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Colombia’s Uneasy Peace and Troubled Borders
Colombia’s Uneasy Peace and Troubled Borders
Report 11 / Latin America & Caribbean

War and Drugs in Colombia

Drugs finance the left-wing insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the far-right United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) to a large degree, and thus are an integral part of Colombia's conflict.

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Executive Summary

Drugs finance the left-wing insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the far-right United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) to a large degree, and thus are an integral part of Colombia's conflict. But while the state must confront drug trafficking forcefully, President Alvaro Uribe's claim that the conflict pits a democracy against merely "narco-terrorists" who must be met by all-out war does not do justice to the complexity of the decades-old struggle. Fighting drugs and drug trafficking is a necessary but not sufficient condition for moving Colombia toward peace. The view that anti-drug and anti-insurgency policies are indistinguishable reduces the chances either will succeed and hinders the search for a sustainable peace.

More crops have been sprayed under President Uribe than ever before in Colombia, effectively reducing coca cultivation from more than 100,000 hectares in late 2002 to some 86,000 hectares at the end of 2003. Hundreds of small basic coca processing facilities as well as more sophisticated cocaine laboratories have been destroyed by the police and army. However, cocaine street prices in the U.S. have not increased and consumption remains high despite a 17 per cent increase in cocaine seizures in Europe and a substantial increase in cocaine consumption in new markets like Brazil.

Aerial spraying is not likely to keep pace with the geographic mobility and increasing productivity of illicit crops. The interdiction of drug and chemical precursor shipments is very difficult, not least because of the porosity of Colombia's borders, and alternative development programs have been insufficient. The finances of the armed groups do not appear to have been hit hard, and everything indicates that they can keep the war going for years.

While fighting drugs is clearly crucial, peace must remain Colombia's policy priority. The paramilitary AUC evolved from serving the drug barons of the 1980s and early 1990s as hired guns into a national federation of war lords in charge of an ever larger chunk of the drug business. Fighting the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN) and FARC in part linked with state agents, the AUC committed atrocious crimes against civilians they stigmatised as guerrilla supporters. At the beginning of 2005 and after eighteen months of negotiations, the Uribe administration has demobilised some 3,000 paramilitary fighters, including the notorious AUC chief Salavtore Mancuso, who is wanted, along with a number of other paramilitary leaders, in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges.

Nevertheless, the paramilitary drug networks appear to remain in place, with the bulk of their illegal assets, particularly in rural Colombia, unaffected. The government has failed to establish promising peace talks with the ELN, the insurgent group with the most tenuous drug links. Nor has it significantly weakened the FARC -- whose ties to drugs are deep -- despite much intensified security efforts and a major military offensive (Plan Patriota) begun in 2003. The FARC retains a strong presence in most coca and poppy growing regions and participates actively, along with the AUC and the new generation of "baby drug cartels", in the narcotics business.

The Colombian government needs to review the relationship between its counter-drug and security policies and design and implement a broad rural development strategy that includes much larger alternative development programs. Voluntary crop eradication should be the rule and forced eradication, particularly aerial spraying, the exception restricted to large holdings where small farmers are unlikely to be affected. The government should also renew offers for ceasefires with the insurgents aimed at their demobilisation and political integration, locally and regionally.

The prospect for bringing an end to Colombia's armed conflict would also be much increased if demand for drugs could be reduced in the large U.S. and European consumption centres, since this would cut the profit margin of the armed groups as well as international drug trafficking organisations. To achieve this, governments in the U.S. and Europe ought to strengthen interdiction, arrest and prosecution of drug traffickers and money launderers. They should also examine urgently whether harm reduction measures have the potential to reduce demand in the criminal cocaine and heroin markets and if studies indicate this is the case, implement such measures.

Bogotá/Brussels, 27 January 2005

Colombia’s Uneasy Peace and Troubled Borders

President Iván Duque Márquez entered office in August 2018 as armed groups expand and the humanitarian situation in neighbouring Venezuela drives thousands across the border every day. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018 annual early-warning update for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the EU to work to shore up the peace agreement and help Colombia respond to the humanitarian emergency.
 

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2018 – Third Update.

The inauguration in August 2018 of a new Colombian president, Iván Duque, from the right-leaning Democratic Centre Party, has fuelled uncertainty about the future of the 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Nor is it yet clear how the new government plans to tackle expansionist armed groups, booming coca crop production and the humanitarian disaster in neighbouring Venezuela. President Duque came to power backed by ardent opponents of the FARC deal and having vowed himself during his election campaign to “modify” parts of the agreement. Thus far, he has charted a fairly moderate course, though could still face pressure from hardliners within his government and party to undercut the accord’s provisions. To shore up the FARC agreement, the EU and European governments, who are among its most prominent supporters, should:

  • Press upon President Duque’s government the costs of backtracking on the deal, including the risk of alienating rural Colombians, strengthening the appeal in the countryside of non-state armed groups, including FARC dissidents, and potentially complicating relations with Europeans that back the deal;
     
  • Continue to offer financial and political support to local reintegration initiatives led by former guerrillas, while pushing the government and former guerrillas to design and carry out a national reintegration policy that would assist former fighters transition to civilian life;
     
  • Reiterate support for negotiations between the government and Colombia’s other guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army (ELN);
     
  • Encourage the government to address smallholder farmers’ longstanding grievances, notably unequal land ownership and the difficulty of securing formal land titles. The EU and European governments should also offer political and financial support to programs related to coca crop substitution, such as building roads, giving coca growers technical assistance in cultivating legal crops and improving market access for agricultural exports. Crop substitution is the most effective means of convincing coca growers to abandon illicit crops.
     
  • Increase the provision of humanitarian aid to Venezuelan refugees who cross the border into Colombia in coordination with UN and other international agencies. By doing so, the EU and its member states would protect vulnerable Venezuelans and pre-empt potential claims from Bogota of being unable to finance the FARC deal and accommodate the Venezuelan influx at the same time.

The New Government and the FARC Peace Agreement

In his inaugural address, President Duque spoke of revising the FARC deal, “to cor-rect” those parts that he and his party consider faulty. But the explicit changes that he has proposed thus far are largely cosmetic. Instead of adhering to any dogma, his approach appears to be reactive to circumstances, in particular new security concerns and fiscal constraints. 

Less pragmatic elements of Duque’s party and governing coalition hold posi-tions of influence, however, and could still undermine parts of the peace deal, above all the socio-economic reform the deal promises but that has yet to come to fruition. The president is considered to occupy middle ground in the Democratic Centre party, whereas many party stalwarts are loyal primarily to the party founder and former president, Álvaro Uribe, a determined opponent of the FARC deal. At Duque’s inauguration, Ernesto Macías, head of Congress and member of the Demo-cratic Centre, lambasted the peace agreement and its architect, former president Juan Manuel Santos. He argued that Colombia had not actually suffered a veritable armed conflict with the FARC requiring a peace deal but rather a sustained attack by a criminal group that left the country “awash in coca”. María Fernanda Cabal, another party hardliner and senator, has called on Duque to replace the “useless” leadership of the armed forces, whom she sees as close to Santos. Opponents of the peace deal are likely to use their privileged positions as part of the ruling coalition to pressure President Duque toward policies and appointments that serve their cause. Duque’s nomination of Claudia Ortiz, an outspoken critic of the accord and land reform, to lead the Rural Development Agency, as well as the lack of support from government and Congress for a new land registry as promised in the peace ac-cord, suggest that rural reform may be the main victim of the new government’s harder-line factions. 

That said, the Democratic Centre does not govern alone. Duque’s vice president, Marta Lucía Ramírez, hails from the Conservative Party, as do his high commis-sioners for “legality” (formerly peace) and “stabilisation”. Ramírez would prefer to honour the peace deal in full, but the president has trimmed her authority over post-conflict planning and her influence will depend on whether Duque restores her powers. 

Substantive and Symbolic Changes to the Peace Deal
 

Notwithstanding the competing voices within his government, President Duque himself appears aware that overt opposition to the accord would cost him support at home and abroad. To both please hardliners and avoid offending the peace deal’s supporters, he may cite Colombia’s financial straits as justification for cuts that would dilute the most expensive parts of the deal. As described, one likely target for such cuts are provisions for rural development and land reform, costs of which are officially estimated at more than $30 billion over more than a decade. A similar fiscal squeeze could befall the program for voluntary coca crop substitution laid out in the peace accord. Duque has stated that he will comply with agreements already signed with 80,000 coca-growing families to provide stipends and technical assistance to enable them to shift to legal farming. But he and his ministers have made clear that, in line with U.S. demands, they wish to prioritise forced eradication and fumigation of coca crops, possibly with drones.

The policies that Duque and his party have decried most vociferously in recent years – the peace deal’s plans for transitional justice and FARC leaders’ participation in politics, both ratified by Congress and approved by the courts – are more likely to suffer symbolic rather than substantive changes. For example, the deal makes FARC participants in the illegal drug trade eligible for immunity from prosecution so long as they can show their involvement was for the insurgency’s material gain rather than their own. Duque plans to pass a law to eliminate all such judicial benefits for convicted drug traffickers. But, even if he does, he will be unable to retroactively prosecute already demobilised FARC commanders and fighters, due to constitutional provisions requiring that the lightest sentence be imposed when more than one law applies to the crime (in this case, the lightest sentence is that outlined by the peace agreement). In terms of FARC’s political participation, the movement currently has four legislators in both houses of Congress, part of an eight-year quota established in the peace deal. Any attempt to take away those seats would likely lead to a legal and political quagmire. It appears unlikely the new government will attempt to do so, however much the ruling party chafes at the presence of FARC deputies.

Despite the peace agreement, areas formerly under guerrilla control face persistent or even worsening insecurity, including displacement and high murder rates.

Other parts of the agreement President Duque resolutely backs. He repeatedly voices support for reintegrating former guerrillas into civilian life, though his gov-ernment still lacks a clear policy for doing so. The National Reincorporation Coun-cil, created by the peace agreement to design a reintegration policy for former fighters, has approved a mere handful of projects to that end, though over 100 ini-tiatives led by individual or small groups of low-level fighters are underway with-out its approval. Reintegration is also bedevilled by former combatants’ frustra-tions with the process so far. Roughly 1,500 former guerrillas remain in the can-tonments created for their reintegration, even though 13,000 people were accredit-ed as having belonged to the FARC (of whom about 23 per cent are women). Of the 11,500 who have left, some have attempted to set up small businesses or coopera-tives while awaiting government financial support; others have given up on receiv-ing more assistance but aim to survive on their monthly stipends until they run out in August 2019. A small but growing number have joined armed dissident groups.  

The Reintegration and Normalisation Agency, the Colombian body in charge of carrying out reintegration policies, is under new leadership appointed by Santos a few months before leaving office. That change may provide an opportunity to over-come the agency’s longstanding disputes with the FARC over the most suitable programs for former combatants. Both the agency and the National Reincorpora-tion Council, as well as the FARC itself, will need to make far greater efforts to en-sure that reintegration packages are tailored to account for the gender and ethnici-ty of former fighters. Vice President Ramírez, who has special responsibility for the government’s gender policies, should play a role in designing specific economic programs and protection against sexual violence for female ex-fighters.

Security Threats and the Drug Trade

Despite the peace agreement, areas formerly under guerrilla control face persistent or even worsening insecurity, including displacement and high murder rates. At least 331 community leaders have died, since the start of 2016, while 71 former FARC members have also been murdered, according to the UN, since the peace deal was signed; suspected perpetrators of only a small number of these killings have been arrested. In response to rising violence levels, the government appears to be returning to the counter-insurgency model of “clear-hold-build” followed by President Uribe. But that approach largely failed at the time to clear territories of armed factions so that state institutions could take root, and there is little reason to believe it can succeed now.
 
FARC dissidents – who reject the peace deal – pose the most visible threat, along with ELN guerrillas and drug traffickers. At least thirteen dissident groups, comprising a minimum of 1,600 fighters, are recruiting across the country. In Co-lombia’s south-eastern plains, Gentil Duarte, a prominent ex-FARC commander, seeks to unite the dissidents and create a new FARC. In the south west, along the Pacific coast and the Ecuador border, illegal economies, notably coca production and cocaine processing and trafficking, serve as the dissidents’ financial base. In the north, fighting among dissidents and other armed groups has led violence to spike. Four key FARC commanders who once accepted the accord recently joined the dissidents in the eastern plains, suggesting that these emerging factions are becoming magnets for those sceptical of the new government’s good faith in carry-ing out the deal or concerned about the prospect of criminal probes into their activ-ities. The best way to stem the flow of defections would be to honour promises to establish effective reintegration programs for former fighters.

Crisis Group estimates that ELN guerrillas are still active in about 10 per cent of Colombia’s territory, mainly along the border with Venezuela and the Pacific coast. The ELN has carried out massacres in the south west and north east, supposedly against armed rivals, while playing a greater role in drug trafficking and using vio-lence to assert territorial control. In August, its guerrillas kidnapped (and later re-leased) nine soldiers and policemen in Arauca and Chocó, in part to press for con-tinuation of peace talks held under President Santos. Duque, however, has sus-pended talks until the ELN releases all its kidnapping victims, who now number ten according to a government list. Of these, at least one is confirmed dead, while seven others are suspected to have also died. 
 

Duque has also demanded that the ELN stop all its criminal activities as another precondition for talks. He occasionally stipulates that the guerrillas assemble in cantonments, as the FARC fighters initially did, and insists that peace talks focus on disarmament and demobilisation rather than substantive reforms to the Colombian economy and state institutions. This last condition means in essence that the guerrillas would have to hand over their weapons without realising any of their core political demands. The ELN is sure to reject such preconditions. The new government’s recent decision to remove Venezuela as a guarantor country further diminishes prospects for talks. With safe havens and growing operations in Venezuela, the ELN sees Caracas as a crucial ally. The ELN peace process so far has been frustrating, with mistrust between the sides and the guerrilla’s continuing armed activity causing talks to stall earlier this year. But Duque and Colombia’s international partners should persist, particularly given that the group’s military defeat remains a remote prospect while it enjoys havens across the border.

Drug traffickers, including the Gaitán Self-Defence Forces, operate in north-western Colombia and along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, though military operations and internal fractures have weakened them. Colombia’s Congress passed a law in July that foresaw reduced prison sentences for the Gaitán in exchange for its demobilisation and information on its activities and allies, but the group has yet to accept the law’s terms of surrender. In the meantime, Colombian authorities have killed or captured some of the group’s leaders. Drug trafficking and production have suffered only limited damage from the military and police offensive against the Gaitán as other groups fill gaps in trafficking routes while farmers continue to grow coca for profit.

All armed groups exploit drugs to finance activities, gain local power and recruit. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime announced in September that coca cultivation areas reached record levels in 2017 of 171,000 hectares, with estimated cocaine production also at a high of over 1,300 metric tonnes. Under U.S. pressure, the Duque government has announced that it will rely on forced eradication to reduce illicit crop cultivation. But it has also stated that it will respect commitments to the peace agreement’s crop substitution program, which has already eliminated at least 20,000 hectares of coca with local farmers’ consent. Coordination between the military-led eradication and civilian-led substitution programs has been troubled since early 2017, prompting resentment from coca-growers who say they are willing to switch crops but have still watched their plants being forcibly destroyed.

Previous episodes of intensified forced eradication have shown that coercive counter-narcotic strategies, including fumigation, erode trust between coca growers and the government, while strengthening illegal armed groups purporting to defend the former. The EU should advise the Duque government that repeating this approach is likely to yield the same result. It could also fill gaps in funding for the crop substitution programs. The EU could, for example, support related initiatives, such as building infrastructure, offering technical assistance for coca growers to cultivate legal crops, or helping secure better access to European markets for Colombian products grown by former coca farmers.

Neighbour Troubles

At least one million Venezuelans have entered Colombia fleeing economic misery, dire shortages of medical and other essential supplies and, in some cases, political repression since the start of 2017. Around half remain clustered in border areas marked by high rates of poverty and unemployment. President Duque has acknowledged the need to accept these migrants and work with Latin American partners and UN bodies to protect their well-being. He has sounded a firm line on Venezuela, telling the UN General Assembly that a stronger regional “diplomatic siege” is needed to “sanction … those who have laid the way for this atrocious trag-edy”.

Growing tensions between Bogotá and Caracas, as well as the absence of stable channels of communication between the countries’ armed forces, could lead to worsening violence. The risk is most acute along borders that armed groups, above all the ELN, regularly cross. In these areas, illegal economies flourish, including trafficking in cocaine, fuel, cattle, and illegally mined gold and coltan. Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, accused Duque’s predecessor Santos of sponsoring a re-cent assassination attempt against him, offering no evidence to back up that claim. At the same time, senior Latin American and U.S. officials have floated the idea of military intervention against Maduro’s government. President Duque has – sensi-bly – ruled out Colombian support for such an initiative, which would almost cer-tainly make things much worse (even if the Venezuelan military abandoned Madu-ro and his government were quickly toppled – neither of which is certain – any newly installed transitional government in Caracas would be weak and, beset by pockets of armed resistance and the spread of organised crime, would almost cer-tainly be unable to impose order across the country). 

As it bears the brunt of the humanitarian emergency, Colombia undoubtedly needs more support from the EU to cope with the exodus of desperate Venezuelans and contain instability along the border. European backing on an issue that is at the core of Duque’s security concerns could help persuade the government that it should attend to EU concerns and keep the budget for the peace process intact.