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Colombia’s Coca Boom
Colombia’s Coca Boom
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 Coca Boom

Originally published in Foreign Affairs

Over the last seven years, the government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has worked strenuously to dissociate the country from its image as a cocaine exporter. In 2016, Santos struck a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the guerrilla group that for years stood watch over coca farms and had become the wholesaler and arbiter of the cocaine trafficking business.

Santos had hoped that the deal would not only end decades of fighting, but also paralyze the drug trade and starve other criminal groups of revenue. And yet Colombia’s cocaine production is booming. Last year, it produced its largest coca crop in nearly two decades.

Washington has looked on disapprovingly. “More coca, more cocaine, more cocaine, more security problems,” Kevin Whitaker, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, told El Tiempo, just days after the White House threatened in mid-September to decertify the country as a partner on the war against drugs. The last time that Colombia suffered such ignominy was in the 1990s, when President Ernesto Samper was accused of having received slush money from the Cali cartel, which was then the country’s biggest exporter of cocaine.

The full article can be read at Foreign Affairs.