Can Confiscation Help End Colombia’s War on Drugs?

By Cristóbal Vásquez Ramírez


Colombia is changing its counter-narcotic strategy after several years of rising cocaine production. Updated numbers from the White House, to be released in May, are expected to top last year’s record-high coca cultivation. Efforts to control the cultivation and production of cocaine proved insufficient, so officials are now focusing on confiscation to halt drug trafficking. According to the Colombian government, 410 tons were seized in 2017. But the new plan is just a short-term, reactive solution to a complex problem. The government is unable to control its territory, and international drug-trafficking organizations have established themselves in coca cultivation areas controlled by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) before the peace agreement, ratified in 2016 by the government and the guerrilla leaders. Without an effort to address these broader problems, President Juan Manuel Santos’ current strategy is unsustainable.

Colombia began to actively combat the production of cocaine when business was flourishing in the 80s and 90s, overseen by Pablo Escobar and the Medellín and Cali cartels. But when the major drug lords were captured, production continued—other groups, including armed guerrillas, simply took their place. As cultivation increased, the government deployed a new tactic: the application of the weed killer glyphosate by crop dusters. Then, after the 2016 peace agreement ended the conflict with most armed groups, Colombia’s drug strategy was to manually reduce the number of cultivated hectares of coca crops and substitute the plants with cash crops such as coffee and cacao. This plan, first introduced in 2017, aimed to convert 100,000 hectares in one year—but this deadline is fast approaching, and the numbers do not add up. U.S. officials find this particularly worrisome, given that an estimated 92 percent of samples seized in the United States is produced in Colombia. On top of this, Washington has spent more than $10 billion in the past 15 years on Plan Colombia, an initiative to fund the reduction of coca plantations and to combat drug trafficking. Each stage in the program has failed to meet expectations, leading President Santos to shift Colombia’s strategy to confiscation.

Moreover, Colombia is now looking into using drones to try to kill off coca plants. This is yet another last-minute initiative, and one that will require the use of herbicides that, in the past, were extensively criticized by the Santos government for their environmental impact.

This strategy has been introduced at a time when Colombian officials are facing increasing pressure to demonstrate results. Diplomatic relations between the United States and Colombia became tense last year when the U.S. threatened to decertify Colombia as a partner in the war on drugs. According to a White House official cited by the Washington Post, Santos and U.S. President Donald Trump had a phone conversation in which Trump criticized Colombia’s drug policy. “Trump gets on the line, Santos expresses concern, and then Trump eviscerates him over drugs for 24 minutes of the 25 minutes they were on the phone, telling him, ‘We’ve got a disaster on our hands, and you care more about the [guerrillas] than the American people,’” the official said.

In an attempt to calm the waters, Colombian Vice President Oscar Naranjo met with U.S. officials—including his counterpart Mike Pence—in Washington, D.C., in November. During a press conference with Colombian journalists, he laid out the reasoning behind the government’s new approach: “We will not be capable of reverting in a significant manner the acreage of illicit crops during the following months, but what we can do is increase the level of drug seizure.”

Though it may help appease U.S. partners, this move will be costly and likely unsustainable, in large part because the government has no control over its territories or borders. The Andes mountain chains divide the country, acting as natural barriers to central authority. Moreover, a lack of roads and other infrastructure further isolates the regions where most coca is cultivated and produced. Much of the vast borders Colombia shares with Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, and Panama, as well as the country’s coastlines, are among the areas difficult to access. Terrorist groups and drug dealers are thus able to capitalize on a vacuum of power and opportunities, and impose a de facto state that allows them to increase their coca cultivation activities and recruit members from local populations. The central government therefore has not enforced the rule of law along the borders where drugs, arms, money, and other goods are smuggled into and out of the country. In fact, reports from 2016 indicate that a large part of Colombian cocaine crossed the weakly patrolled, 1,400-mile Venezuelan border with the complicity of the Venezuelan government. The Venezuela based drug trafficking group Cartel de Los Soles is allegedly led by Diosdado Cabello, a member of Venezuela’s legislature and President Nicolas Maduro’s second-in-command.

Today, most trafficking takes place in the department of Nariño, specifically in the city of Tumaco along Colombia’s southern coast. Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martinez revealed in Colombia’s main newspaper El Tiempo that Mexican cartels such as Cartel de Sinaloa, Los Zetas, and Nueva Generación are taking over former FARC territories, and that these cartels now operate in at least nine of Colombia’s 32 departments. Colombian groups have profited from this regional power vacuum, too: The ELN (National Liberation Army, a communist guerrilla group), FARC dissidents who reject the peace deal, and other international crime organizations such as El Clan del Golfo also remain active. But the consolidation of these groups only adds to the list of structural problems the Colombian government has not addressed. Isolation, inequality, and corruption allow new actors to carry on with drug operations after the peace agreement with the FARC.

With the presence of international crime organizations in Colombia, the narcotics problem has become regional—and may be getting further out of the government’s control. Professional and well-organized criminal organizations are now so deeply embedded in Colombia that they are managing the whole production chain, from growing the coca leaves to selling cocaine in U.S. and European cities. They bribe governments, control territories, administer routes, sell arms, launder money, and build armies while profiting from weak institutions. They have the scale and the power to adapt to changing conditions and reroute their smuggling through Colombian ports and border checkpoints.

In this context, individual cocaine seizure efforts have little to no effect in terms of reducing the number of coca crops and the production of the drug. This strategy fails to address the full scope of the problem. The Colombian government is not only acknowledging that it has lost the war on drugs, but also signaling that its plan to eradicate Colombia’s drug problem has no structural basis for success. Peace agreements aside, what’s needed now are greater connectivity, expanded infrastructure, and a real effort to root out corruption. Under the current conditions, traffickers will only continue to expand their presence and influence. It is hard to see how these trends can be reversed without a fundamental shift in Colombia’s approach, or how this will help Washington achieve its goal—that no drugs enter the United States.

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Cristóbal Vásquez Ramírez is the U.S. correspondent for Colombian radio station Caracol Radio and a contributor to media outlets such as the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, World Policy Journal, El Tiempo, Portafolio, and Revista Semana. He previously worked as an international trade consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank and holds a dual master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Follow him on Twitter: @Tobalvasquez

[Photo courtesy of Staff Sgt. Osvaldo Equite]

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