Interest Groups

Colombia Table of Contents

Historically, the Roman Catholic Church and the armed forces have played an important role in Colombia's political system. Numerous Colombianists, such as Jonathan Hartlyn, have observed that the most powerful interest group in the 1980s was a small, informal elite composed of business, political, religious, and some military leaders. Some have argued that these power brokers effectively usurped power from Congress and the president by making the decisions--sometimes at informal meetings held in private homes--about what policies or laws should be implemented prior to final action by the legislature.

Observers have contended that the two main parties and the two most powerful interest groups--the armed forces and the Roman Catholic Church--traditionally have co-opted emerging sectors of Colombian society, thereby limiting the development and influence of other potential interest groups. For example, the Roman Catholic Church and the political parties created the two major labor unions at a time when labor was beginning to develop strength. They also established government-sponsored community action programs when the lower classes were beginning to develop some political awareness. The government also contained increasingly militant workers, peasants, and students through co-optation and intimidation. Economic groups, such as associations of farmers and industrialists, began to proliferate and become highly visible in the 1960s and 1970s, but their influence in decision making in the 1980s remained clear.

In the 1980s, the Medellín Cartel's kingpins were increasingly competing with the influence of the traditional interest groups through bribery and assassination of government officials. In addition, the cartel was using assassination to intimidate one legitimate interest group, the news media. Former President Betancur described the cartel's underground empire as "an organization stronger than the state." With estimated revenues of US$8 billion in 1987, the cartel was a power unto itself. It demonstrated its financial power when, at a meeting with Colombian government officials in Panama in 1984, its chiefs offered to pay off Colombia's national debt and terminate their involvement in the drug trade. The traffickers demanded in exchange that the Colombian government refuse to extradite them to the United States and permit them to invest their profits, deposited in foreign banks, in Colombian enterprises. The government, political elites, and public categorically rejected this offer.

As justice minister in late 1985, Enrique Parejo stated that "There is not a single Colombian institution that has not been affected in some way . . . by the illegal activities of the drug traffic." Colombian officials released drug boss Jorge Luis Ochoa Vásquez from prison twice during the 1986-88 period. The second time Ochoa was arrested, in November 1987, the cartel threatened to "eliminate Colombian political leaders one by one" if he were extradited to the United States under a 1984 request. Thirty-nine days later, he was released from Bogotá's La Picota Prison. In late January 1988, the cartel assassinated Attorney General Mauro, who had begun investigating the Ochoa release, during a visit to Medellín.

Until the mid-1980s, the influence of Colombia's cocaine billionaires and marijuana millionaires extended from high society in Bogotá to many cities and towns, where they were often popular figures in certain neighborhoods for providing jobs and financing soccer teams, athletic facilities, public housing projects, and disaster relief efforts. The public began to regard the drug lords negatively, however, after Lara Bonilla was assassinated in 1984 and after the problem of cocaine addiction in Colombia became widespread in the mid-1980s. The results of the March 1988 mayoral elections--in which two strongly antidrug candidates, Pastrana and Juan Gómez Martínez, were elected as mayors of Bogotá and Medellín, respectively--reflected a growing antidrug sentiment among Colombians. Their elections prompted the military, in subsequent weeks, to mount numerous aggressive raids on suspected strongholds of cartel kingpins, including Pablo Escobar Gavíria and Gonzalo Rodríguez.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress