The Opportunities and Pitfalls of Colombia’s Ambitious New Drug Policy

Latin America

The Colombian government’s new drug policy aims to radically shift the country’s approach to the fight against drugs. But given a seemingly unstoppable increase in coca cultivation, there are serious doubts about whether this policy can truly be implemented.

On September 9, Colombia’s Ministry of Justice presented its National Drug Policy for 2023-2033, outlining how different state institutions will tackle drug trafficking and cultivation. Although some of the strategies have been in use for months, this document revealed in unprecedented detail the long-term plans of President Gustavo Petro’s administration.

The new plan represents a monumental change in strategy from the measures previous governments took to tackle one of the world’s most lucrative criminal economies. Instead of cracking down on the lowest levels of the drug trade, such as growers, Petro’s initiative seeks to directly confront Colombia’s sophisticated drug trafficking networks.

The policy is based on two main principles, “oxygen” and “asphyxiation.” The first aims to relieve the pressure on those who have borne the brunt of the so-called “war on drugs” — small coca growers and consumers — by encouraging them to voluntarily substitute their coca crops with legal alternatives and by promoting a public health approach to the consumption of psychoactive substances.

The second principle directs security forces to key flashpoints of the drug trade by boosting their ability to interdict drug shipments and destroy drug processing infrastructure. Additionally, the “asphyxiation” strategy aims to capture key members of drug trafficking gangs and increase investigations into related money laundering and corruption.

Petro’s drug policy also seeks to change the narrative around Colombia’s drug problem and the responsibility that consumer countries must bear. This message has been a crucial part of Petro’s government stance since the beginning. One month after taking office, he spoke against traditional drug control policies at the 2022 United Nations General Assembly. And last week he hosted a Latin American and Caribbean conference on drugs, convening 19 countries to reaffirm their commitment to reformulating the fight against drug trafficking.

SEE ALSO: Peace Leaders in Putumayo, Colombia Bet Their Lives on Coca Crop Substitution

The government’s announcement also comes at a problematic time for the country. For the second year in a row, coca cultivation reached a new record level, according to figures published on September 11 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). During 2022, the country saw a 13% increase to 230,000 hectares of coca. This represents a historic level of cocaine production potential, with a capacity to produce 1,738 tons per year.

In this context, InSight Crime analyzes the successes and challenges the government’s drug policy will face.

Commiting to a Sustainable Illicit Crop Substitution Policy 

One of the basic pillars of the government’s drug policy is helping rural communities replace illicit crops with legal alternatives, supporting their transition to participating in the formal market instead of working for criminal groups. 

This strategy, which is part of the “oxygen” plan, is not new. Previous efforts, such as the National Plan for the Substitution of Illicit Crops under the 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), have been ineffective

The current government is trying to avoid the mistakes of previous policies and go beyond them, while still upholding the 2016 substitution program, which, despite its shortcomings, remains in force. 

To achieve this, Petro’s government plans to extend the benefits of crop substitution beyond just coca growers. Limiting the program’s scope created lopsided incentives that led to an increase in coca cultivation in the short term, a result that the current plan aims to avoid. 

In addition, the document details plans to organize community agricultural projects and construct transportation infrastructure that will help increase sales and profits from the substitute crops. These efforts will be key to the success of the government’s drug policy because, as the recent crash in the price of coca leaves has shown, the economies of coca-growing regions are dependent on the cultivation and processing of the drug. 

The policy also includes plans for illicit crops in “Special Management Areas,” such as forest reserves and national parks, which account for 20% of coca cultivation in the country. The expansion of the agricultural frontier and the use of protected areas to grow coca also contribute significantly to deforestation in Colombia, another problem that the government has pledged to tackle.   

Attacking the Most Lucrative Links in the Drug Trade

The “asphyxiation” section shifts security forces’ focus away from coca growers onto criminal infrastructure and intermediaries, in hopes of generating a greater impact on traffickers’ finances. 

The government proposes strengthening interdiction, dismantling cocaine processing laboratories, identifying strategic nodes in the drug trafficking chain, and combating money laundering. 

This approach differs from previous policies, which focused on the forced eradication of coca crops, and responds instead to one of the realities of drug trafficking: the big profits are found in the transportation and sale of drugs. 

For this strategy to succeed, the Colombian government must strengthen its coordination with other countries — not just in Latin America and the Caribbean, but also with those receiving drug shipments from Colombia. 

SEE ALSO: Colombia’s ‘Total Peace’ 1 Year On: Less State Violence, Stronger Criminal Groups

In recent years, countries such as Ecuador and Brazil have become important highways for transporting drug shipments to the United States and Europe, where most of the profits from the retail sale of the drug are kept. Petro will need the cooperation of these neighboring countries to successfully disrupt these international transport networks.

While Petro’s plan takes into account the mistakes and limitations of past policies and proposes new solutions, there are several challenges that could derail its implementation.

The Risky ‘Total Peace’ Gamble

Although a step in the right direction, the government’s plans for its new drug policy depend, to a large extent, on the results of the risky gamble on “Total Peace,” a wide-ranging proposal for negotiations with Colombian criminal groups of all kinds.

Guaranteeing the security of social leaders and communities that agree to coca crop substitution is key to the success of the government’s proposed policy. Since the state signed the 2016 peace accord with the FARC, at least 1,514 leaders of these communities have been killed, 167 of them since Petro took office in August last year.

In this sense, the government’s approach to security relies largely on the favorable outcome of the Total Peace strategy, since the areas that the document characterizes as highly complicated for intervention — Catatumbo, Bajo Cauca Antioqueño, Cauca, Tumaco, and Putumayo — are sites of conflict between drug trafficking groups.

The bet on Total Peace therefore goes beyond just guaranteeing the disarmament of the country’s criminal groups, and directly impacts the functioning of Colombia’s drug trade and of the government’s drug policy.

But as InSight Crime and other organizations have pointed out, Total Peace still faces major obstacles.

Despite advances in negotiations with groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the ex-FARC mafia, the dissident groups that abandoned the FARC’s 2016 peace process, there are still no concrete agreements to deliver change in criminal dynamics in the affected territories. In the first year of the policy’s implementation, violence between the state and armed groups has decreased, with criminal groups strengthening across the country. Moreover, violence towards civilians persists, fueled by clashes between armed groups in areas strategic to criminal economies.

Overestimation of Institutional Capacity

Implementing the new drug policy will require a much greater investment than that projected by the government, and coordination between a large number of government institutions will be critical. These challenges may overwhelm the state’s capacity.

According to statements by Justice Minister Néstor Osuna, the investment required for crop substitution alone would be 21 billion pesos (approximately $5 billion).

However, the policy also requires investment in infrastructure, security, health, and education, among other areas. One of the historical obstacles to drug policy in the country is the high rate of unsatisfied basic needs in areas where coca is grown. The Colombian state will have to increase its presence in these places if it is to achieve its new drug policy’s goals.

Previous governments have made little progress, or failed completely, to provide residents of coca-growing regions with alternative forms of work. After the signing of the 2016 peace accord, the spaces left by the guerrillas were quickly occupied by armed groups such as the ELN, the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC) and ex-FARC mafia factions.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that the new substitution programs, like their predecessors, are likely to face budgetary constraints that limit their scope. The document refers to international cooperation aid and resources from the public budget. However, in the last tax reform alone, the crop substitution program saw its budget reduced as part of negotiations get the law passed. This does not bode well for the new policy’s plans.

Ensuring Drug Policy Continuity  

Despite the administration’s efforts to change the conversation around drugs, the biggest hurdle will be ensuring its drug policy continues under future governments.

Petro is seeking far-reaching reforms designed to be implemented over the next decade. However, it is unlikely that significant progress will be made in the Petro administration’s three remaining years.

This is the problem previous governments have faced. For example, President Juan Manuel Santos’ (2010-2018) more liberal drug policy was replaced by a more conservative one when his successor, Iván Duque (2018-2022), took office and stalled processes such as crop substitution. Attempted reforms by Petro in other areas have faced opposition in Congress. And similar challenges should be expected when considering the lengthy procedures needed to implement a multi-faceted dug policy. Petro faces a tough political balancing act ahead to secure his initiatives survive past 2026.

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