Is Colombia’s ‘War on Drugs’ Coming to an End?

by Catherine Ellis

When Gustavo Petro began his four-year term as Colombia’s new president on 7 August, he inherited a huge, but old problem: how to tackle Colombia’s drug problem. Despite billions of dollars of US-backed approaches spanning four decades, Colombia is still the world’s largest producer of cocaine, criminal gangs are thriving, and global drug consumption remains high. “The war on drugs has utterly failed,” Petro said as he was sworn into office, advocating for a new international approach to a domestic and global problem.

As Colombia’s first leftist president and a former M-19 guerilla member who spent time in jail for his political beliefs, Petro has already broken the mould of the country’s usual conservative or moderate presidents. But as a fierce critic of previous drugs strategies, and members of his own party proposing the legalisation of the drugs industry, it could be his agenda on illegal drugs that really sets him apart from his predecessors. 

A decades-old ‘war against drugs’

Back in the 1970s, when US president Nixon first talked about what became known as the ‘war on drugs,’ Colombia was a major producer not of cocaine, but of marijuana. Yet the cocaine market soon grew, and the country became the epicentre of production, as well as drug-fuelled violence.

Since then Colombia has relied on a heavy-handed security, pursuing criminal gangs, eradicating illicit crops, and extraditing top drug cartel members to the US, to halt the production and trafficking of cocaine, and other drugs.  

Towards a paradigm shift

The new president has called for a ‘paradigm shift’ away from a traditional prohibitionist approach and towards a focus on poverty reduction. Around  39.3% of the population lives in poverty, a figure that often increases in rural areas.  
The coca plant, whose leaves provide the raw ingredient for cocaine, is grown by rural farmers as a way of securing a stable income in historically neglected areas. Two thirds of the world’s coca leaves and cocaine production come from iColombia, according to the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC).

Salomon Majbub, an expert in drug policy and human rights at the NGO, INDEPAZ,  explained that helping these communities who grow illicit crops is crucial, as they have been excluded from economic markets by the state, and have lacked infrastructure, public health, education and overall development. 

“This exclusion has pushed them towards the cultivation of coca, marihuana and poppy as a means of survival.” Majbub said.  “The strategy of the past – the militarisation of the fight against drugs – has been very repressive and made the problem worse.” 

One way Petro has said he will try to reduce poverty in these communities, is through the full implementation of the 2016 peace deal, an agreement between the government and the leftist-guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was hoped to bring an end to a 52-year civil war, partly fuelled by drugs. 

The deal was undoubtedly historic, but so far implementation has been poor, especially in the areas of rural reform and the substitution of illicit crops, largely due to lack of political will and budget cuts.  According to the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, just 4% of the rural reform section aimed at improving land governance for food security, land conflict resolution and employment creation strategies, had been fully implemented by November 2021. 

Estefania Ciro Rodríguez, a researcher in drug trafficking at the organisation, A La Orilla del Rio, thinks implementing the peace deal is paramount, while being sensitive to local populations and including them in any policy changes. “It’s important to remember that the coca plant is sacred to some indigenous groups, and that its leaves have also been used for ancestral and commercial products, such as mambe, and coca teas.”

She believes that this market should continue, while also looking for alternatives to coca paste, the intermediary product used for producing cocaine, as a way to diversify the local economies. “It’s hard to think of anything that could substitute these illicit crops, but we could think of how to reduce them,” she said. “Colombia is a producing nation and there’s the opportunity to cultivate food sources that we no longer produce.”  

Rodríguez also believes Petro needs to think about how Colombia can negotiate with armed actors, in order to improve the security situation in the countryside, something Petro has already said he is willing to do. Guerilla group ELN, Clan de Golfo and some FARC dissidents, have said they too are open to dialogue. Still, there is concern other armed groups would fill the vacuum in the territories that the other groups previously controlled, where drugs are grown. But there is one idea that some say could help avoid this.

From prohibition to legalisation

The new president has already said he favours legalising cannabis for commercial purposes. Yet members of his own party, Historic Pact, are talking of legalising other drugs too – including cocaine. “The only way to combat and eradicate drug trafficking is to completely legalise it,” Congressman Gustavo Bolivar recently told a party meeting. In an open letter, signed by himself,16 other parliamentarians, members of an intersectoral drug commission and rural leaders, he announced that he will soon present a bill to regulate the use of the coca leaf, poppy, mushroom and their derivatives, for adult and medicinal use.

Majbub, who signed the letter as part of the intersectorial joint commission for drug policy, explains that regulation already exists – but it’s not legal. “These economies already have regulation by armed actors and an order to how things work,” he pointed out. Yet he explained that often there are disputes among different groups about who should regulate these markets, which can lead to bloodshed.

“Having legal regulation is important to get rid of this motivation for violence,” Majbub explained. Regulation would see the state control production and selling of coca and cocaine with the idea of drawing business away from cartels, regulating consumption, and making access to drug markets fairer for rural populations.

Towards a global strategy on drug policy

Petro has recognised Colombia cannot solve this problem alone. In his inauguration speech, Petro proposed “a new international convention that accepts that the war on drugs has failed.” Across the globe, there’s been a 26 per cent increase in drug users over the previous decade and 70,000 North Americans die by overdoses every year. He wants developed societies to adopt strong measures to prevent consumption.

Majbub believes international cooperation could start within Latin America itself. “There’s the possibility of a Latin American bloc, which  would change the paradigm of drug policy,” Majbub told Volteface. He added that Bolivia and Peru are also coca leaf and cocaine producing nations, and other countries such as Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, are in step with Petro’s impetus for drug policy reform. 

There’s a growing consensus that a world free of drugs is near impossible. “The prohibitionist drug policies have been full of physical violence, but also symbolic violence,” Rodríguez said. “They have taken away our ability to think creatively and imagine other possibilities, other worlds.” She believes that Colombia can peacefully live in a world where coca, cocaine and other drugs exist and that her country can lead global discussions of how this can be achieved.

Risky or pragmatic, what is clear is that we’re likely to see the new president choose a path that other leaders have not.

Catherine Ellis is a British freelance journalist living in Colombia. She writes about political, human rights and migration issues affecting Colombia and Venezuela. Tweets @cat_lucy1

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