Colombia Calls a Draw in the War on Drugs
After years of bloodshed, Colombia's government is teaming up with its former rebel enemies to beat the drug problem.
In Colombia, the drug war may soon be coming to an end. In early May, negotiators from the Colombian government and the rebel group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) reached an agreement on drug trafficking as part of their effort to end the country’s 50-year old conflict. Shifting away from old, controversial methods like crop fumigation, the new deal focuses on substituting crops, taking on organized crime and cartels, and treating drugs as a public health issue to treat addicts and reduce demand. It’s a historic move — and good news for President Juan Manuel Santos, who faces an increasingly popular opposition candidate in second-round elections on June 15.
Colombia has long been viewed as the world’s supermarket for illegal drugs like cocaine and a hotspot for related threats of violence, kidnappings, and guerrilla war (so much so that its recent tourist marketing slogan was "the only risk is wanting to stay"). Colombia’s drug industry burgeoned in the 1980s with the rise of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel and the Cali Cartel. The role of guerrilla and paramilitary groups also grew through the 1980s and 1990s, and today there is a resurgence of cartels and criminal bands. The Colombian drug trade is estimated at $10 billion and presently accounts for 43 percent of global coca supply (as well as smaller amounts of marijuana and heroin poppy). It has been responsible for the corruption of public officials and some of the highest rates of violence in the world. (In the photo above, a soldier guards a large shipment of cocaine seized from a laboratory in Timbiqui.)
With this deal, the negotiation process reaches its halfway point — and it hasn’t been without controversy. FARC, the government’s main ally in this new initiative, was founded under a pro-peasant, communist ideology, in the 1960s and moved into the drug trade in the early 1980s, becoming the country’s main trafficking organization. Past Colombian counter-narcotic policies against the FARC and other actors — interdiction, aerial spraying of pesticides, raids on coca labs — have been aggressive, and have had high financial and human costs. FARC’s popularity is waning, its ranks have fallen from an estimated 18,000 in 2002 to 8,000 today, and several of its top leaders have been killed. No wonder, then, that FARC seems to be looking to demobilize and get out of the drug trade.
The deal designates FARC as a key player in the crop substitution initiative. Most peasant farmers say they are not married to coca and only cultivate it for lack of alternatives. Assisting coca growers with the transition to legal crops — using, for example, cash subsidies, technical assistance to grow alternatives, developing appropriate infrastructure, and granting credit and land titles — will help provide income for the peasants that the FARC purports to represent. The Colombian government, USAID, and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime have sponsored these programs in the past to some degree of success, and farmers in coca-growing regions support them. These initiatives could also keep additional farmers from entering into drug production.
Crop substitution is already a sensitive issue, given recent protests over adjustment assistance initiatives and the unstable price of coffee, Colombia’s other well-known export. But the agreement hopes to leverage the fact that FARC wields influence in key crop substitution areas. Also, FARC’s exit from the drug economy could at least temporarily ease crop substitution, decreasing demand and lowering prices for coca paste.
One of the most dramatic changes in the deal is its approach to drug addiction as a public health issue. Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and domestic drug consumption disproportionately affects the poor and underprivileged. Colombians have the atrocious phrase of "disposable" people (desechables) to refer to addicts, the homeless, and the extreme poor. Sad, shocking, yet not uncommon, addicts are often found unconscious on main streets in broad daylight, and people skirt around them as if they are not there. The new plan reflects a welcome, compassionate turn in caring for neglected citizens that have been affected by drugs.
Though Colombia’s new plan aims to solve Colombia’s drug problem, the agreement could have a broader global impact. It could help suppress the supply of drugs funneled into the rest of the Western Hemisphere and Europe. Yet even with strong implementation, there are limits to what the deal could accomplish. Demand for cocaine remains high in the United States and Europe, and is growing in South American countries, such as Argentina and Brazil. The deal will therefore do little to curb the stubborn incentives to compete for drug profits. Analysts of past peace efforts and opposition politicians also suspect that the agreement will be difficult to implement because of doubts about FARC’s participation and the government’s ability to follow through on its commitments.
For its part, FARC negotiators may represent the more political wing of their group, and might not be able to bring their criminally minded fronts onside. FARC splinter fronts could be a thorny reality — as was the case when right-wing paramilitaries reneged on earlier peace agreements they had signed in the period from 2003 to 2006. For example, FARC’s special operations unit, the Teófilo Forero mobile column, may seek to continue reaping trafficking-related profits in the southwestern part of the country.
Meanwhile, criminal groups in Colombia will also almost certainly continue to have a hand in the drug trade. They have filled in the gaps left by other cartels and demobilized paramilitaries. They have also targeted land-restitution and human rights activists in recent years. Fearing they will fill the vacuum created by a FARC demobilization, the government has treated these groups as military threats. Now, as Colombian Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón said recently, the government must continue to "be present immediately after armed actors are defeated." It will be critical for Colombian security forces to quickly secure former FARC regions so they are not taken over by new actors.
Another challenge is that the peace deal could merely shift the Colombian production of cocaine to other countries through a "balloon effect." Peru recently surpassed Colombia in coca production, and Peruvian outfits such as the remnants of Shining Path will likely enjoy higher prices and profits and will increase production. On the other hand, reducing Colombian drug production even temporarily could improve security in Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. These transshipment points have suffered bouts of drug-related violence and have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. A drop in drug flows could reduce bloody competition among traffickers.
The deal also threatens to box in the United States and fracture the international anti-drug effort. Colombia is shifting away from elements of Plan Colombia, the U.S. aid program that has provided billions of dollars in counter-narcotics assistance to Colombia over the past 15 years, largely directed toward eradication programs. The United States is already under pressure from voter-approved legalizations of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, and could face even greater pressure to pursue decriminalization and policies that confront drug consumption. The question now is whether the United States will back the agreement or find itself in the awkward position of dissenting from a cornerstone for achieving peace that diverges from its historical get-tough, penalization-heavy approach to drugs.
Still, calling a truce between FARC and the government in the War on Drugs could have several positive results, especially if it serves as a model for other countries entrenched in conflict and the drug trade. The public health component, in particular, could be instructive for consumer countries considering strategies to suppress the demand for drugs. Similarly, crop substitution and the partnering role of the FARC could show a path for eradication in producer countries. Such policy shifts could have positive feedback effects for Colombia.
The global drug problem is larger than Colombia. Yet Colombians and observers around the world are hoping that this deal on drugs will have the power to truly tackle the drug trade, move the country toward peace, and promote the inclusion of marginalized populations into the formal economy and mainstream social life. The prospects for broader success hinge in part on factors beyond Colombia’s control — but could be greatly bolstered if other countries follow Colombia’s lead.
Oliver Kaplan is an associate professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of Resisting War: How Communities Protect Themselves. Twitter: @oliverkaplan