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A Peace Deal with Colombia's Marxist Guerrillas Won't Fix Latin America's Cocaine Problem

Colombia's broader drug problem is, and always has been, that the global war on drugs has made cocaine production too profitable for too many people.
All illustrations by Giulia Sagramola

At last year's United Nations General Assembly, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos asked the world to imagine his country "without coca," the plant precursor to crystal cocaine. This "dream," which would have been unthinkable a decade ago, is now at least plausible, with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest rebel group, signing a preliminary peace agreement and partnering with the government to implement programs to replace coca crops with other plants.


But coca production has never been the focal point of the Colombian drug trade, and the FARC has only ever played a marginal role in moving cocaine to foreign markets. Colombia's broader drug problem is, and always has been, that drugs are illegal elsewhere, and the global drug war does not seem nearly as close to ending as the FARC's guerrilla insurgency. There's just too much money left on the table.

It was an accident of geography that brought cocaine to Colombia in the first place. Vast territories with little to no state presence and coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans made the country a prime maritime shipping hub. Nestled between traditional growing regions to the south and Central American smuggling routes to the north, Colombia stood—and, thanks to Brazil's rise as a top consumer, remains—at the key crossroads of international supply and demand. Pablo Escobar, who has become as synonymous with cocaine as cocaine has with Colombia, built his empire as a middleman, not a producer.

The right-wing paramilitary groups funded, and in some cases even founded, by Escobar and other drug lords looking to mask their activities under the guise of Cold War counterinsurgency have played a far greater role in international trafficking than the FARC ever has. Indeed, the rebels' initial foray into the drug business was facilitated by the very groups whose mission, ostensibly, was to eliminate them.


All illustrations by Giulia Sagramola

Financed by the exorbitant profits of the 1980s and early-90s drug boom, in the early part of this century paramilitary death squads embarked on the largest land grab in national history, a campaign that has saddled Colombia with the second-highest internally displaced population in the world. Many refugees fled to the cities, overwhelming an already porous social net and fostering the permanent urban underclass that provides today's narco networks with a steady supply of foot soldiers and growing domestic drug market.

At the same time, a separate migration pressed deep into the sparsely populated jungles and grassland plains that had been effectively ceded to the guerrillas, just as plague and international crackdowns were pushing coca production up the spine of the Andes. Coca, a resilient, high-demand cash crop, converged on ideal cultivation areas alongside an influx of settlers in desperate need of a livelihood. By 1999, more than 160,000 hectares of Colombian countryside had been converted to coca fields, making this region the largest cocaine producer in the world and transforming the FARC from a band of peasant highway thieves to a potent terrorist army and legitimate existential threat to the Colombian state.

"This revolutionary movement wasn't dependent on Cuba or the Soviet Union," Todd Howland, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights' representative in Colombia, told VICE. "[The FARC] lasted so much beyond the fall of the Easten Bloc, because they were self-sustaining."


Coca, however, did not represent a decisive strategic advantage for the rebels. Rather, the advent of large-scale domestic cultivation served to insulate the Colombian armed conflict as a whole. As Adam Isacson, the senior Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told me, "The FARC's involvement has largely been upstream, in taxing and protecting coca growing… Now that's small money in comparison to transshipment, and the FARC have never been as involved in transshipment as the cartels and paramilitaries."

To understand the dynamic, it's useful to look at how profits distribute across the production chain. A coca farmer in Colombia might see around $1.30 per kilo of leaf, or as much as $780 per kilo of paste, the precursor to cocaine. Once that base has been refined, but before it's left Colombia, the same kilo is worth anywhere from $2,200 to $7,000, depending on how far it's traveled. By the time it's reached, say, the United States, it's worth $24,000 or more.

By skimming a percentage off purchases, or buying and wholesaling paste, the FARC came to occupy the role Peruvian and Bolivian cultivators played in the early reign of Escobar. The paramilitaries, having worked in conjunction with US intelligence to hunt and kill "El Patrón," took over the cartels' connections to transshipment. The FARC have gotten the short end of the arrangement when compared with their nominal enemies, but there is still enough money to go around for everyone. (Estimates of how much the FARC actually make through trafficking vary wildly, but the figure is believed to be in the high hundreds of millions, at least.)


In that way, the extreme left and right of Colombia's armed conflict came to share what Howland the UN rep calls "perverse incentives" to ensure the violence continued. But so too, for that matter, did the state, which has received billions in international aid to fight the world's war on drugs for it, on top of the untold millions more funneled to officials in the form of select payoffs. In 1994, research commissioned by the US military found that medical treatment was ten times more effective, per dollar spent, than interdiction—en route seizures—at reducing cocaine abuse domestically, and 23 times more effective than an international supply-side drug war. That same year, a classified DEA report concluded that the FARC "will never be major players in Colombia's drug trade."

Even so, five years later, US President Bill Clinton went ahead with Plan Colombia, the biggest supply-side anti-drug initiative in history. The roughly $9 billion in mostly military aid that has flowed to Colombia since has been directed primarily to the government's war with the FARC. Whether the facts on the ground supported the approach or not, fighting drug use in the United States became fighting drug production in Colombia, and fighting drug production in Colombia became fighting the "narco-guerrilla."

Where Plan Colombia has predictably failed to impact the price or availability of cocaine in the Untied States, it has succeeded in casting a sordid shadow of human rights abuse over the country. The Colombian military executed almost 6,000 civilians during the height of US involvement, a practice that has since been correlated with US aid and, in a statistically insignificant but nonetheless telling sample, training. Because of the Colombian government's extensive ties to paramilitary groups, an aid package sold under the auspices of the war on drugs and later repackaged into the war on terror largely ignored—and even benefited—the most prominent drug lords in Colombia, who are also its most heinous terrorists.


Nothing embodies the futility and wanton disregard of Plan Colombia, however, quite like aerial coca fumigation, which persecuted impoverished growers in Colombia perhaps even more zealously than domestic policing has impoverished Americans. (It should perhaps come as little surprise that the impacted communities in Colombia are disproportionately Afro-descendent and indigenous.) Since 1999, US-supplied aircraft, often piloted by American contractors, have dumped tons of weaponized, Monsanto-derived herbicide on the Colombian countryside, with no apparent concern for the disturbing environmental, social, or public health consequences.

Whatever ground Plan Colombia gained with respect to coca production—whether through fumigation or manual eradication, its more effective but more dangerous sister policy—has been more than offset by corresponding surges in nearby countries like Peru. This so-called "balloon effect"—squeeze one end and the air goes elsewhere—has also seen the violence typically associated with the Colombian drug trade pushed up into Central America and Mexico, where it has since reached crisis levels, and down into Brazil and Argentina.

Meanwhile, the alternative development incentives originally slated to precede fumigation were either poorly planned or never put into practice. Farmers who voluntarily accepted substitute crops from the government watched as their fields were sprayed regardless. In one infamous case, chickens were turned over to farmers in Putumayo, the area where fumigation has been most heavily concentrated. Because the chickens, whose beaks had been removed for industrial purposes, could only eat special feed, the farmers were forced to slaughter them almost immediately.


As part of the preliminary peace deal, the FARC has agreed to help encourage crop substitution this time around. But Jule Anzueta, the leader of a (not exclusively) coca-growing community I visited in the Putumayo region last year, is skeptical, especially considering the government's unwillingness to reform agrarian policy or renegotiate Colombia's free trade agreements with the United States and others, which pit the almost feudal agricultural sector against the subsidized might of foreign markets.

"If they don't solve the underlying problem, then what's going to happen is that people who might stop growing it for a time will have to take a machete to their yucca, plantain, and bean harvests and go back to coca," Anzueta told VICE.

Insofar as it acknowledges that "conditions of poverty, marginalization, [and] weak institutional presence" have all contributed to the coca-growing phenomenon, the preliminary peace agreement tacitly concedes not only that supply-side drug policy has failed, but that it was reckless and overly punitive to start with. And yet fumigation continues to be the extent of the state's anti-drug efforts in many regions, and the peace agreement leaves open the possibility that it will be in the future, as well.

"If the communities aren't complying with the plan and it's too dangerous to do manual eradication, then they're just going to spray like they used to," said Isacson, the Latin America expert. Isacson is more optimistic than Anzueta that alternative development can be a success, but as he readily acknowledges, that only deals with the issue of production. Where drugs have bred the most violence and corruption in Colombian society is in that downstream part of the trade where the real profits accumulate.

The fish swimming in those waters are direct descendants of the sharks that once dominated it. The national crime syndicates (or bacrim) currently warring for the Pacific port of Buenaventura and other strategic territories are in fact neo-paramilitary groups that emerged following the sham paramilitary demobilization of the 2000s. They're every bit as disciplined as the cartels that preceded them, and perhaps even more ruthless. There's good reason to fear that, should the FARC demobilize as planned, disenchanted members will simply integrate into these groups, with whom they already enjoy business partnerships.

What's certain is that, barring dramatic economic and social progress in Colombia's neglected periphery, someone will step in, somewhere, to fill the void left by the rebels. As Isacson explains, "There'll still be labs, there'll still be on-go fast boats, and there'll still be semi-submersibles, and there'll still be deals with Mexico, and all that's not going to change, even if the leaves are grown somewhere else."

If history has taught us anything about the drug war, it's that nature abhors a vacuum. Since Escobar's fall, dozens of high-level traffickers have been captured or killed, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of cocaine have been seized. But the drug trade has not relinquished its hold on much of Colombian society, and there's little reason to believe that disarming the FARC will change that.

"As long as there is demand, there will be supply," writes Robin Kirk in More Terrible Than Death, an account of her 15 years on the ground in Colombia with the Human Rights Watch. "It's a truth as immutable as addiction itself or the human thirst for pleasure and escape, impossible to fumigate from our beings."

Steven Cohen is a freelance journalist based out of Colombia and former editor of Colombia Reports. Follow him on Twitter.