Over one in 10 Colombians are allegedly involved in illegal activities. In this January 7, 2016, photo, a Colombian farmer stirs a mix of mulched coca leaves and cement with gasoline, as part of the initial process to make coca paste, at a small lab in Antioquia, Colombia.AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd
Over one in 10 Colombians are allegedly involved in illegal activities. In this January 7, 2016, photo, a Colombian farmer stirs a mix of mulched coca leaves and cement with gasoline, as part of the initial process to make coca paste, at a small lab in Antioquia, Colombia.AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

(Today Colombia) Official estimates suggest that 11 percent of Colombia’s population is allegedly involved in illegal activities, a questionable assertion that nonetheless evidences how deeply crime has infiltrated the country’s population.

At a forum held on National Money Laundering Prevention Day, the manager of public utilities company Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM) stated that Justice Ministry figures show that 11 percent of Colombians are working on some level in illegal activites, El Colombiano reported. This would represent about 5.3 million people in 2015.

EPM Manager Jorge Londoño de La Cuesta added that the seizures of assets belonging to illegal groups amounted to 5 percent of Colombia’s gross domestic product (GDP). He did not specify which year this statistic referred to.

During the same event, Vice Minister for Criminal Policy and Restorative Justice Carlos Medina Ramírez stated that money laundering assets seized from criminal groups represented 2 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Although Colombia’s financial industry has established policies, institutions and private sector prevention systems to tackle money laundering, Medina suggested new measures need to be taken.

To this effect, the Justice Ministry is reportedly presenting an urgent bill to congress that will allow for illegal assets to be seized more quickly, by easing requirements and speeding up proceedings.

This will include allowing seized assets to be sold immediately by the organization responsible for their administration (Sociedad de Activos Especiales – SAE), without prior need for a judge’s approval. If a judge later finds the owner of the assets not guilty, a fund will be created to compensate them.

Mari Teteche, 42, right, cuts a marijuana plant grown in the mountains of Tacueyo, Cauca, Colombia, February 10, 2016.REUTERS /Jaime Saldarriaga
Mari Teteche, 42, right, cuts a marijuana plant grown in the mountains of Tacueyo, Cauca, Colombia, February 10, 2016.REUTERS /Jaime Saldarriaga

The concerning estimate that over 5 million Colombians are involved in illicit activities deserves some skepticism. The statistic received mixed responses from analysts consulted by InSight Crime; some found it oddly large, while others said that Colombia’s position as the world’s biggest cocaine producer and the underground economies that this generates make the numbers credible.

This raises the question of how such figures are reached. (The Justice Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment from InSight Crime regarding the agency’s methodology.) The estimate likely takes into account the large number of ordinary civilians playing crucial roles at many stages within criminal economies.

The UNODC estimates that more than 370,000 people participate in or are dependent on coca cultivations (pdf), while illegal mining and contraband are also huge illicit industries. Additionally, official statistics put the percentage of informal employment in urban areas at almost 50 percent.

Estimates on the breadth of Colombia’s illegal economy must be considered in the context of the peace process currently underway with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). According to InSight Crime field research, the group controls the large majority of Colombia’s illegal coca industry, and should they demobilize they will need to be re-accommodated within the legal economy to prevent their 7,000 estimated members from continuing or returning to illegal activities.