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Colby College. Anthropology Dept.


How can we understand the transformation of Colombian paramilitary groups during the past two decades? Intimately connected to drug trafficking, paramilitary groups have infiltrated political institutions and enjoyed significant political support even as they have used extreme brutality. Since the early 1990s, paramilitaries have grown exponentially in strength, creating a national coordinating body and carrying out military offensives. These developments brought territorial expansion throughout Colombia and a peak in political violence, typified by massacres from 1997 to 2003. After negotiations with government officials, more than thirty-two thousand troops passed through demobilization programs verified by the Organization of American States; much of the high-profile leadership was subsequently extradited to the United States to face charges of drug trafficking. Revelations of electoral fraud resulted in the so-called parapolítical scandal, in which hundreds of politicians were indicted for collusion with paramilitary forces. Colombian and U.S. officials claim gains in the consolidation of democracy, even as journalists and others document ongoing paramilitary activity.

It is critical for scholars and policy makers hoping to understand contemporary Colombia to examine the role that political and economic structures have played in these developments, including the unintended consequences of efforts to foster democracy in the region and the deep connections between illicit economies and public life. This history also serves as a case study of the intersection of political and criminal violence, organized crime, and comparative practices of governance useful for Mexico, Brazil, and beyond.


Originally published: Latin American Research Review, Volume 46, Number 3, 2011, pp. 191-200 | 10.1353/lar.2011.0050



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