent and consolidated a pharmaceutical empire. Behind this legal facade as a business person layed a man linked to the Cali underworld. In his time as a pharmaceuticals salesman he made his first contacts with illegal drugs. He headed, along with his brother Miguel, a gang called Los Chemas, supposedly left-wing revolutionaries. In the late sixties they abducted two Swiss nationals, and consolidated their drug trafficking business.

In 1972 they founded Drogas La Rebaja, a drugstore chain that was to handle about half of the pharmaceutical market in Colombia. This business, which sold at discounted prices up to 30% over its competitors, allowed them not only money laundering but also to stand as prosperous businessmen who also did social work in the health sector. In the seventies the group acquired 66% of Banco de los Trabajadores. Although this was never proved, it is believed that this entity was the first major financial apparatus to wash drug dollars. In the mid-eighties they sold their stake to Rafael Forero Fetecua, a corrupt politician. In 1978 they gained control of a bank in Panama. In addition to drugs and banks, in the late seventies they bought a chain of radio stations that became the third of the country.

Following the assassination of Minister Lara Bonilla and Betancur government's decision to enforce the extradition treaty, Gilberto Rodriguez fled to Brazil and then to Spain, where he was arrested with Jorge Luis Ochoa, a colleague of Pablo Escobar in the Medellin Cartel. With a legal cunning he managed to avoid extradition to the U.S.. He was able to set up a criminal proceeding against him in Colombia, was sent to the country and soon was free. At his headquarters in Cali, he still kept the image of a powerful entrepreneur. While still under arrest in Spain, to resolve his legal impasse, influential politicians offered him to lobby in Congress so he would be sent to his country and not the U.S..

Suspicion about La Rebaja began when, in the late eighties, Pablo Escobar bombs destroyed almost a hundred outlets of the chain. Despite these attacks, and several criminal investigations, a sophisticated legal team managed to keep the business running. At that time, the magnitude of the illegal business was such that Miguel Rodriguez managed to conceive a kind of OPEC to regulate the world price of cocaine. For that purpose, he would establish a tax on all dealers and those resources would be used to address common enemies and to pay politicians that would help legalize their fortunes. It is only at this time that the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers begin thinking seriously about high-level political alliances to face extradition to the U.S. and ensure a peaceful retreat.

The financing of the presidential campaign by the Cali Cartel in 1994 was done when this organization was already very well established. As will be discussed later, this was almost a textbook case of organized crime political finance. It had all the typical features of political finance for legal benefits. But it also had elements of investing for retirement and even of philanthropy for a cause with which they sympathized. For years, contacts with politicians were not different from those of any businessman in the executive board. In addition, the Rodriguez Orejuela were distrustful of politicians. They appear to have been aware of the diminishing marginal returns of electoral expenditure [18]. More specifically, they may have predicted that the contributions to this campaign would not guarantee any particular outcome, as it became clear when they were arrested.

Locally, for the war with the Medellin cartel, the control over their territory was more ironclad than anything achieved with clientelistic alliances. Its core was a sophisticated intelligence apparatus, that proved so effective that it was used in the coalition that defeated Pablo Escobar.

Global technocrats or warlords : Snitches’ Cartel

The second generation of mafiosi in Colombia is even more diverse and complex. And much less visible. From what is known of the heirs of the great bosses, it seems that the pure business and discretion strategy was more effective than the war or the direct participation in politics. The children of Escobar and Lehder completely dropped out of the business. Those of the Rodriguez Orejuela continued the model of trafficking with a legal front.

Many of the new narcos learned from their former bosses. Also, the war on drugs left a cohort of warriors that learned the trade combatting it as members of the security agencies. They generally adopted a low profile, away from politics and even from their country. Agustín Caicedo Velandia, one of the most powerful contemporary narcos, lived between Argentina and Central America. He sponsored drug shipments from abroad [19]. He is a former agent of the Fiscalía. In the DEA operation in which he was captured also fell a former officer from DAS. The information for their arrest was provided by an ex police officer who worked with them.

A detailed description of a couple of kingpins of this new generation suggests several features. In general, there is a trend toward specialization and sophistication of the business. The educational level is higher: there are engineers, medical doctors and professionals in finance and even in American law. William, son of Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, studied law at Harvard. An extensive network of specialist contacts in Colombia and abroad, allows them the outsourcing of any stage of the business. In practice, the owner of the ruta may sub-contract the production of raw materials, processing, transporting or distributing drugs, export financing and money laundering. The technological level is impressive: advanced telecommunications, a fleet of vessels with GPS, submarines, infiltration of transport and engineering departments of multinational companies or synthetic cocaine manufacture. It is not necessarily the boss who has a military task force because he can buy protection and debt collection services in the marketplace. International mobility is large. Consequently, alliances with politicians are rare and may be unusual. In the story of the career of Juan Ramon Zapata and Gabriel Usuga, los Cíclopes, both neocapos from Medellín, only two politicians are mentioned. The first one, from El Salvador, has diplomatic status and leases his plane to transport money to Panama. The second is an Arab prince that joins them as partner in a huge cocaine export to France from Venezuela [20].

The other side of the coin of these global technocrats is the paramilitary warlord that sells protection and debt-recovery services. With the end of the Medellin and Cali cartels most of the private armies retreated to rural areas where they keep a tight political control in some villages.

One of those neonarcos is Cuco Vanoy, the Lord of Bajo Cauca. He has been compared with Escobar, not only for his weight in the drug market, but also because he “helps the people … Vanoy built playgrounds, two clinics with sophisticated equipment, community kitchens, paved roads, gave groceries, fans, chairs, sheets of zinc roofing, steers for the Christmas holidays, remodeled the asylum, made donations to Catholic, Christian and Evangelical Churches, created the Tarazá Without Hunger program, which will benefit 100 families, and paid for the tubal ligation surgery of 270 women. Populism has been his most effective strategy for conquest” [21].

From a hierarchical structure, drug trafficking went on to become a fragmented network,  less visible. The relation with politics is far from homogeneous.  In some cases, like that of Los Chamizos in Santa Marta, it is the military leader himself who becomes candidate to popular elections [22]. There are more complex cases in which the mayors, harassed by the guerrillas, sought protection from the paras who, once installed earn prestige, power and a political ally.

In any case, it has been argued that the political interests changed from influencing national decisions to join the local power networks. This move, and the fact that fragmented operational cells could be easily kept clandestine, offered greater advantages of protection from the authorities [23].

A common feature of these two very different heirs of the first cartels is that both were willing to deal directly with the U.S. justice system. They are therefore known as the Cartel de los Sapos (Snitches). Relationships with politicians, and political finance, either lost their interest or radically changed their nature.

Politicians: anything goes

The traditional model of OCPF implicitly assumes that the bad guys corrupt some mostly honest guys. It is relevant for the diagnosis to have a more realistic view of the political class that has been financed by the mafia.

Background : smuggling and clientelism

For Colombia, it is not worth going into detail over a century of civil wars, uprisings, rebellions, violence led by politicians from the capital, amnesties, betrayals and a military dictatorship, all of which suggest a tradition of weak democracy [24]. In the same vein, it is worth mentioning that the rise of the M-19 urban guerrilla, a major player in the link between drug trafficking and politics, was the result of an electoral fraud in the 1970 presidential election.

Some of the first rumors of illegal money in election campaigns in Colombia focused on the smugglers and exporters of marijuana, the so called marimberos, on the north coast of the country. Several of the first congressmen accused of links to drug traffickers were from the coast or from the departments at the border with Ecuador and Venezuela, the traditional places for smuggling [25]. A president of the Senate, in the early seventies, was also a partner of a powerful smuggler and marijuana czar. One counsel of the narcos, his college classmate, tells the story of the constitutional law preparatory examination of this politician. To his answer to the question about the requirements to be a senator, the examiner, who came from the same region, added two: to be a smuggler and to be corrupt [26]. A few years earlier, a congressman allied with the dictator Rojas Pinilla had made a fortune with shiploads of smuggled goods.

The tradition of this alliance between some politicians and smugglers is very old. For a sample of 60 criminal investigations for smuggling during the first half of the nineteenth century it was found a group of prominent businessmen who were "very close to the most influential politicians of the time" [27]. The case of Pablo Escobar, the grandson and pupil of politician-smugglers, confirms that the illegal market of goods was the training school for the first generation of the Colombian mafia. A mentor of the leaders of the Medellin Cartel, Santiago Ocampo, began his career as a customs agent on the border with Venezuela. He was the first to establish contact with Omar Torrijos in Panama for the transit of cocaine. The first series of vendettas in Medellin, the true commencement of Pablo Escobar, was the Marlboro War, between cigarette smugglers.

Political clientelism, understood as the granting of favors with public resources in exchange for electoral support has also a long tradition in Colombia [28]. The border cities and ports where smuggling is important have always been coveted by corrupt politicians and clientelists. Ernesto Samper Pizano, whose presidential campaign in 1994 would be financed by the Cali Cartel, began his political career with a movement whose main clientele were the sellers of Sanandresitos, the name given in Colombia to shopping centers selling contraband. A speech of his from that time perfectly illustrates the nature of the exchange. “I was with the sanandresitos before being a councilman … Thanks to you I was taken to the Council of Bogotá and I managed to get the necessary funds for the paving of these streets adjacent to sanandresito ... From 1982 sanandresitos began to be respected. From this year on we showed that the only sin committed by sanandresitos is the sin of selling good, nice and cheap products” [29].

The logic of dirty money in politics has not always been to protect the illegal businesses. It has been also a way to give financial support to populism, or a more autonomous form of clientelism. In this regard, It is worth mentionning the arguments of Alvaro Jimenez, a former member of the M-19, about how drugs  helped non-violent politics by the paramilitaries. "The conversation with people at the corner of the square or on the sidewalk was not enough to maintain the tie with the peasants. So we bought the Caracol radio station. We wanted to go into politics directly, as autodefensas; we did not want politicians to win our reputation. We also overhauled the stadium, financed football teams of guys who wore t-shirts, and sponsored beauty contests. And people knew it was our doing, without any help, national or departmental "[30].

Unreliable partners

A recurring comment of the narcos about the politicians they have financed is the deep distrust, sometimes open contempt towards them. In the speech marking his personal retirement from politics, when he lost the immunity and resigned his seat, Escobar complained about politicking. He pointed out how politicians focus on "the narcissistic retouch of their damaged image and increase their tottering and rotten feuds "[31]. When, at the funeral of Lara Bonilla, President Betancur announces that he will revive the extradition, Escobar feels betrayed by what he considers a breach of election promises. He then considers making public the evidence of narcos’ political contributions. He asks angrily: "what happened with the help we provided to the campaign?". He had  a few reasons to feel betrayed by other politicians. After a meeting between narcos and politicians in Panama, one former user of the aircraft of Escobar for a campaign accused his colleagues of being sold to the interests of the narcos. When he was forced to withdraw from Congress, Alberto Santofimio came to Escobar with a letter of resignation to his movement.

The leaders of the Cali Cartel had the traditional view that politicians easily make promises during the campaign to be broken once they win the elections. "Politicians are bandits, but you have to have them as friends or you are fucked" [32] repeated Gilberto Rodriguez when someone claimed that he was spending too much money in bribes. When the journalist who served as intermediary for the financing of the 1994 campaign said to Gilberto Rodriguez that Samper was giving signs of being a good friend he answered: “let’s hope that the heart of that sonofabitch won’t be spoiled” [33].

In 1996, there was a debate in Congress about how a vote on the law of of forfeiture  could have been reversed under the influence of the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers from prison. They immediately sent the sponsor of the debate a copy of a letter signed by him, thanking Pastor Perafan, a known drug dealer, for the financing of his campaign. They also remind him that he was "not the only person in public life from whom they have documents and testimonial evidence of his double standards"[34].

"Looking for power, the politicians were allied even with the devil," notes Ernesto Baez, paramilitary leader, in one of his statements to the Supreme Court [35].

The answer to this distrust, and what they saw as betrayals, adjusted to the nature of each mafioso: war from Escobar, expansion of bribery to reduce risks by the Rodriguez Orejuela. Federico Estrada, one of the politicians kidnapped by Escobar, was the organizer of an early meeting of the Medellín Cartel with Alfonso López and Ernesto Samper at the Intercontinental Hotel. When he released him under certain conditions, Escobar said to the senator "all politicians received money for the campaigns and they ignored us". He demanded him to promote a law for a favorable submission of the narcos. Months later, Estrada was assassinated. Belisario Betancur was sure Escobar wanted to muder him. In fact, Escobar wanted to kidnap him into a cage at his ranch. He also tried to kidnap the daughter of the president.

The Cali Cartel, for its part, had developed two lists of politicians. The first one was that of their friends. It included all those who had been tested for several years and deserve their trust. In the second list they put what they called undesirable politicians, those who were under observation. It was composed of people perceived as unreliable but necessary. This second list included the members of Congress they thought would go with to the highest bidder. A prosecutor of the judicial trial that followed the 1994 campaign finance said that the Cali leaders "knew that politicians are today with you and tomorrow with some one else. So they  decided that it was best to take control by buying the largest possible number of congressmen, and the most influential" [36].

In any case, political financing, as it was clear from the check of Evaristo Porras to Lara Bonilla, had always some element of future blackmail. When the Rodriguez Orejuela accepted as receipt for their contributions to the Samper campaign a sheet with the distribution of expenditures of such funds signed by Fernando Botero, close collaborator of Samper and also son of the famous painter, Miguel Rodriguez boasted of having the smallest but most valuable Botero in the world [37].

Dealings with organized crime


Two classic incidents : Recoletos and Ralito

The scandal of the Cali Cartel money financing the 1994 presidential election is known in Colombia as the Proceso 8000. After the death of Pablo Escobar, the Cali leaders changed their business strategy. They wanted a quiet retreat and surrender to authorities in exchange for a mild sentence and guaranteed no extradition. To that end, they were seeking to strengthen their relations with Congress and to approach the next president. They promoted a coalition to fund the election campaign and managed to put together some fifteen million dollars [38].

According to Santiago Medina [39], treasurer of the campaign, the deal had begun to take shape a year before the election. A journalist and a politician, both in the Cartel’s payroll, have traveled to Madrid to meet with the then Ambassador of Colombia, Ernesto Samper. There, in a well known Café, they formalized the general terms of the financing scheme. The agreement is known as Pacto de Recoletos. In his first visit to the Cartel office, Santiago Medina explained the deal to the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers. The candidate intended to support a process of surrender to justice without the risk of extradition. For the first round of elections, according to Medina, a million dollars entered the campaign. Also, an unspecified sum was paid directly to "different leaders and political caciques in Cali." For the second round, the financial situation was critical. They had already cornered the quota authorized by law, some five million dollars. The Rodriguez brothers agreed to send the money. They needed, however, some receipt of their contribution. They finally accepted a signed document showing the distribution of proposed expenditures with these funds.

At the end of 2006, an agreement signed five years earlier in Ralito, a small hamlet in northern Colombia, was made public. The deal was done between a group of lawmakers, politicians and public officials with paramilitary leaders. This document, known as the Pacto de Ralito, listed the conditions to rebuild the country. Several politicians claimed that this was an effort to reach peace with these illegal armed groups. Others noted that they had been forced to sign  it. Later, Salvatore Mancuso, the paramilitary leader, acknowledged having been the organizer of this meeting with regional elites to consolidate the political project of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). Invitations to the meeting had been made on behalf of the AUC, without any threat and through the governor of Bolivar, Mancuso’s close friend. Once he established the list of participants Mancuso read the document in front of everyone and circulated for signature. Nearly thirty of the 100 attendees at the meeting signed the pact. Academic research and judicial investigations made after this trigger of what was to be known as parapolitica, noted that the meeting marked the consolidation of the military and economic power that, de facto, the paramilitaries already had in the area. They projected to win the parliamentary elections of 2002, and more weight in national politics. Some analysts have noted that those elections changed Colombia’s political history [40]. In that year, on behalf of new political parties and supported by the paramilitaries, was elected for the first time a group of senators and representatives that were their close friends and were willing to defend their interests in Congress. In particular, they would represent them on issues related to their demobilization without extradition to the U.S.. Nearly a hundred parliamentarians have been prosecuted for links with paramilitaries. The number of convicts is 16, and an equal number has been called to trial.

Both the Proceso 8000 and parapolitica were much more than a public scandal of major proportions. The corresponding political and judicial discussions were the biggest headache of the respective administrations as well as a hot topic of debate in the media. Their impact reached the area of international relations. The way the incidents were made public was a mixture of journalistic and judicial investigation triggered by anonymous leaks of confidential information. The facts relating to the Proceso 8000 became known early, between the first and second rounds of presidential elections, when one of the candidates gave the government the narcocassettes, recordings that mentioned hot money in campaign financing. The incidents were reported as serialized chapters in the media. The revelations were varied: checks, records, videos, interviews, testimonies. The Pacto de Realito was made public in the judicial process to one of the signatories. Later on the prosecutor's office would point out that Mancuso himself had leaked the document [41].

The Proceso 8000 fits better than parapolitica in the typical pattern of organized crime political finance (OCPF) for legal benefits. The scheme was almost a textbook case and it was described to the smallest detail by the campaign treasurer [42]. For parapolítica, the influence of the mafias on local elections was far more heterogeneous. It included classical campaign financing but also direct threats to voters or authorities and manipulation of electoral juries [43].

These two have been the most publicized incidents of financial deals with the mafias, the best proven legally and those with greater impact. But they have not been unique.

Hot money and extradition

In 1978 competition for the presidency was between Julio Cesar Turbay, liberal, and Belisario Betancur, a Conservative. Members of this party reported drug influence on elections. The alleged support came from the marimberos, the marijuana capos on the Atlantic Coast. They were known for their unruly behavior and frequent vendettas. The U.S. ambassador claimed publicly that the drug traffickers "may have already bought and paid ten members of the legislature” [44].

Elected Turbay, CBS’s 60 Minutes dedicated a report linking him to drug trafficking. Under U.S. pressure, Turbay destroyed crops and signed, at the time without major reactions, an extradition treaty with the U.S..

It was not the first time that in Colombia there was talk of illegal infiltration of politics. Perhaps the first incident, in 1976, was the arrest of a provincial deputy when he was trading in Bogota 30 kilos of cocaine [45].  That year, Luis Carlos Galan stated that three main mafias -drugs, smuggling and emeralds- had "reached the point of placing their own agents in the state administration and in Congress” [46].

For the 1982 campaign, the debate on hot money was more intense. The conservative candidate, who competed again, was accused of having received in 1978 some $ 300,000 from someone close to the Ochoa clan [47]. For the new campaign, Gustavo Gaviria, Pablo Escobar's cousin, offered support and infrastructure. According to El Osito, Escobar’s brother, the conservative candidate demanded that the plane that was lent to him be painted in blue, his party’s color. Gaviria, a conservative, was part of the candidate’s electoral committee. Betancur publicly pledged not to extradite Colombians.

The official candidate of the liberal party in that election was Alfonso López Michelsen, former president and political mentor of Ernesto Samper. The latter was appointed campaign manager. In a tour in Medellin the two politicians, with colleagues from Antioquia, gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel with the leaders of the Cartel. The candidate later acknowledged having been there a few minutes. The meeting lasted several hours and was led by Samper. The mechanism proposed for the collaboration was the raffle of a car. The narcos would buy tickets for the drawing of a vehicle for a total of $ 350,000. According to one of the Ochoas, contributions amounted to about $ 800,000 [48]. People close to Escobar said Lopez agreed at that meeting to visit him in his ranch Nápoles. The interest of the capo was to be in contact with an important and clever statesman. Normally, politicians who visited him at his estate or used his plane avoided publicity. Despite this, there are photographs of renowned politicians, including Alberto Santofimio, using his Cheyenne II aircraft. Once elected, Betancourt sent a letter to Hernando Gaviria, Escobar's uncle, in which he thanked him for the decisive contribution to the Movimiento Nacional.

The Liberal campaign in Medellin ended up with a deficit of about $ 200,000. When local politicians asked Samper for funds, he said he would pay when he became president. Moreover, with surpluses of the campaign, Samper founded a think tank, the Instituto de Estudios Liberales. It was in that same year that Escobar was expelled from the party of Luis Carlos Galan. Allied with Alberto Santofimio, he was elected representative to the Chamber.

The 1986 elections were won by Virgilio Barco. After the assassination of Lara Bonilla and the start of the war on drugs, the political environment was not conducive to financial dealings with the narcos. Also, the candidate was not prone to these schemes, and as president he was particularly hard against the mafia, by temperament and conviction. His period 1986-1990 was perhaps the toughest time of narco-terrorism.

Barco's successor as president, Cesar Gaviria, inherited the liberal candidacy after the assassination of Luis Carlos Galán. Galán’s frontal fight against drug traffickers made it unlikely any electoral agreement with the drug trade. During the Gaviria administration, the Cali and Medellin cartels, locked in a fierce war, made a truce to gain legal benefits in the National Constituent Assembly. The division of labor was clear: Cali money for the campaign and the bribery of delegates, and kidnappings threats from Medellín [49]. It was also during this period that resurfaced the favorable conditions for rapprochement between politicians and drug traffickers that led to the Pacto de Recoletos. These agreements, however, were not always in the form of political finance.

Two summits in Panama

In mid-1984 Alfonso Lopez Michelsen, and then the Attorney General, Carlos Jimenez Gomez, held two meetings in Panama with the most visible leaders of the Medellin cartel. According to a lieutenant of Escobar, the first meeting was organized, upon juicy commission, by Alberto Santofimio. It can be argued that this meeting was the culmination of the previous financial support, the blue plane and car raffle, made by the mafia for the presidential campaigns of 1978 and 1982.

The purpose of the summit was to convince, through Lopez and the Attorney General, President Betancur to lie down definitively the extradition treaty with the U.S. [50]. The drug traffickers claimed to represent 80% of Colombian cocaine exports, and offered to drop the business, deliver their routes and invest the money in Colombia. The main obstacle to the negotiations was the recent murder of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. Suspicions about the authorship of the assassination fell on the Medellin Cartel. Despite this, the politician and the officer committed to do the respective consultations with the government and the U.S. embassy.

Two incidents of the war on drugs jeopardized further the negotiations. On the one hand, General Noriega, yielding to U.S. pressure, gave the Cartel’s laboratories in the Darien zone. The narcos canceled their refuge in Panama and emigrated to Nicaragua. In addition, a pilot of the Cartel, Barry Seal, who was captured in Miami with a cargo of cocaine, became informant of the U.S. justice against his former employers. An american judge issued arrest warrants for those attending the meeting and requested their extradition. Having lost the possibility of negotiation, the traffickers returned to Colombia to start, led by Escobar, a war on behalf of the Extraditables. According to Escobar's lieutenant, before this confrontation, the same Santofimio that organized the summit in Panama, recommended Escobar that, against the extradition, threats would be more effective than bribes.

Fifteen years later, between 15 to October 19, 1999, about 30 second generation drug traffickers, which again claimed to be responsible for 80% of exports of cocaine, met in Panama. This time the organizer was Baruch Vega, a Colombian undercover agent, and the meeting was with DEA officials, prosecutors and half a dozen lawyers to begin direct dealings with U.S. justice. A few years earlier, the U.S. Department of Justice had decided to bet on negotiations with the Colombian drug traffickers rather than pursue them. For that purpose, with the support of the prosecutor Janet Reno, a resocialization program for drug traffickers was created. Since it was necessary to coordinate a dozen state agencies, the Blizt Committee was established. It was high-level group to devise strategies and guide the negotiations. Baruch Vega reported directly and in writing to this committee all his meetings with drug dealers.

By 2006, nearly 300 Colombian drug traffickers had negotiated with the U.S. justice system. One of the first narcos who came to the program was Nicolas Bergonzoli, an Escobar lieutenant who became a major exporter of drugs. Early in his career, Bergonzoli had known the Castaño brothers, paramilitary leaders and commanders of the AUC. Through him, Carlos Castaño had undertaken to convince the new drug lords, many of them paramilitaries, to initiate similar processes. Hernando Gomez, Rasguño, attended the second summit in Panama, and on behalf of Castaño expressed the interest of his boss for starting direct negotiations with U.S. officials [51].

The mistrust generated by Castaño’s proposal for negotiations between paramilitaries, and the fear that he could betray them, would have been the reasons for his replacement in the AUC by Salvatore Mancuso, the promoter of the Pacto de Realito.

Unlike the two Pactos which were widely discussed and investigated, about the Panama summits, and in particular about the second, little has been discussed in Colombia. For several years, even the Colombian government was not aware of the resocialization program for drug traffickers.

The links between these agreements and summits, and other incidents of negotiation and confrontation between organized crime and politics in Colombia, are complex and not limited to the coincidence of certain main characters. On the contrary, they are part of a complex sequence of events and a tangle of historical, political and institutional factors that it is worth trying to discern.


It is not easy to understand the logic of OCPF in Colombia without analyzing the successive confrontations of the government with the mafias and the wars between the latter. There is no clear continuity in the pattern of political finance. It is even difficult to identify a stable thread between the different schemes of OCPF that have been observed. This section summarizes some episodes, that apparently have no relationship with the traditional model of political finance but are necessary to understand its dynamics in Colombia.

War on drugs

Three incidents of the war on drugs in Colombia that may be considered related, as indirect causes or consequences, with the problem of illicit money in politics: Tranquilandia, the Pepes and Operation Milenio.

A few months before the first summit in Panama, members of the National Police in cooperation with the DEA raided and destroyed a major cocaine-processing center called Tranquilandia. The complex, which belonged to the Medellin Cartel, was located in the jungles of Caqueta, near several clandestine runways. According to the authorities of the time, both the runways and the laboratories were protected by the FARC guerrilla. It was then that the American ambassador coined the term narcoguerrilla. The evidence of this relationship between drug traffickers and the FARC in Tranquilandia was subsequently questioned [52]. The links between the raid and both the Porras check-trap and, later, the Escobar decision to assassinate Justice Minister Lara Bonilla seem more relevant. Lara’s murder, in turn, was what prompted Betancur to harden its position against the drug traffickers and revive extradition. This background, together with the narcos’ financial support to Betancur campaigns in 1978 and 1982, allow the assumption that the first summit in Panama was a kind of last attempt of dialogue by the traffickers before going to war. It is useful to mention that at this time the Betancur government maintained peace talks with the FARC, which were formalized a few days after Tranquilandia with the signing of the Acuerdos de la Uribe. Both elements, what they considered a betrayal from Betancur and the political rapprochement with the rebels, contributed to the exasperation of the capos.

There is no doubt that one of the saddest chapters of the war on drugs in Colombia was the unusual alliance that Perseguidos (pursued) de Pablo Escobar, the notorious Pepes, mounted to end with the boss after his escape from the prison called La Catedral [53]. Several factors contributed to the consolidation of this murderous group. The immediate trigger was the assassination of the Galeano and Moncada brothers, valued members of the Medellin cartel, who refused to pay the contribution required by Escobar to keep his war going. They were executed in the same prison. To avenge, a group of convicts was created, The Dirty Dozen, who were freed in exchange for information and testimony against Escobar [54]. A second promoter of the Pepes was the quiet flight of Escobar from La Catedral, a prison that had been built to his own specifications. This incident put and end  to the friendly submission of Escobar to the Colombian justice system. Confrontation was back. President Gaviria created in 1992 the Search Bloc, a division of the armed forces specialized in hunting the capo. The initiative was immediately supported by the U.S. and with the excuse of supporting this strike force both the DEA and the CIA joined the adventure [55]. After several months with no major results, with assistance from drug traffickers who acted as informants, the legality of the procedures for the hunt began to be relaxed. The team that increasingly looked like a death squad was strengthened by the paramilitary troops of the Castaño brothers, who also sought to avenge the death of the Moncadas and Galeanos. Finally, there was the Cali Cartel, which maintained a long war against Escobar and helped finance the adventure.

In January 1993, two car bombs in Medellin confirmed that the search would be done with the same tactics employed by Escobar in his war against the state. Collaborators were murdered, family members were harassed, torture was carried out, Escobar’s lawyers were threatened and the best known of these, Guido Parra, was murdered along with his son. The chief sicario (killer) of the Pepes was Adolfo Paz, Don Berna, an assistant of Galeano who would become a key figure of paramilitary groups. After several months of operation, and a death toll close to 3000 persons, the original Pepes were diluted after the death of the boss at the end of 1993. Many of its members would consolidated later as the AUC.

At the end of 1999, in a joint effort between the National Police and U.S. agencies, 30 drug heavyweights were captured in  several cities across the country. In the raid fell Alejandro Bernal, a typical second generation druglord and Fabio Ochoa an old member of the Medellin Cartel. Known as Operación Milenio, this action has been considered one of the most important of the war on drugs, similar to the fall of the Cali Cartel. As important as the drug traffickers that were caught are those who could avoid the raid thanks to their previous contacts with Baruch Vega. Equally important are the many narcos and paramilitaries who, frightened by the blow, rushed to the second summit in Panama to initiate or speed their negotiations with the U.S. justice. At the same time, Milenio became an obstacle for some narcos to benefit from the re-socialization plan promoted by Vega. Being included in the Milenio list meant a veto to negotiate with american judges.

The preamble of Recoletos

To the chilling adventure of the Pepes, it is necessary to add some episodes less bloody but equally embarrassing that help understand the dynamics of the financing for the 1994 presidential campaign. It is worth mentioning them briefly. First, there is Escobar’s process of surrender to justice. The relevant legal framework for this submission was literally made to order for the capo. The Catedral prison, where he would stay comfortably after this agreement, was also built to fit Escobar needs and whims. From there he would gon on doing business as usual, and executing his enemies, without any impediment.

Secondly, there is the imprint of the mafia in the drafting the 1991 new Constitution. Thanks to a truce in the war they faced, with a clever combination of threats, kidnapping and bribery, the Cali and Medellín Cartels ensured that the ban on extradition of nationals was included in the Charter.

Not surprisingly, with such a history, signing a pact like that of Recoletos was perceived as a little venial sin. The signatories were so pleased that they even left a photographic record [56]. Compared to what the country had just experienced, particularly the Pepes, this was almost a gentleman's civilized gesture. It is easily understood that in this context, the Cali businessmen feel entitled to something as simple and harmless as contributing to the election of a politician appreciated by them. And that those who accepted the financial bid for the presidential campaign did not consider this as reprehensible as other support received by the previous government.

It is only logical to assume that both the Rodriguez Orejuela, and a few years later Carlos Castaño, hoped that the Colombian establishment and the United States should be grateful to them for their valuable contribution to the downfall and death of Pablo Escobar. They had participated, enthusiastically supported by citizens, government, national security forces and U.S. agencies to combat drugs.

The preamble of Ralito

Ultimately, operation Milenio was the catalyst that faced many narcos and paramilitaries with the real dilemma on who to approach for legal protection. In the initial raid was caught Fabio Ochoa, who had already cleaned up his legal status in Colombia. The message was clear. As an agent of Baruch Vega pointed out to the other Ochoas when he tried to recruit them for the program, “the drug trafficking problem is with the American government, not with the Colombian government" [57].

For Carlos Castaño, the choice was clear. It was better to negotiate with the American courts. The talks were well advanced, and a secret meeting had been planned between the paramilitary leader and representatives of the U.S. State and Justice Departments, the FBI, the CIA and the DEA. With the death of an informant and of three policemen, attributed to his group, the talks bogged down. But not all the new capos considered reasonable the option to forgo part of their fortunes and plead guilty before a U.S. judge. Clearly, they preferred to consolidate the status quo and, why not, increase their political influence in the Colombian Congress. “Owners of large states of land, the warlords managed to keep several government contracts, control oil royalties, sectors of the health system, an even the collection of taxes from gambling” [58]. For these neocapos, after Castaño's resignation, because he wanted to be a snitch, Mancuso, the new paramilitary leader, promoted the Pacto de Realito.

Links between the two Panama summits, Recoletos and Ralito

"We do not negotiate with cartels but only with people". That would have been the reaction of U.S. authorities to the filtrations to the media about the first summit in Panamá, aborting the process [59].

The secret negotiations that lead to the second summit in Panama at the end of the century, had begun to take shape shortly after the unsuccessful first summit. Baruch Vega, the key person in the whole process was a Colombian photographer that the CIA had recruited in the Universidad Industrial de Santander to infiltrate the Venezuelan guerrilla [60]. In the eighties, he managed to meet with Rodriguez Gacha. The narco had been led to believe that Vega had a corrupt contact in the FBI who could afford to clean records. A weak judicial process which anyway would have let free a Gacha's friend arrested in Los Angeles, was introduced by Vega as a test of the efficacy of his contacts. The news spread and the agent became very popular among druglords. The list of capos who contacted Baruch Vega is basically the Who's Who of drug trafficking in Colombia. He held discussions with the leaders of the cartels of Medellin and Cali, and later, with some key narcos of the second generation, including people close to Carlos Castaño. The resignation and subsequent murder of the paramilitary leader were partly the consequence of the division that caused in his ranks his active promotion of negotiations with the U.S. justice system.

Figure 1 is a summary of the main links between the pure incidents of OCPF and other agreements and confrontations, legal and illegal, with Colombian drug traffickers in the past three decades. As can be seen, the dynamic has not been simple.

In particular, it is unwise to speak of continuity in the arrangements, financial or in kind. It seems, however, that there is some sort of cycle, or back and forth process between agreement and confrontation. OCPF arrangements have been generally an indirect consequence of previous confrontations. The first summit of Panama can not be understood without the frontal war on drugs that began with the murder of Lara Bonilla. The narcoterrorist war that followed was a latent consequence of OCPF agreements that were broken. The second meeting in Panama, with lawyers and federal agents, would not have been well attended without Operación Milenio.

In the other way, the logic of the cycle has to do with the angry rejection of public negotiations with the narcos. Dealings, or financial support, when made public, usually have led to scandal and judicial processes. The negative public response has been exacerbated by the refusal of the U.S., which have always been very involved with these issues. This has led to a repressive reaction that not only surprises the narcos but leaves them with the feeling of betrayal, which intensifies the confrontation. The escalation of violence ends by softening the government and make people believe (as has happened with the guerrillas) that it is time to negotiate again, at least privately. These are the most fertile periods for OCPF. And the cycle begins again.

Mafia and politics : lessons from Colombia

Before stating some hypotheses that arise from the Colombian experience and suggest topics for reflection on public policy, it is helpful to note a few of the paradoxes inherent in the issue of OCPF. The first is the strange situation of a mafioso looking for protection when the essence of his business has been precisely the selling of such services. The second is the observation that OCPF is the typical example of a contract whose enforcement can not be legal and, therefore, to be effective would require the services of a mafioso.

A few hypothesis

There are several testable statements which can arise from the short story that up to this point has been told about OCPF in Colombia. Overall, the links of organized crime with politicians depend on the nature, the structure and the level of development of the illegal business.

The first hypothesis would be that the mechanics of this collaboration depends on the income source of the mafia. If income comes from an activity that generates large amounts of cash, such as drugs, the typical pattern of OCPF is more likely. On the contrary, if resources come from coercion-intensive and less liquid activities, such as kidnapping or extortion, the chances for a traditional scheme are less. The experience of Colombian guerrillas, which was not discussed in this essay, is illustrative. Their electoral influence has always been based on intimidation, not funding. The case of Pablo Escobar, easily the second hijacker of the country after the FARC, also corroborates this: his most significant legal and political umbrellas were obtained with threats rather than cash payments.

The second hypothesis is that the size, consolidation and even the degree of vertical and horizontal integration of the illegal business plays a crucial role in political financing. It is useful to compare OCPF with legitimate business lobby. Economic conglomerates seem more prone to lobby and to political finance than highly specialized firms. The reason is simple. Conglomerates are sensitive to a wide variety of legal reforms and therefore lobbying activities show certain economies of scale. In Colombia, Bavaria the flagship firm of the Santodomingo group managed for decades not only to prevent unfavorable regulatory changes but, among a wide range of issues, any attempt to raise taxes on beer. The economic conglomerate had a huge team of lobbyists and an important group of financially supported congressmen. When the same company was acquired by a multinational company, SABMiller, which has international directives against political funding, it became feasible to approve a tax reform against the interests of Bavaria [61]. Incidentally, it can be said that the power of Bavaria in the Congress was crucial to President Samper for avoiding sanctions after the Proceso 8000.

In the underworld, large conglomerates also seem to favor OCPF and high specialization of the trade should go against it. The case of the Rodriguez Orejuela is illustrative. The voluminous campaign financing that led to the Proceso 8000 took place when they were already consolidated in various economic sectors and they felt threats to their legal facade. At the other extreme, the new highly specialized criminal enterprises that are willing to sub contract various stages of the export chain have shown less interest in politics and OCPF.

Even among the narcos with a natural vocation for public affairs, as Escobar, financial contributions to campaigns, were done when they felt they were the Masters of the Universe, when they controlled every detail of the business, from production to laundering, and when they really did not know what to do with excess liquidity.

Among legitimate businesses, most of the lobbying activity is made by those sectors that depend heavily on regulation. It seems that the demand for legal protection by organized crime requires some issue, crucial for their business, that depends on laws or executive decrees. With a few specific exceptions, such as asset forfeiture laws, or very sophisticated procedural issues that were successfully handled by their lawyers, in Colombia the main theme has been the extradition treaty.

It is likely that a systematic work about the factors, different from those already mentioned, that help explain why some legal companies invest more resources in lobbying than others would lead to considering variables such as the personality, or the animal spirits of their owners. For the illegal world, the Colombian experience with regard to these personal peculiarities is conclusive: there are mafiosi with the profile of businessmen and there are mafiosi with the profile of politicians, or warriors. It seems that only those who fit the first profile, and under certain conditions, have sub contracted political services. Usually they have supported politicians with a shared ideology. For their part, warriors do not sub contract politics. They simply do it. For them, the need for alliances with politicians appears when, like the Colombian paramilitaries, they expand geographically their domains. In their original territory, politician are allies, friends or business partners of long standing.

To explain variations in these primary vocations of mafiosi there is a lot of empirical research to be done. One can think about factors as varied as social or cultural origin of the mafioso that would determine his basic attitude, empathy or resentment, towards political activity. A Colombian violentologist, for example, is currently trying to understand why the paramilitaries in Antioquia come from the grassroots, while those in the Coast come from the higher classes [62].

Across the table, among politicians, strictly personal traits may also be very relevant. Some of them accepted financial support from the mafia and others never did. On the field empirical research is also needed to understand these differences.

One of the key questions in the literature on OCPF is if the political decentralization processes recently undertaken in most of Latin America facilitate the infiltration of institutions by the mafia [63]. The Colombian experience over the past two decades suggests a positive answer. The reforms to the political and administrative system after the new 1991 Constitution, were positive for regional mafias. Gustavo Duncan explains this process well. The reforms aimed at strengthening democracy in the regions, ended up favoring the warlords. “The implementation of the electoral quotient law, the administrative decentralization and the increased fiscal transfers made possible the emergence of independent politicians with a relatively small electoral base. The fragmentation of the professional political class facilitated the control of small armed groups over regional party structures. It was much easier to intimidate and take control over small owners of votes than it had been to replace the hierarchical and influential machinery of the old caciques[64]. The atomization of the cartels that came as a result of the war on drugs was accompanied by an atomization of politics that allowed a symbiosis between neonarcos and neopoliticians.

Public policy issues

As for policy recommendations, the Colombian experience in different areas suggests that efforts to change the legal framework that affect the activities of mafias may backfire. By varying combinations of bribery, threats and legal expertise, reforms can end up in a boomerang which further strengthens the mafia. In Colombia, such situations have been so common that they have a name, narcomicos. They endorse the general principle that poor regulation can be worse than lack of regulation [65].

One lesson of the funding that came in boxes full of cash dollars to the presidential campaign is that succesful control of OCPF must be preceded by efforts against tax evasion and double accounting practices. Any mechanism of regulation of private funding sources has the prior condition that the funds are visible to the regulator, something that is not always obvious with money that has not yet been laundered.

With regard to the underground nature of the funds for political finance, a survey in Colombia found that in legal businesses, only 56% reported campaign contributions and, of those, only 51.4% verified that the recipient duly recorded it. In other terms, almost three quarters of legal funds that go to political finance could be lying outside the official accounting records [66].

On the other hand, the events leading up to Proceso 8000 are a good example that limits on private funds to finance campaigns can be innocuous and even counterproductive. Part of the eagerness to accept the illegal money to the campaign was precisely that the caps allowed by law have already been exceeded.

The above remarks are not to be taken as a suggestion to drop reforms for controlling OCPF. They are more an invitation to focus on efforts that can have a long-term impact. Needless to note that the set of quite general suggestions that follows requires an ambitious empirical research agenda to strengthen, clarify and adapt them to local conditions [67].

Local prevention

This simple idea can be useful in the field of OCPF. Not in terms of prevention of youth violence or organized crime, a different field of public policy, but to identify and try to control political practices based on agreements with local violent actors.

In Latin America, in barrios, neighborhoods and municipalities, the situation in which gang members, pandilleros and mareros, maintain a de facto political control is more common than thought [68]. Informal taxes, or illegal contributions in order to have a business, or tolls to public transportation or direct threats to political and community leaders, with the implicit approval of their rivals, are the seeds of mafia interference in politics. Some incidents of political instrumentation of youth gangs in Central America are quite similar to partnerships, for electoral purposes or private justice enforcement, between politicians and paramilitary groups in Colombia. It is difficult to know whether such coercive practices are more or less widespread than vote buying or political finance. The Colombian experience suggests that they may subsist simultaneously.

The task of identifying such practices and alliances, and the specific suggestions to control them, can not be theoretical nor deductive. They should be thoroughly documented in the field.

Moral persuasion

The tools available to control improper conduct need not be limited to legal instruments. Especially in countries where law enforcement is weak and the judges and officials are over loaded with work. It is useful to remember that there is a wide range of social or moral sanctions that in this area might prove more effective than legal sanctions.

Both the Mafia and, above all, politicians are extremely sensitive to public opinion. The incident of the check-trap from Porras that triggered the first major offensive against drugs in Colombia confirms this observation. All the efforts that, ex post, Colombian politicians did to erase all traces of their contacts with the mafia; or the famous "if it happened, it was behind my back" of President Samper, referring to the financing of his campaign by the Cali Cartel; or the fact that for all political contributions made by the mafia they kept an irrefutable proof, sometimes unimportant as legal evidence but as a means of blackmail,  all point in the same direction.

Pablo Escobar was very aware of this Achilles heel of politicians who secretly visited him at his ranch Nápoles. He took advantage of an occasion when several of them were gathered in a boat on a river and "laughing slyly, he asked a reporter from El Tiempo to take a photography of them" [69]. It seems clear that in this field, a timely picture can be worth a thousand legal words.

Global coordination

A few years earlier, neonarcos from Medellín, associated with a chemical engineer from Bogota, had set up a synthetic cocaine factory in a huge barn located in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. They had considered the possibility of installing the manufacturing in Madagascar, where one of them knew the prime minister. Yugoslav partners were responsible for the supply of raw materials and the transportion of the final product to Italy. Other investors would be in charge of the distribution in that country, and money was to be laundered by a Spaniard [71].

No need to list more examples like these to illustrate that drug trafficking is a truly transnational business. It was this way from the first generation of Colombian mafiosi, some of them of rural origin, who managed to establish contacts in, at least, Panamá, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, the U.S. and Spain.

It's just obvious to point out that for a business without borders national policies are insufficient. This observation is relevant to any aspect of the business, including OCPF. The coordination and cooperation on issues such as seizures of drugs, or money laundering control are recent but have proved to be fundamental.

Both in the fight against drugs, as in efforts to dialogue with the guerrillas and, increasingly, in the course of justice processes against politicians, in Colombia the role of foreign governments and NGOs has been decisive. Institutional coordination has not been as fluid as required, and U.S. influence in the war on drugs and in the dealings with guerrillas and narcos might have been excessive. Despite these observations, and despite the national and local nature of elections, it is still valid to recommend that the issue of OCPF should have a global perspective.


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* Universidad Externado de Colombia.
[1] Law 58 of 1985, 130 of 1994 and 996 of 2005. See Montoya and Navarrete (2009) and De la Calle (1998).
[2] According to Pizarro (1998), the other exception is Brazil.
[3] Posada-Carbó (2008)
[4] Pizarro (1998) p. 36
[5] Pizarro (1998) p. 39
[6] Posada-Carbó (2008)
[7] Posada-Carbó (2008) p. 14
[8] J. Mark Payne and Juan Cruz Perusia, “Reforming the Rules of the Game: Political Reform,” in Eduardo Lora, ed., The State of State Reform in Latin America (Palo Alto and Washington: World Bank, 2007), p. 78. Quoted by Posada-Carbó (2008) p. 3
[9] Vallejo (2007)
[10] Based in Castro Caycedo (1996), Salazar (2001), Bowden (2001), Legarda (2005), Salazar Pineda (2006), and Vallejo (2007)
[11] Salazar (2001) p. 37
[12] Salazar (2001) p. 92
[13] Rubio (2005)
[14] Bowden (2001) p. 68
[15] Reyes (2007) p. 54
[16] Bowden (2001) p. 192
[17] Based in Chaparro (2005) and Téllez & Lesmes (2006)
[18] Casas & Zovatto (2009)
[20] Reyes (2007). On the partnership between the arab prince and the colombians see also Monti (2004)
[22] Zuñiga (2007) p. 243
[23] Duncan (2006)
[24] See Ronderos (2003)
[25] Castillo (1987) p. 231
[26] Salazar (2005)
[27] Meisel (2009)
[28] Archer (1990)
[29] Quoted by Villar Borda (2004) pp. 289 y 290
[30] COPP (2002) p. 67
[31] Salazar (2001) p. 121
[32] Chaparro (2005) p. 77
[33] Chaparro (2005) p. 90
[34] Chaparro (2005) p. 300
[36] Chaparro (2005) p. 80
[37] Medina (1995)
[38] Chaparro (2005) p. 78
[39] Medina (1995)
[40] Valencia (2007) p. 26
[42] Medina (1995)
[43] Beltrán & Salcedo (2007) p. 4
[44] Castillo (1987) p. 225
[45] Castillo (1987) p. 225
[46] Quoted by Salazar (2001) p. 72
[47] Salazar (2001) p. 93
[48] Salazar (2001) p. 95
[49] Chaparro (2005) p. 84
[50] Legarda (2005) p. 55
[51] Téllez y Lesmes (2006)
[52] Salazar (2001) p. 122 o Lee (1998) p. 171
[53] For details of this operation see Bowden (2001). A short summary in “Pacto con el Diablo”, Revista Semana,  Febrero 16 de 2008.
[54] Salazar (2001) p. 299. The list of the 12 ex-con is supplied in Reyes (2007) p. 56
[55] Bowden (2001). See also Declassified information from he National Security Archive.
[56] Medina (1995)
[57] Reyes (2007) p. 182
[58] Reyes (2007) p. 215
[59] Salazar (2001) p. 131
[60] On all this, see Tellez y Lesmes (2006) and Reyes (2007)
[61] “El senador 103 dejó de ser de Bavaria”. La Silla Vacía,  25 de Junio de 2010.
[62] Personal communication with Gustavo Duncan
[63] Casas & Zovatto (2010)
[64] Duncan (2006) p. 273
[65] Casas & Zovatto (2010) p. 11
[66] TPC (2009)
[67] Needless to remind also that the recommendations are made by an outsider to the field of political finance.
[68] Rubio (2007)
[69] Salazar (2001) p. 95
[70] Monti (2004)
[71] Reyes (2007)