New Colombian government abandons traditional approach for combatting illegal drugs
By Matthew Bristow
Colombia, the world’s biggest producer of cocaine, is rethinking the war on drugs which it has waged for decades backed by US military aid. Minutes after taking office last month, leftist President Gustavo Petro called for a new approach, saying in his inaugural speech that the policies pursued by Bogota and Washington have fueled violence while failing to cut consumption. More details about the change of tack are emerging every week.
Here is what we know so far:
1. What is the new government doing differently?
The farmers who grow coca, the shrub whose leaves are the raw material for making cocaine, are mostly very poor. Petro says the government will target people higher up the chain. His preferred alternative is substitution programs, whereby farmers are given incentives to grow legal crops. But the president warned that the authorities aren’t giving farmers a green light to plant coca, and will continue to eradicate plants by force in areas where there is no agreement to dig up the crops voluntarily.
2. Is Colombia going to legalize cocaine?
No. Contrary to some speculation, Petro’s Justice Minister Nestor Osuna said that cocaine will remain illegal in Colombia, and that the authorities will continue trying to halt exports of the drug. He also said the authorities are going to target the mafias who export the final refined product, as well as the people who help them launder the proceeds. In practice, if Colombia were to legalize the drug unilaterally, it would violate international agreements, and cause a breach with the US and other countries, according to Pedro Arenas, a former congressman from a coca-producing region who founded the NGO Viso Mutop to promote sustainable development. This pariah status would likely harm the nation’s ability to trade and access the global financial system.
3. What is the US involvement?
Colombia has long been Washington’s closest ally in Latin America, and has received more than $10 billion in US aid since President Bill Clinton oversaw the start of the program known as Plan Colombia in the late 1990s. That’s more than any other country outside the Middle East and Asia has been given. The plan helped strengthen Colombia’s armed forces, giving them the upper hand in their fight with Marxist guerrillas. The amount of land planted with coca fell by about 70% between 2000 and 2012, but then soared again to reach a record in 2017. As well as being the largest provider of foreign aid and military assistance, the US is also the world’s biggest market for cocaine. Despite opposing Washington’s war on drugs, and its policies toward Venezuela and Cuba, Petro so far appears to have cordial relations with the government of President Joe Biden, and has met with several of its senior officials. Republicans in congress may be more reluctant to approve funding if coca production rises under Petro.
4. Wasn’t the peace process supposed to eradicate coca?
The 2016 peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was meant to herald the start of crop substitution programs on a massive scale. But the program was poorly organized and underfunded even under President Juan Manuel Santos, who supported it. Then, after the 2018-2022 government of President Ivan Duque, it was “almost dead,” according to Arenas. Duque had been skeptical of the whole peace deal and campaigned against it. Amid the delays, illegal armies working for drug traffickers swiftly occupied the areas abandoned by the FARC, and often sabotaged the programs by threatening and murdering local people who cooperated with it.