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The Colombian government, led by President Gustavo Petro, has recently announced a bold new national drug policy that represents a radical shift in the country’s strategy to address drug trafficking and cultivation. The new plan outlined in the official document, titled “By growing life, we banish drug trafficking,” will be developed over 10 years and, as stated in the document, aims to significantly reduce cocaine production in Colombian territory by 43% by 2026. This would be achieved through agricultural projects promoting the voluntary substitution of coca cultivation with legal alternatives and by targeting the sophisticated drug trafficking networks in Colombia, focusing on production infrastructure, the marketing of production factors, and combating the illegal finances of traffickers.
The importance of effective action by Colombian institutions against drug trafficking and cultivation in the country is more urgent than ever. According to the latest data released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Colombia continues to have by far the largest number of hectares cultivated with coca, totaling 230,000 in 2022, which represents a dangerous 13% increase compared to the previous year.
Since his election in the summer of 2022, Gustavo Petro has strongly criticized the failure and irrationality of the so-called “war on drugs,” going so far as to consider it the root cause of criminal violence and deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. However, despite the ambition of this new anti-drug policy, it remains to be seen how it will be implemented and whether it will succeed in reversing the seemingly unstoppable increase in coca cultivation.
Exploring the Nuances of the Strategy’s Two Pillars: ‘Oxygen’ and ‘Asphyxiation’
The strategy is structured around two pillars, “oxygen” and “asphyxiation”. The primary goal of the first pillar is to put an end to, or at least reduce, the dependency of small coca farmers on the drug economy. As highlighted in the document, simply replacing coca cultivation with legal alternatives is insufficient and has not worked in the past. The idea now is to adopt a multidimensional, long-term approach that ranges from providing economic support to businesses, offering state-purchased land for agrarian reform, to paying for environmental services, so that, for example, members of rural communities “engage in forest conservation”.
The second pillar, “asphyxiation,” aims to decisively target drug trafficking structures and identify the gains derived from the illegal drug market. Unlike previous policies, the current Colombian government seems to be focusing not only on forced eradication but also on its more strategic use, as well as enhancing technical, administrative, and financial means to combat the drug trafficking chain and money laundering. The text makes it clear that there is a commitment to intensify the dismantling of facilities involved in the production of illegal narcotics, with particular attention to those involved in the production of base and hydrochloride cocaine, heroin, and synthetic drugs. Among the new initiatives also the strengthening of the registration, inspection, and control system for metallurgical businesses that supply equipment for the production of illicit substances. Finally, there is a promise to enhance maritime, river, air, and land interdiction through investments in advanced surveillance technologies and increased patrolling and monitoring of critical areas, especially in border zones.
Why the ‘Total Peace’ Plan Matters for the New Anti-Drug Policy
The outcome of this new strategy appears to be closely intertwined with the government’s efforts to implement the so-called “Total Peace” plan. The latter, approved by the Colombian Congress in October 2022, sets the ambitious goal of ending violence in the country by signing peace agreements with as many of the 26 active armed groups in Colombia as possible. This includes some of the oldest and largest guerrilla groups in the country, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and dissident groups from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Indeed, the official document of the new anti-drug policy recognizes the presence and influence of armed groups and criminal organizations in certain areas of the country as a hindrance to the strategy’s implementation. Specifically, reference is made to the regions of Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Cauca, and Nariño as “hot” areas with concentrations of coca cultivation and the presence of armed groups involved in drug trafficking. These regions are still scenes of violent armed conflicts for territorial expansion. As highlighted in the latest report from the Fundación Ideas Para la Paz, in the first year of Gustavo Petro’s government, there has been a reactivation of territorial disputes in some areas of Cauca and Putumayo.
At the same time, as mentioned, the “oxygen” pillar aims to ensure that rural communities dependent on illicit economies can make a progressive and sustainable transition to legitimate economies through a process of productive conversion facilitated by close collaboration with social leaders and other community actors. In this regard, ensuring the safety of social leaders and communities that choose to abandon coca cultivation is essential for achieving this goal. However, the 134 homicides of social leaders recorded between January and August 2023 serve as a warning for Colombian authorities and for the plans to combat criminal economies in President Gustavo Petro’s administration.
Concluding Remarks: A Lengthy Journey Ahead
Despite the progress and efforts made in establishing a dialogue with armed and criminal groups, Gustavo Petro’s peace ambitions are currently clashing with a very different reality in which no clear improvements can be seen in the overall internal security of the country, neither in urban nor rural areas. However, as highlighted earlier, this is an essential condition for the implementation and success of the new drug policy. The success of this policy depends on ensuring improved security conditions, especially in the “hot” and strategically significant areas of the country where violence against civilians persists, fueled by clashes between armed groups for control of criminal economies.
Simultaneously, alongside peace talks, there is a need for greater investments in infrastructure, healthcare, and education. The Colombian state must be able to demonstrate its strong presence and, therefore, gain more legitimacy in the most vulnerable areas of the country through these investments. This likely requires an economic effort much greater than the one declared by the Colombian government, estimated at around 21 billion pesos (approximately 5 billion dollars) for crop substitution projects alone.
Greater investments will also be needed to provide the necessary technologies to combat drug trafficking, strengthen the capabilities of the armed forces to intercept shipments, and destroy infrastructure dedicated to the production of illicit drugs. However, this goal is challenging to achieve with the current budget constraints in the defense sector, which saw a budget cut of over 800 million dollars for 2023.
Lastly, strong political leadership legitimacy would enable Petro to enact comprehensive reforms to ensure the continuity of these ambitious policies in future governments. This is a crucial aspect in the long term because the discontinuity between more liberal and conservative policies is undoubtedly the greatest threat to the efforts made during the four years of governance.
In addition to greater political legitimacy, how can President Petro ensure that his anti-drug policy continues to be implemented effectively and in the long term, avoiding the discontinuities of previous policies, given the political and institutional challenges?
Do you think the European Union (EU) should develop more extensive cooperation projects to support the Colombian government’s peace efforts, particularly in ensuring the safety and well-being of communities affected by the conflict?
How can international organizations play a role in promoting peace and stability in Colombia, given the complex dynamics involving multiple armed groups and ongoing violence?