Colombia: Will New Drug Policies Damage U.S. Ties?

By Pedro Arenas*

Colombian President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez meeting with United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken / U.S. Department of State / Flickr / Creative Commons License

Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s push for a major overhaul of the “war on drugs” is likely to cause tensions with Washington, but both sides appear to be proceeding with caution. Like its predecessors, the Biden Administration is reluctant to acknowledge the failure of the old tactics, but the burden will be on Petro to make the case that new approaches will work better.

  • Colombia has agreed with the United States on drug policies since the 1970s, with a focus on the Colombian Police and, later, the National Army. In 1996, the U.S. State Department said that the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) were directly engaged in narco-trafficking, which opened the door for deeper cooperation. With “Plan Colombia” in the 2000s, Bogotá made the war on drugs a central element of its counterinsurgency – and Washington became deeply involved despite the implications for human rights in affected regions.
  • The two countries put aerial eradication of coca crops and extradition of traffickers at the center of the relationship, even though the initiatives did not significantly reduce the production or flows of the narcotic into the United States. The cartels fragmented and grew more violent as they fought for control of the trade.

President Petro’s proposed reform is not the first challenge to the decades-old approach. A peace agreement between President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC in 2016 challenged the nature and depth of cooperation. The accord included commitments in four areas: incentivizing coca growers to change crops (through agrarian reform and secure access to markets); stopping the traffic (through interdiction); eliminating money-laundering; and getting transit and consumer countries to do more to reduce demand. The goal was to reduce the trade and demand more than to criminalize the production of raw material.

  • Little progress was made before President Iván Duque (2018-2022) put the emphasis back onto classic supply reduction. (The Constitutional Court would not allow the resumption of aerial spraying for environmental and health reasons, but ground-based operations increased.) The United States continued to demand increased eradication of coca, while continuing to reinforce police and military bases and cooperating in narco arrests.
  • Petro argues that peace in Colombia should start with the reform of these policies. (Colombia has suffered a conflict with 9 million victims.) He has proposed a permanent end to aerial spraying and an emphasis on crop substitution in coca-producing communities; expanded interdiction in the air, at sea, and on rivers; and greater efforts to bring all illegal armed groups, including narco-traffickers, into the national judicial system with assurances that they will not be extradited if they cooperate, compensate victims, and do not repeat their crimes.

Six Colombian think tanks (including the one I cofounded) have given the President recommendations on how to implement his priorities. The recommendations stress the need for internal Colombian reforms, most of which can be made without the permission of the United States. Important ones include ending the excessive use of criminal law in non-violent drug cases; suspending the use of force against communities in coca-producing areas; implementing the Peace Accord (including promised investments to fund alternative crops); permitting a regulated cannabis market; and opening markets of food products, with appropriate protection for users, derived from coca leaf.

Despite his progressive international discourse on the need to end the war on drugs, Petro’s opponents say that his proposals would make Colombia a narco-state, and peasant organizations are concerned that land eradication by the military and police forces will continue. The State Department’s top drug official initially said publicly that he saw “a problem” in Petro’s proposals, but Secretary of State Blinken at a press conference with Petro on Monday said he “strongly supports the holistic approach that President Petro’s administration is taking,” and that the two administrations are “largely in sync” on drugs policy. They did not publicly address the thorny issue of extradition.

  • Washington will probably have difficulty making deep changes to policy, particularly as U.S. mid-term elections approach. In addition to competing perspectives on how to deal with crime, there are political sectors, bureaucracies, and powerful business interests that have benefited greatly from the past policy emphasis on criminalizing peasant production of coca leaf – even if the results have been questionable. Their justification is that the drug problem “would be worse if we didn’t do it.”
  • Petro surely knows he will have to be creative and patient with Washington. For instance, recently the Colombian Police chief received two U.S. helicopters, the first of 12, for protecting the forests in Colombia, suggesting the new President will seek common ground with the United States. He wants to avoid provoking Washington to use its anachronistic “decertification” process to punish him for showing insufficient commitment.

The six think tanks believe that Petro can thread the needle in the U.S. relationship and that, if implemented correctly, the reforms of drug policies will bring Colombia in line with international norms, including the protection of human rights, and win broad international support. A frank conversation among Latin America, Africa, Oceania, and Europe within the OAS or UN would benefit all.

* Pedro Arenas is cofounder of Corporación Viso Mutop, a Bogotá-based organization that facilities dialogue on sensitive issues among diverse social, political, and institutional actors.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: