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May 8, 2009 / jeni

The Nexus Lexicon: Criminal Armies

In a recent comment, Tom made an excellent point about terminology: what do we mean by ‘militant’, especially when we use it as a broader term incorporating criminal elements? It’s an important question that I’d like to return to soon, but I’m momentarily distracted by another semantics question. Does the phrase ‘criminal armies’ have any analytical merit? Or is it just a lazy mashup?

I noticed the term most recently in a New York Times article on the drug war in rural Colombia and its devastating impact on civilians.

Up and down the rivers of western Colombia, a new breed of criminal armies is pressing deeper into this isolated jungle, fighting with guerrillas for control of the cocaine trade and forcing thousands of Indians to flee… [A]s Colombia’s war for control of the drug trade intensifies in frontiers like this one, with new combatants vying for smuggling routes and coca-growing areas where Indians eke out a meager existence, it is adding to the already grave toll on the nation’s indigenous groups. At least 27 of the groups are at risk of being eliminated because of the country’s four-decade conflict, according to the United Nations, and human rights organizations worry that the new violence is pushing even deeper into the Indians’ ancient lands.

The article points to some of the usual features of intrastate conflict, such as the use of violence to compel civilian behaviour…

Here in the Chocó region’s jungle, gunmen arrived as Jhonny Caisamo was harvesting plantains. More than 100 strong, the men beat him with the flat part of their machetes, then threatened to drown him in the brown waters of the Cedro River. “They wanted to know where the guerrillas were camped,” said Mr. Caisamo, 18, one of many Embera Indians to recount recent beatings, rapes or threats by armed groups here. “They told me they would kill me if I did not collaborate.”

…and a pattern of urban control, fuelling reports of government success, while remote areas lie at the mercy of armed groups.

The battles are unfolding far from largely pacified cities like the capital, Bogotá, where a newly confident government acclaims recent military advances against leftist rebels and the demobilization of thousands of paramilitary fighters… But the seeming stability in some places belies the conflict in remote areas, where Indians like the Embera find themselves at the mercy of armed groups. Colombia has about three million internal refugees — second in number only to Sudan, the United Nations says — and its Indians bear a disproportionate share of the suffering.

Not to take away from recent government achievements, but 3 million IDPs is a good indication of the scale of the challenge that remains.

The whole article is definitely worth a read, but to return to the original question: does it make sense to speak of ‘criminal armies’? On the face of it, the term attempts to capture precisely those dynamics that we focus on here: the combination of criminality and armed force that can have a major impact in a conflict arena. On the other hand, the term ‘army’ implies much more than armed force — it bears connotations of organisation, hierarchy, strategy, etc., which may or may not be relevant to specific criminal actors.

Personally, I don’t have a firm opinion on this one yet. It does not appear to be widely used thus far; type ‘criminal armies’ into Google and you will be asked if you really mean ‘criminal crimes’ (sometimes Google is a bit daft). So no, I wouldn’t log the term into our lexicon just yet, but I would welcome anyone’s thoughts on this.

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