‘High’ Politics: Drugs and the Colombian Peace Negotiations

Leaning back in his chair, the Colombian Country Attaché and Latin American Regional Director of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Jay Bergman, looks somber. “The government of Colombia has sacrificed [for peace] – it has lost hundreds of soldiers and military officers every year. The Colombian police, 175,000 strong, last year lost about 200 police officers in a combat situation [with the FARC] – 1 out of every 650/700 police officers. That is the equivalent of an NYPD officer being killed once a week”.

Image courtesy US DEA, © 2007. Some rights reserved.
Image courtesy US DEA, © 2007. Some rights reserved.

Narcotrafficking has funded the various vaguely ideological but relentlessly paramilitary and guerilla forces active in the country, including the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has spent the last sixteen months negotiating with FARC leadership in Havana to reach some form of peace. Both parties have agreed on an agenda of five-plus-one points: agricultural reform, political participation, narcotics, disarmament, victim’s rights, and peace implementation.[i] At time of this writing, the Santos administration and the FARC have reached common ground on the first two points – agriculture and political participation, and are currently discussing a narcotics proposal.

The FARC is extensively financed by narco-trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion related to the drug trade, using billions of dollars in drug money to fund violent campaigns in support of an increasingly irrelevant pseudo-Marxism. Bergman continues: “96% of cocaine in the United States originated in Colombia, according to forensic analysis”. Its primary source of income is the taxing and trading of cocaine; in 2010, approximately 300 tons of cocaine were produced in Colombia, 60% of which in areas controlled by the FARC[ii]. The FARC levies taxes on the growth and processing of coca leaves and receives payment from narcotics groups in Colombia, or processes the cocaine itself and ships it to Central American cartels.[iii] Resolving the narcotics issue will therefore be difficult and will have international implications, most substantively for the United States.

At the dawn of the new millennium, despite the concerted efforts of Colombian President Andres Pastrana’s administration and United States law enforcement, Colombia was still a mecca for narco-trafficking. After the events of September 11th, the Bush administration decided to allocate more funding and military aid to fight the newly-dubbed “narcoterrorism,” reinforcing the existing “Plan Colombia” initiated by President Clinton. Over a decade later, Bergman explains, “the Drugs Enforcement Agency [in Colombia] is the largest permanent US law enforcement presence in history … We have [helped bring the] FARC from where they were in 2004 and 2005 to where they’ve been compelled to the peace negotiating table”.

While U.S. and Colombian efforts have succeeded in reducing the FARC’s military success, the Santos administration now seeks to eliminate the FARCs cocaine-based financial lifeline as part of the ongoing Havana talks. Following the successful implementation of a peace plan, Santos has claimed that “Colombia will practically disappear overnight from its role as the world’s biggest cocaine producer.”[iv][v]  Meanwhile, FARC’s opening position, stated at the opening of the XXth round of negotiations in January 2014, was maximalist: it demanded blanket legalization of drug cultivation and the institution of a “national program for the substitution of the illicit use of coca, poppy, or marijuana crops”, which explicitly entails “regulat[ing] the production and marketing [of illicit crops] through direct state intervention” and “recog[nizing] the nutritional, medicinal, therapeutic, and cultural qualities” of said drugs.[vi]

Though the Santos administration has not forwarded a counterproposal, initial signs indicate that some compromise on the narcotics issue could be possible.

Santos’ rhetoric towards drugs has historically been rather tolerant. In 2010, the Colombian president supported Mexican head of state Felipe Calderon’s call for a renewed discussion on the legal status of marijuana in light of California’s impending referendum on the matter[vii]. Santos’ permissive approach to drugs carries Constitutional precedent: in 1994, the Colombian Constitutional Court prohibited penal action against ‘personal’ drug use, defined as the possession of less than twenty grams of marijuana or one gram of cocaine[viii]. In August of 2012, Santos reaffirmed the ruling by ratifying Law 1566[ix], which identified drug addiction as a public health – rather than security – issue. The decriminalization of some types of drug use is a point upon which both the Santos administration and the FARC might agree, but it is unclear whether the Colombian government will be able to take further steps. Though Santos and the FARC-EP peace delegation seem to concur on curtailing the traffic of illegal substances, the latter continues to deny any involvement in narcotrafficking, instead blaming the Colombian “State” for the perpetuation of the drug trade[x].

Santos is unlikely to agree to the legalization of coca or poppy production because the cultivation of illicit crops is currently the FARC-EP’s primary source of income. Any legalization of coca or poppy would thus give it the ability to continue to profit from narcotrafficking, undermining Colombian democracy and Santos’ political legitimacy while providing the FARC-EP with consistent means for maintaining a considerable political presence. The FARC is also well aware of the fate that befell the former M-19 guerrilla group, the second-largest leftist force in the 1980’s: after demobilizing into a formal political party, the Democratic Alliance M-19 (AD/M-19), it promptly fell into obscurity and disappeared.

The dilemma for both parties is stark: the FARC wishes to maintain its illicit income in a post-peace environment, while the Colombian government wants deny a “political” FARC the income and power that comes with those narcotics proceeds and yet reach a peace agreement. One possible compromise to appease both parties would be the legalization of marijuana, which has already been undertaken in Uruguay and some states in the USA. The FARC–EP is the principal dealer of Colombian marijuana, the majority of which is sold on the domestic market. In fact, the FARC-EP’s peace negotiator, ‘Pablo Catatumbo’ (Jorge Torres Victoria’s alias) heads the Joint Western Front of the guerilla group, which controls many of the marijuana production and distribution operations.[xi] Though legalization would involve government control and taxation of marijuana crops, it would nonetheless create a black market demand that the FARC-EP could satisfy to a larger scale. Marijuana legalization would allow the FARC-EP a continued funding stream while achieving a symbolic victory over the Colombian government.  At the same time, the Santos administration can promote the move as progressive, pointing to Uruguay’s recent legislation and U.S. President Barack Obama’s verbal support for state-level marijuana legalization.

For now, this is mere speculation. The details of the Havana negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC are closely held, and both sides have noted that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” Santos claims that an overarching agreement will be reached before the end of the year, but expressed doubts as to the possibility that it will occur before the presidential election in May.  Of the six points on the agenda, the narcotics issue looms large in any future peace agreement, both in Colombia and abroad. Whether legalization of marijuana, or some other combination of measures will be enough to satisfy the FARC is uncertain.  Another variable to take into account is the criticism Santos would receive from Colombia’s civil society and international partners were he to retreat from a hardline antidrug stance. This is the quandary currently confronting the peace negotiators in Havana. Neither Santos nor the FARC want to reach an impasse, yet the issue of narcotics is incredibly divisive and fundamental to each party’s agenda. Colombia’s post-peace future relies on drugs – their absence or presence, their sanction or censure, will determine whether Colombia will be able to advance as a successful democracy, unmarred by insurgency and ancillary crime.

[i] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-23819097

[ii] http://www.insightcrime.org/farc-peace/farc-criminal-activities-income

[iii] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/08/world/americas/08mexico.html?_r=0


[v] Deutsche Pressagenteur 19 January 2014

[vi] http://farc-epeace.org/index.php/communiques/communiques-peace-delegation/item/319-national-program-for-the-substitution-of-the-illicit-use-of-coca,-poppy-or-marijuana-crops.html

[vii] http://colombiareports.co/santos-seeks-united-stance-on-drug-legalization/

[viii] http://www.americasquarterly.org/node/978

[ix] http://www.unodc.org/documents/colombia/Documentostecnicos/Ley_1566.pdf

[x] http://farc-epeace.org/index.php/communiques/communiques-peace-delegation/item/290-farc-welcome-popular-meeting-on-illicit-drugs-in-bogota.html


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