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Guns, Drugs, and Development in Colombia

Guns, Drugs, and Development in Colombia

A provocative, interdisciplinary examination of Colombia’s devastating drug trade, with data-driven recommendations for other countries facing violent insurgencies.

January 2009
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208 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 line drawings, 15 maps, 26 tables |

For decades, Colombia has contended with a variety of highly publicized conflicts, including the rise of paramilitary groups in response to rebel insurgencies of the 1960s, the expansion of an illegal drug industry that has permeated politics and society since the 1970s, and a faltering economy in the 1990s. An unprecedented analysis of these struggles, Guns, Drugs, and Development in Colombia brings together leading scholars from a variety of fields, blending previously unseen quantitative data with historical analysis for an impressively comprehensive assessment. Culminating in an inspiring plan for peace, based on Four Cornerstones of Pacification, this landmark work is sure to spur new calls for change in this corner of Latin America and beyond.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: Historical and Geographical Propensities to Violence
  • Chapter 3: Colombian Economic History: Regional Context and Colombian Policies
  • Chapter 4: The Main Actors in the 1990s and into the Twenty-first Century: Guerrillas and Paramilitaries
  • Chapter 5: Differences within Colombia and Available Subnational Data
  • Chapter 6: Guns and Protection: Guerrillas and Paramilitaries
  • Chapter 7: The Effects of Illegal Drugs and Violence on the Colombian Economy
  • Chapter 8: Acknowledging Constraints to Find Comprehensive Peace: The Four Cornerstones of Pacification
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Jennifer S. Holmes is Associate Professor of Political Economy and Political Science at the University of Texas at Dallas and is the author of Terrorism and Democratic Stability.

Sheila Amin Gutiérrez ee Piñeres is Professor of Economics and Political Economy, and Associate Provost at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Kevin M. Curtin is Associate Professor of Geography at George Mason University in Virginia.


Mired in a conflict in which the lines among the different violent actors are not always clear, Colombia struggles for control of its territory. Typically, Colombia is considered a deviant democracy, characterized by chronic insurgency and a seemingly stable political system. The country has enjoyed exceptional regime stability but is racked by internal conflict. Although constitutional rule has been uninterrupted since Rojas Pinilla seized power and imposed a military dictatorship from 1953 to 1957, the veneer of sovereignty is thin: numerous armed groups effectively rule parts of the country where central-government control is weak or nonexistent. Since the 1960s, Colombia has faced a rebel insurgency, which has led to the rise of many active paramilitary groups formed to counter the insurgency. The paramilitaries, essentially private armies, have varying degrees of loyalty to the Colombian government and military. Compounding the insurgency problem is the illegal-drug industry, which started in the 1970s and has created expansive networks within Colombian politics and society. As violence increased and the illegal drug trade began to take hold, the traditionally stable Colombian economy began to falter in the 1990s. This project examines the multiple connections among violence, coca, and the economy in an attempt to explain how these factors interact and react to one another.

Colombia is a country of contradictions. Compared to its Latin American peers, Colombia remains relatively poor as measured by per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and poverty rates, but its economic policy has been generally considered successful. It was the sole Latin American country to escape the debt crisis of the 1980s, yet violence restrains economic growth and drugs distort the economy. Its homicide rates and levels of political violence set it apart from the other countries.

The guerrilla groups, drug-related violence, and paramilitaries have made Colombia one of the most violent nations in the world. Approximately two million Colombians have fled the country since 1985. This is a significant number in a country with a population of less than 44 million. During the rebel conflict and the drug war from 1985 to 2000, hundreds of bombs exploded in Colombian cities; the Unión Patriótica, a left-wing political party of former guerrillas, had over 3,500 members murdered or disappeared by paramilitaries; and four presidential candidates, half of the Supreme Court justices, over 1,200 police officers, 200 journalists and judges, and more than 300,000 ordinary Colombians have been murdered (Pardo 2000, 65). In 2002 alone, 144 politicians and public officials were assassinated by armed illegal groups, 124 were kidnapped (including 1 presidential candidate, 19 mayors, 25 councilmen, 1 governor, 19 deputies, and 3 members of congress), and more than 600 mayors were threatened with death. In 2001, one oil pipeline was attacked 170 times, costing $520 million (monetary figures are in U.S. dollars unless otherwise indicated). From 2000 to 2002, more than 1,200 electrical towers were attacked (Ministerio de Defensa Nacional 2003, 25). In 2002, 412,553 people were displaced (CODHES), up to 8 journalists were killed for political reasons (Committee to Protect Journalists 2003), and from January through November, 184 trade unionists and 17 human-rights activists were murdered (CINEP). This book examines the multiple forms of Colombian violence and cycles of violence (drug, guerrilla, paramilitary, and state) at the subnational level and investigates how economic performance and coca cultivation affect trends in violence.

While Colombia survived the debt crisis of the 1980s relatively unscathed, the drug crisis and guerrilla violence handicapped the economy in the 1990s. Violence made Colombia a less attractive destination for both domestic and foreign investment. According to Arbelaez, Echavarria, and Gaviria (2002, 41), the growth of per capita GDP fell from 2.3 percent in 1985-1994 to -1.5 percent in 1995-1999. Beginning in 1993, growth rates of per capita GDP declined until 2000, and it was not until 2002 that Colombia experienced positive growth.

Some may blame coca cultivation for the pervasive violence, but Colombia was violent before coca, and not all other coca-producing countries have experienced internal conflict to this extent. In 2001, Colombia had an estimated 145,000 hectares (358,000 acres) of coca cultivated, down from 163,000 in 2000. Its Andean neighbors, Peru and Bolivia, also grow coca. Peru cultivated 46,200 hectares (114,000 acres), down from a peak of 115,300 in 1995, and Bolivia cultivated 19,900 hectares (49,000 acres), a 59 percent reduction from the 1995 peak of 48,600 hectares (120,000 acres) (UNDCP 2005). Other countries have experienced entrenched civil violence, without coca, including El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Argentina had revolutionary groups, such as the Montoneros, and counterrevolutionary groups, such Mano, without any coca cultivation. Peru experienced coca cultivation in addition to violence from the Shining Path and the MRTA. What is the relationship between violence and coca?

Traditional economic analysis of the Colombian economy has failed to study the connection between illegal drugs, violence, and political variables as they relate to the economy and sources of growth. How do different types of violence affect the economy? Does coca cultivation add to the economy or harm it? We examine the influence of both coca cultivation and different types of violence on the economy. Since violence and coca production are not uniformly dispersed across the country, data aggregated at the national level are unlikely to reveal the true underlying relationships. This project uses subnational data to more accurately discern the impact of coca and violence on the economy. The econometric analysis is supplemented with other types of quantitative and qualitative analysis to provide a more comprehensive examination of the issue.

A survey of the costs of the conflict reveals the importance of understanding the evolution and dynamics of the conflict. Nonetheless, some still ask, why Colombia? Substantively, questions of violence, development, and stability are of fundamental importance to U.S. foreign policy. Specifically, Colombia shares borders with Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru, so Colombian security problems can cross borders and lead to regional instability. The main foreign-policy aims of the United States in relation to Colombia are to reduce the flow of drugs from Colombia to the United States and to quell the forty-year insurgency. Establishing the extent of connections between drug production and political violence is essential to crafting an appropriate policy. Finally, lessons learned in Colombia can produce guidelines for policy creation in other countries facing violent insurgency, lacking a strong governmental presence, and struggling to achieve development.

The policy implications of these issues will become clear as we attempt to answer the following questions. What is the role of Colombian geography and political development in the conflict? Who are the main violent actors? What is the most appropriate unit of analysis for examining the Colombian conflict and economy? What factors facilitate different types of violence? How do violence and the drug trade affect the economy? What general lessons can a study of Colombia provide other countries facing entrenched and seemingly intractable conflicts?

This project began as a simple collaboration between a political scientist and an economist trying to answer questions about the nexus between violence and the economy. The complexities of these questions quickly overwhelmed disciplinary boundaries. Violent groups need to fund themselves. Different groups have distinct origins and aims. Specific indicators of violence and economic well-being should be chosen that are appropriate for the historical evolution of the group in question. Poverty and inequality may encourage economic grievances. Paramilitary groups may form to protect economic assets. Issues of governability and stability affect economic growth and development. We needed a geographer to help us grasp the physical constraints to development, the geographic proclivities toward violence, and the subnational nature of Colombian society. After making numerous trips to Colombia, where we talked with diverse groups, ranging from the human-rights community to the military and the business community, we realized that the project required a book-length treatise to capture the multiplicities of the Colombian situation.

The Colombian conflict can be understood as containing elements of terrorism, vigilantism, state repression, revolution, insurgency, guerrilla violence, and civil war, among others. However, instead of being a deviant case, in many ways the Colombian example is representative of the study of political violence, which tends to be disjointed, conceptually muddled, handicapped by a lack of data, and troubled by political connotations in the definitions given for different types of violence and the relationships among them.

Because of this, we have taken an extensively broad approach to the study of Colombian violence. Significant variations of violence, economic performance, and political factors within the country make Colombia an ideal test case for examining theories of civil war and nonstate violence. First, we use multiple forms of investigation. In most of the literature on conflict, there is a "troubling lack of cross-method communication" (George and Bennett 2005, 4). Scholars have noted a lack of "theoretically grounded case studies" in terrorism and conflict (F. Schultz 2004, 183-184). To more fully illustrate causal mechanisms, studies should focus on cases that statistical analyses identify either as deviant or representative. This is a best practice in comparative politics, a field in which "scholars routinely go back to a small number of cases to assess the validity of conceptualization and measurement, as well as to refine causal inferences" (D. Collier 1998a, 2).

Additionally, relevant historical and contextual factors are difficult to appropriately include in many large cross-national, quantitative models. Long-standing concerns regarding the comparability of indicators and concepts remain controversial. Moreover, issues of approach aside, severe data constraints in many developing countries preclude certain types of study. Since it is difficult to compensate for omitted variables through statistical analysis alone, other analytical tools must be utilized to fully understand the impact of violence. Moreover, unmodeled heterogeneity creates inefficient estimates. Since important factors cannot be incorporated into the statistical models, we complement the statistical analyses with other tools, such as cartographic visualization and qualitative analysis, and contextualize the conclusions. Synergetic studies that integrate findings from works with different methodologies are particularly useful when there are apparent multiple causal pathways and potentially probabilistic causation (D. Collier 1998a, 4).

Second, we use the theoretical literature from Colombia specialists, area specialists, and generalists to grapple with the multiple forms of Colombian violence and their effects. Third, given the nature of types of political violence, it is best to incorporate insights from multiple disciplines, such as geography, history, economics, sociology, and psychology (Holmes, forthcoming). To research these issues in the Colombian context, we have used insights from geography, history, political science, and economics. Fourth, we use multiple levels of analysis. In general, Della Porta (2003, 388) calls for a multilevel analysis (macro-, meso-, and micro-) because of the complex nature of political violence. We examine trends at both the national and subnational level. While most of the research on Colombia is conducted at the national level, a subnational study offers a unique opportunity to incorporate many of the theoretically important factors into analyses, and avoids questions of the comparability of indicators common to cross-national studies.

The book is composed of eight chapters, including the introduction. Traditionally, the introduction sets out the main question and provides a literature review. Since each chapter focuses on a different aspect of violence or development, relevant literature reviews are included throughout the book. The last chapter draws upon all of the substantive chapters to provide an overall, integrated conclusion.

Chapter Two, "Historical and Geographical Propensities to Violence," examines how the geography of Colombia creates challenges for state building and nurtures guerrilla conflict. The land is inhospitable for nation building. Instead of inspiring integration, it fosters fragmentation. The Colombian state has consistently struggled to achieve a monopoly of legitimate force; historically, challengers have ranged from numerous rebellions to two armies claiming to represent the nation. Classic theories of state building provide insight into the evolution of the Colombian state, explaining how it has become one of "permanent and endemic [internal] warfare" (Sanchez and Bakewell 1985, 789). Colombian regionalism has its roots in the colonial period, independence, and a lack of external wars. Historical settlement patterns, the distribution of the population, and the physical geography hindered centralization and provided opportunities for rebellion. These factors have contributed to a weak Colombian national state and created a proclivity toward violence.

Chapter Three, "Colombian Economic History: Regional Context and Colombian Policies," examines Colombia's economic performance within the regional context of Latin America, focusing on the six larger economies of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela. This overview of Colombia's relative position in Latin America from the 1970s through the early 2000s reveals that Colombia has not yet reached its potential, which is a likely result of violence, weak state control, and the illegal drugs that permeate its economy. The Colombian economy has experienced long-term positive growth punctuated by periods of crisis. By the 1990s, the main focus of this book, the national government had not overcome the economic insecurity. However, since the election of President Uribe, the Colombian economy has improved and is showing signs of potentially reaching the next level of development. In 2005, foreign direct investment had grown dramatically, and Colombia was the third choice for foreign investment in the region. Foreign investment is an independent, market-driven indicator of confidence in the long-term growth potential of the country. While President Uribe appears to have begun to address the issues of economic insecurity, the lack of a concurrent focus on improvements in infrastructure, education, and unemployment diminishes hopes that Colombia will move out of the bottom tier of this group of Latin American countries.

Chapter Four, "The Main Actors in the 1990s and into the Twenty-first Century: Guerrillas and Paramilitaries," provides a general overview of the origins, organization, and actions of the different violent groups in Colombia. Groups discussed include major guerrilla groups (FARC, the ELN, the ELP, etc.) and the paramilitaries (the AUC). To understand the current Colombian challenge, it is important to study the historical context in which these groups emerged. La violencia, a bloody ten-year civil war in which the Liberals and Conservatives fought against the National Front, is discussed along with the political agreement that reconciled them; the aim is to provide an understanding of the shared inspiration of many of the guerrilla groups.

Chapter Five, "Differences within Colombia and Available Subnational Data," establishes the best level of analysis with which to examine the relationships among violence, coca, and the economy. There have been considerable regional differences since the time of the original Spanish colonization. Today, those differences involve the intensity of violence, level of development, and amount of coca cultivation throughout the country. So instead of conducting a national-level analysis, with an embedded assumption of homogeneity, we have chosen to examine the country subnationally. This chapter provides an overview of the great diversity within the country and a discussion of the data used in the book. As Thoumi (2005, 14) highlights, "Since colonial times Colombia has been a collection of diverse regions with little communication and trade among them. Physical barriers are so great that many regions remained very isolated and self-sufficient." A subnational analysis provides greater rigor because of the increased sample size, allowing us to conduct statistical analyses to probe the differences among departments in what would otherwise be extremely short national time series.

Chapter Six, "Guns and Protection: Guerrillas and Paramilitaries," examines the factors contributing to guerrilla and paramilitary violence. Since these violent groups have very different origins and aims, it is important to examine different types of violence separately. Additionally, it is vital to acknowledge that factors encouraging the emergence of violent groups during such a protracted conflict may not be the same as those that explain the persistence of conflict. Daniel Pécaut (1997) states that the pervasive Colombian violence has created its own influences, regardless of the original causes of the violence. Understanding old and new dynamics is essential to crafting an appropriate and effective policy response to the challenge of insurgency. This chapter focuses on the time period of 1990-2001 to understand the contemporary evolution of the Colombian conflict.

Chapter Seven, "The Effects of Illegal Drugs and Violence on the Colombian Economy," examines the economic consequences of coca and violence. According to many scholars, pundits, and diplomats, the illegal-drug industry harms the Colombian economy. For example, Thoumi (1995a) states that "the drug trade has in fact weakened the country's economy by fostering violence and corruption, undermining legal activity, frightening off foreign investment, and all but destroying the social fabric." Moreover, Colombia suffers from high rates of political violence and violent criminal activity, which may also have corrosive economic effects. The violence is estimated to cost the economy at least two percentage points of growth every year (Arbelaez, Echavarria, and Gaviria 2002, 38). Although these two issues are interrelated, we attempt to differentiate them. As background for a department-level analysis, a brief overview of the relationship at the national level is provided.

Chapter Eight, "Acknowledging Constraints to Find Comprehensive Peace: The Four Cornerstones of Pacification," concludes with a Colombian policy solution as well as generalizable recommendations. Because of the decades-long conflict, only a sustained commitment and a coordinated strategy will successfully calm the country. In the Colombian case, historical, geographic, and economic constraints affect policy choices and the likelihood of success. Moreover, specific relationships uncovered within the empirical chapters can similarly inform policy choices, identify constraints, and influence the likelihood of success. In general, we identify four cornerstones of a successful pacification strategy: military dominance, economic reform, increased state capacity, and a strong political community. Each of the four is necessary, but there are multiple feedbacks and overlaps among them. Moreover, it is important that policy makers have both a long- and a short-term perspective on the conflict so that they do not set immediate goals that might hinder progress on a long-term goal.

This project extends beyond a simple study of Colombian violence and drugs to one of appropriate level of data choice and type of analysis. We examine the relationships among illegal drugs, violence, and the economy at the national and subnational levels. We do not assume homogeneity of departments and, therefore, use subnational data to capture the underlying relationships. To assume that illegal drugs or violence has a pervasive negative effect on the economy without first determining if the effects are consistent across the country would be misleading. Finally, the very nature of illegal drugs and insurgent violence leads to unobserved variables that cannot always be captured in statistical analysis. To address this, we complement our statistical analysis with other qualitative and quantitative methodologies. The aim of this project is not only to shed more light on the dynamic relationships among illegal drugs, violence, and the economy in Colombia, but also to encourage other scholars to diversify their methodological and disciplinary approaches.


“The use of an interdisciplinary approach, including geography, history, economics, and politics, gives this book a flavor that is distinct from others in the field. . . . The data on economics and the impacts of drug production and drug trafficking are innovative and difficult to find elsewhere. . . . A valuable resource.”
William L. Furlong, Professor of Political Science, Utah State University


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