When Colombia’s newly elected president, Gustavo Petro, stood before the United Nations earlier this year, he reminded world leaders gathered where most of the actual battles have been fought since the United States launched the war on drugs over 40 years ago.
“There has been a genocide on my continent and in my country; millions of people have been sentenced to prison,” Petro said, linking U.S.-backed efforts to eradicate coca—the plant used to make cocaine—to destruction of the Amazon jungle and global warming, not to mention the narco-violence that has killed thousands.
“The war on drugs has failed, the fight against the climate crisis has failed,” Petro said. “I demand from here, from my wounded Latin America, to put an end to the irrational war on drugs. Reducing drug use does not need wars, it needs us all to build a better society.”
To end the drug war in Colombia, the 62-year-old Petro, an economist and former left-wing guerrilla, is pushing an audacious new initiative dubbed “Total Peace” that aims to bring all of the country's armed groups and criminal actors to the table to negotiate demobilization or surrender, thus ending decades of bloody, cocaine-fueled conflict.
The devil is in the details, which remain vague, but a who’s who of the country’s most powerful mafias, paramilitaries, and cartels have expressed interest in taking deals to potentially limit prison time and prevent U.S. extradition. Colombia’s congress just approved legislation to formalize the process. At the same time, Petro officials are reaching out to impoverished coca farmers and seeking to rekindle efforts at crop substitution, the oft-hyped but chronically under-funded alternative of swapping coca plants for coffee and other high-value crops.
If this all sounds too good to be true, there are plenty of skeptics ready to say Petro’s plan is doomed to fail, including many Americans involved in fighting the drug war in Colombia. VICE News interviewed a range of sources—including a former ambassador, ex-DEA agents, and an ex-narcotics prosecutor, along with independent experts who favor progressive reforms. All expressed varying degrees of doubt about the viability of Total Peace.
While the jury is still out as Petro’s plan takes shape in the early stages of his presidency, the universal takeaway was that regardless of the outcome his efforts will have a ripple effect for years to come on the global cocaine trade, which shows no signs of slowing down.
“I don't think these people are ever going to leave a lucrative business like the production and distribution of cocaine,” said Mike Vigil, a decorated former DEA agent who was stationed in Colombia during the Pablo Escobar era. “In a way, negotiating is a stalling tactic where they buy time. They’re able to generate more money and become more powerful.”
Colombia is pumping out more cocaine than ever before, with a record 204,000 hectares of coca under cultivation in 2021, according to the latest United Nations estimate, a stunning increase of 43 percent from the previous year. Meanwhile, overdoses involving cocaine have soared to unprecedented levels in the U.S., although in large part due to fentanyl and synthetic opioids.
The U.S. has poured billions of tax dollars into Colombia since the early 2000s in the form of security aid and counter-narcotics efforts, bankrolling the drug war while also helping to modernize the national police force and military, improving the overall security situation even as coca has proliferated in remote areas beyond government control.
Petro is already cleaning house among the top ranks of the national security forces. One former DEA official, who requested anonymity because they still work in the region, worried Colombia would “go down the route of Venezuela or Bolivia” and end anti-narcotics cooperation.
“Most of the police officials I knew were fired, they got rid of all those generals,” the ex-DEA official said. “He’s trying to get rid of people who would give pushback or institutional knowledge of getting things done. Basically, he’s cut out the entire leadership of the military and police.”
The official warned the U.S. could “start tearing up trade agreements” if Petro does not keep some semblance of status quo. While that may sound extreme, the Trump administration was in fact close to decertifying Colombia as a partner in the drug war, a move that would have roiled geopolitics across the region and limited the flow of aid dollars.
I don’t know a single agent that thinks Petro is legit and won’t go the way of Maduro or Castro
Kevin Whitaker, who was the U.S. ambassador to Colombia from 2014 to 2019, told VICE News he had to push Trump officials not to move forward with decertification because the pre-Petro government was uncooperative about eradicating coca crops. The Biden administration has mostly been publicly supportive of Petro’s plans, but the U.S. ultimately does have significant leverage in the relationship.
Whitaker, who now leads a consulting firm, said he too had heard of “gutting” leadership changes in the top ranks of Colombian security forces, with DEA and other U.S. law enforcement agents “responding in a commendably loyal way to what they see as the throwing aside of the people they’ve been through the wars with.”
While Whitaker was positive about Petro's efforts to achieve “Total Peace,” he worried the country is not yet ready for such an ambitious goal. “Colombia is too big and the security forces are too limited,” he said. “The cultural strength of illegality is too strong, the infrastructure is too weak to implement significant effort at national level. Trying to do everything everywhere all at once is a recipe for failure and another failure is not what Colombia needs.”
The cynicism is widespread, in large part because previous efforts to make peace with groups like the FARC guerrillas have been only partial successes, with some dissident factions holding out and others returning to the cocaine trade after failing to find alternate livelihoods.
Bonnie Klapper, an ex-federal prosecutor in New York who helped dismantle Colombia’s Norte del Valle Cartel, told VICE News: “I don’t know a single agent that thinks Petro is legit and won’t go the way of Maduro or Castro,” referring to the leaders of Venezuela and Cuba.
But Klapper, now a defense attorney defending accused drug traffickers, cautioned it’s natural for drug warriors to bristle at change: “People who make a lot of money on the war on drugs are perfectly happy to have it continue,” she said. “It’s like the military industrial complex.”
One of the groups key to achieving Total Peace is the Gulf Clan, a narco-paramilitary organization involved in cocaine production, human smuggling, illicit gold mining, and other criminal enterprises in several regions. The group’s leader, known as Otoniel, was captured just before Petro took office and extradited to New York City, where he’s currently awaiting trial.
There has been skepticism that Otoniel’s successors at the top of the Gulf Clan will be willing to cut a deal with the government, but Klapper said she currently represents one member of the group in a U.S. case and thinks those lower down the food chain, who are often trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence, are eager to find a way out.
“There’s always going to be guys at top making a ton of money but the lower echelon, the support staff, they want a different life, and if Petro can offer that, maybe it’ll diminish the ability of groups like the Gulf Clan to recruit,” Klapper said. The hardest part, she added, might be handling factions that refuse to participate in the process. “Then you have to decide: What do I do? Send in the troops? Extradite? Do I fight them? Or do you take baby steps?”
While Petro officials have made it clear they do not intend to fully legalize cocaine, the president broadly supports drug decriminalization and has spoken often about supporting the needs of coca growers, who are often mired in poverty in remote areas controlled by armed groups.
Half of all coca crops are concentrated in just 12 of Colombia’s 1,122 municipalities, according to the UN, with hotspots near environmentally sensitive jungles, Indigenous reserves, national parks, and other protected areas. The UN report also found that growers in recent years have switched to more productive varieties of coca, optimizing yields and maximizing cocaine output to meet growing global demand, especially in Europe.
Some believe the UN report on record cocaine production in Colombia actually under-estimates the scale of the problem. Andrew Cunningham of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction noted that in 2019 global cocaine production was estimated to be just over 1,700 metric tons, but law enforcement seized over 1,400 tons that year, leaving a mere 300 tons available to all of the world’s consumers—math that simply does not add up.
“You get a situation where law enforcement seizures are more than is estimated to be produced globally, and that clearly can’t be true,” Cunningham said. “We’ve been saying for a while we’ve got problems with the figures.”
The international fixation on coca production and eradication is counter-productive for those who have long called for more holistic solutions to the underlying problems that drive Colombia’s poorest citizens into planting illicit crops. The legal alternatives are simply not viable in some places, either due to the presence of groups like Gulf Clan, or because the infrastructure does not exist to transport coffee, cacao, and other alternatives to market.
If this fails you’ll see higher levels of violence, you’ll see more cocaine production, you'll see the destruction of the Amazon jungle
For years, the U.S. supported “aerial fumigation” or spraying of herbicide to wipe out swathes of coca in remote areas. But amid growing concern that the herbicide causes illness, Colombia has backed away from spraying and switched to “manual eradication” or sending in teams of soldiers to rip out coca bushes by hand. While Petro initially said all eradication would end, he has since pivoted to anti-narcotics forces concentrating on taking out large plantations.
The fundamental problem, according to Adam Isaacson, director of the defense oversight program at the Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO that advocates for human rights in the region, is that the Colombian government is still absent from huge chunks of the countryside. Rather than doing the hard work of developing infrastructure, the band-aid solution is to chop down as much coca as possible.
“The people who are critics of Petro and want to start spraying again do not have an interest in solving this problem,” Isaacson said. “Maybe they think Colombia will never govern its territory so let’s just spray and mow the lawn and keep it manageable. It’s a short-term numbers game.”
Historians also see lessons in the mistakes of past negotiations with paramilitaries and guerrillas in Colombia from the 1980s to the 2000s. Andrei Gomez-Suarez, a Colombian expert on reconciliation and peace at the U.K.’s University of Winchester, said that in each instance previously, “The drug trade continues and just changes hands.”
“You really need a holistic approach to engage all the actors that benefit from the drug industry,” Gomez-Suarez said. “But Petro is not naive and understands the only way that’s going to happen is if he finds a way to collaborate with the U.S.”
The stakes, he emphasized, are high: “If this fails you’ll see higher levels of violence, you’ll see more cocaine production, you'll see the destruction of the Amazon jungle.”
Petro has only been in office since August, and the Total Peace effort remains in the early stages, with government officials laying the groundwork for next steps. But Colombian presidents are limited to just one four-year term, so Petro faces urgency to move quickly. For some, just planting the idea that peace is possible is significant.
Sanho Tree, an expert on drug policy and coca production in Colombia at the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., compared the magnitude of the challenge facing Petro to efforts to end opium poppy cultivation in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Tree noted that the amount of ungoverned territory Colombia is bigger than Texas and California combined, and without the ability to police that land, coca will continue to proliferate.
“You can't talk about regulating if you don’t have regulators,” Tree said. “You can’t have regulation without rule of law. If your regulators come back headless, the regulations are moot.”
For his part, Petro seems to grasp that simply declaring an end to the drug war does not make it so. He’s also savvy enough to realize the cocaine trade will not simply evaporate without deep systemic changes on the global level. In his speech at the UN, he drew a connection between drug addiction and “the true addiction of this phase of human history: the addiction to irrational power, profit and money.”
“There will be no peace without social, economic and environmental justice,” Petro said. “We are at war with the planet too. Without peace with the planet, there will be no peace among nations.”