Colombia's War on Drugs Will Thrive No Matter Who's in the White House

“Something that hasn’t worked in the last 40 years is something that’s just not going to work,” said one observer.
October 29, 2020, 4:11pm
Colombian police land a helicopter near illegal coca plantations in Tumaco, Colombia

MEDELLÍN, Colombia -- U.S. President Donald Trump can be a volatile diplomat. 

After meeting with one of the United States most trusted South American allies, Trump said last year that his Colombian counterpart, President Iván Duque, had promised the U.S. “he was going to stop drugs. More drugs are coming out of Colombia right now than before he was president - so he has done nothing for us.”

On the one hand, he was right. More cocaine is being produced and exported from Colombia than ever before.

On the other hand, U.S. presidents haven’t helped. History shows that the U.S. doesn’t stray from the status quo of the “drug war,” first declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971. In Latin America, that generally consists of the U.S. funding the forced eradication of drug plants, in Colombia’s case mainly coca and marijuana, as well as a militarized crackdown on the criminal groups that traffic them. Mexico is another nation in the region where a “war on drugs” has killed hundreds of thousands of people since 2007.

Yet after pumping billions of dollars into counter-narcotics efforts in Colombia, cocaine still floods global markets. 

Trump has long trumpeted a simple solution for drug-trafficking: a scorched earth policy of destroying all the coca there is, observes Sandra Borda, a professor of international relations at Colombia’s University of the Andes. “It’s this moralist position on drugs that’s classic Republican party thinking,” she said. “I’m not saying the Democrats will be more flexible about the war on drugs. But they seem to be able to understand a lot of other dimensions of the problem.”

Maybe. Former Vice President Biden is leading Trump in the polls in the approach to the U.S. elections, but if he is victorious his foreign policy with Colombia is likely to be more of the same when it comes to drugs, such as continued pressure for eradication, according to a recent op-ed he wrote in a Colombian newspaper. 

That said, he is expected to inject more nuanced institution-building into the U.S. - Colombia relationship, something that signals a departure from his potential predecessor. Biden has pledged that “rebuilding the alliance” with Colombia would be one of his main priorities.

“The relationship has been narco-fied to the issue of coca… when Duque comes to Washington, the meeting with Trump begins and ends with the matter of coca,” says Frank Mora, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the western hemisphere under the administration of former President Barack Obama. 

“A Biden administration would re-focus on democracy and human rights. I think that’s going to be more pronounced than we’ve seen in the past and I think the vice president will put those issues at the top of his foreign policy agenda.”

Since the beginning of Trump’s term in office, the President has focused singularly on reducing the flow of drugs into the United States. For Colombia, that’s meant enormous pressure on Duque to reduce the amount of acreage under cultivation of coca. It’s part of a wider, multi-billion-dollar foreing policy initiative launched in the early 2000’s called Plan Colombia. 

When Colombia inked a deal in 2016 with the left-wing guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), then U.S. President Obama and Colombian President of the time, Juan Manuel Santos re-dubbed it Paz (Peace) Colombia in a nod to the country’s next chapter: peace-building. But peace is yet to come. If Biden should win, he is likely to take up that mantle again and pressure Duque to follow through on the softer elements of the peace deal: rural development, crop substitution and to assist in strengthening basic democratic institutions.

President Duque and members of his party are hellbent on doing away with a special transitional justice court that hears cases on FARC leaders and actors who were involved in the armed conflict. Biden would probably pressure Duque to keep the court intact. Colombia’s government under Duque tried to reform the peace deal and has come under criticism for not implementing key features of the agreement. Biden officials would probably push for Duque to strengthen existing parts of the deal that are not getting implemented, such as crop substitution assistance for coca-growing families, protecting ex-combatants, and funding social programs for former guerrillas in reincorporation zones. 

Finally, ex-FARC combatants were guaranteed protections if they laid down their arms. But they, along with activists and social leaders, are getting mowed down by criminal groups. This year, 237 social leaders have been murdered, and massacres in rural areas are also on the rise. A Biden administration could emphasize policies that help the Duque government increase security for these vulnerable groups.

The war on drugs has emphasized long-standing grievances in Colombian society. For decades, Colombians fought each other in a civil war involving multiple insurgencies. Cocaine entered the scene in the 1980s. The FARC began trafficking the drug and taxing farmers, bringing in huge sums of cash. In the 1990s, right-wing paramilitary groups formed by land-owners to fight the FARC began trafficking the drug themselves. By the late 1990s, Colombia’s rickety democracy had exploded with narco violence.

Plan Colombia dollars and a right-wing populist president named Alvaro Uribe changed that. Uribe’s military campaign against armed groups and the U.S. military backup that came with it, a plan Biden endorsed at the time as a senator, are largely credited with beating the FARC back into submission. But Uribe’s eight years as president were also loaded with scandals linking politicians to paramilitaries and a number of human rights abuses. 

Still, U.S. cash keeps flowing into Bogotá’s cofferes. U.S. aid to Colombia for 2020 will be $573 million compared to $315 million in 2016. Plan Colombia notched some success. Homicides have fallen since the early 2000s, from 69 per 100,000 in 2002 to 25 per 100,000 in 2018. But the volume of land under coca cultivation has skyrocketed, doubling between 2007 to 2017 to reach historic highs. There’s more land in Colombia dedicated to coca cultivation now compared to when the FARC rebels controlled most of Colombia.

Few countries in Latin America have taken steps towards more progressive policies to manage the demand and supply of illicit drugs, but there are some outliers. Uruguay passed a law in 2013 that legalized and regulated the consumption of cannabis. Bolivia and Peru both allow a limited amount of legal coca cultivation.

Colombian senator Iván Marulanda is trying to add Colombia to that short list of nations in a region that has been so ravaged in the last few decades by violence related to the drug trade. He is pitching a cocaine legalization bill to the country’s congress this month. 

He said of the U.S.-funded drug in Colombia: “Something that hasn’t worked in the last 40 years is something that’s just not going to work.” 

Colombian police land a helicopter near illegal coca plantations in Tumaco, Colombia, on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Ivan Valencia, Bloomberg via Getty Images.