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HomeLatin AmericaColombiaWhy Colombia is Questioning the Fruits of Its Costly Drug War

Why Colombia is Questioning the Fruits of Its Costly Drug War

BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Along the winding road from Cali, Colombia’s third largest city, to the port of Buenaventura on the Pacific coast, a new section of road is suspended over a steep mountain flank. Nearby, work crews blast tunnels through the mountains, where soon a two-lane highway will run. Last year in May, Colombia inaugurated a free trade agreement with the United States: These new arteries will bring the country’s abundant mineral resources — including gold, timber, and oil — to foreign markets.

There is another valuable Colombian commodity that stands to gain from increased trade: cocaine. While large quantities of the drug leave the country in go-fast boats and submarines, a significant amount is secreted in shipping containers. Increased flows of legal goods makes it harder for customs agents to inspect all the containers coming into the United States — a weakness traffickers exploit to move more contraband through official channels.

“Whoever controls access to this port, in criminal terms, is able to hide drug consignments in the tens of thousands of containers that leave those facilities every week and go all over the world,” says Jeremy McDermott, the co-director of Insight Crime, an independent research institution that monitors organized crime in the Americas. “This is a jewel in the crown in criminal terms.”

Despite being Colombia’s biggest port, Buenaventura is a poor city with little to show for the riches that move through it. On the walls of the grimy bus station, handmade signs — displaying the faces of young, disappeared men — peel in the tropical heat. They bear witness to the conflict that has engulfed the city and displaced thousands of residents: The Urabeños, arguably Colombia’s most powerful drug trafficking organization, are seeking to wrest control of the port from their main rivals, the Rastrojos.

In the spare headquarters of the Port Workers’ Union, near the towering yellow container cranes that line the port, Jhon Jairo Castro Balanta describes how drug trafficking organizations have carved up his city. Balanta, the union president, notes that the port itself is no longer safe: Killers used to dispose of dead bodies, but they are increasingly leaving them in the street as a message to their enemies. “There are imaginary borders, and if anyone crosses that border who isn’t from that area, they will kill you. It’s that simple,” he says.


It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Colombia has long been the United States’ leading ally in the war on drugs: Since 1996, Bogotá has received over $7 billion dollars in U.S. aid to cut off the flow of cocaine at the source. As drug-related violence engulfs parts of Mexico and Central America, Washington has touted Colombia as a rare drug war success story. “Colombia has served as a model of success for the entire hemisphere,” says Rafael Lemaitre, communication director for the U.S. drug czar’s office.

But up close, Colombia’s drug war successes appear far more meager — and the country’s top politicians are beginning to realize it. At the end of 2011, President Juan Manuel Santos became one of the first sitting heads of state to come out against the war on drugs. “A new approach should try and take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking,” Santos told the Observer newspaper. “If that means legalizing, and the world thinks that’s the solution, I will welcome it. I’m not against it.”

Santos’ words have yet to translate into policy changes at home. But they have both reflected and fueled a growing challenge among Latin American leaders to the cornerstone of U.S. security policy in the Western Hemisphere. By saying what a half-dozen recent Mexican, Colombian, Brazilian and Chilean presidents waited for retirement to say, Santos broke a taboo — and other politicians soon followed him out of the closet.

In February 2012, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina echoed Santos’ statements, then sent his vice president on a tour of Central American capitals to gather support for a thorough debate of drug policy. In the fall of last year, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who famously triggered a bloody drug war by cracking down on the cartels, joined Santos and Molina in questioning the last 30 years of international drug policy.

In a joint statement by Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico delivered at the U.N. General Assembly, the three presidents highlighted the failure of counter-narcotic efforts to stem the flow of profits to criminal organizations. Noting that drug trafficking organizations had used this wealth to undermine the rule of law in their countries, they called for an urgent review of policies and an analysis of “all available options, including regulatory or market measures, in order to establish a new paradigm that prevents the flow of resources to organized crime organizations.”

It’s worth noting that none of these three heads of state is part of the leftward trend in Latin American politics. Rather, they are U.S. allies whose politics range from centrist to conservative.

The U.S. government doesn’t talk about the dark side of Colombia’s war on drugs. If you listen to Washington, Plan Colombia — the United States’ multi-year, multi-billion-dollar counter-narcotics aid package — is a success. But the reality is more complicated. Assessing Plan Colombia depends on what you measure.

“If you evaluate Plan Colombia as a security strategy, I think [it] was very successful,” says Professor Daniel Mejía, who heads the Research Center on Drugs and Security at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. The homicide rate has been cut in half and kidnapping is down. The Colombian army has turned the tide against the 50-year guerrilla insurgency. The largest rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has been weakened and last year resumed peace talks, though armed conflict has not ceased.

“As an anti-drug policy,” Mejía says, “I don’t think Plan Colombia has had a huge deal of an effect.”

Simply put, Colombia’s cocaine is still reaching U.S. shores. While cocaine use is down in the United States, it remains the world’s biggest consumer — and according to U.S. government statistics, Colombia continues to supply 95 percent of the U.S. market. Nor have Washington’s eradication and interdiction policies driven the price of cocaine beyond the reach of U.S. consumers: While the street price of cocaine has increased since 2007, it remains a fraction of what it was when the United States began ramping up efforts to reduce supply in the 1980s.

It’s true that the area devoted to coca cultivation in Colombia has shrunk by 60 percent since U.S. President Bill Clinton signed Plan Colombia into law in 2000, but some of that reduction has been offset by increases in the size of Peru’s and Bolivia’s coca crop. It’s a process known as the balloon effect. It’s simply economics: Robust demand and the chance for high profits ensures that the cultivation of illicit crops continues elsewhere.

While U.S. officials say the yield of Colombian coca bushes is decreasing, the most recent U.N. figures tell a different story, showing that reductions have leveled off at around 60,000 hectares of coca being grown. Production has also been pushed into parts of the country where the state is weakest, particularly the southwest.

The department of Cauca is one of those weak areas. It has become an important base for the FARC, which also profits from the drug trade. In 2011, coca cultivation increased 23 percent across Cauca and its neighboring departments. Together these areas are home to more than half the country’s coca fields.

On the main highway into Cauca, amid sugarcane fields that stretch for miles, a large billboard festooned with images of soldiers trumpets the triumphs of the Colombian armed forces over the insurgency. But the area remains heavily militarized — there were over 150 armed actions in the first half of 2012 alone. Boyish conscripts in combat gear control security checkpoints along the highway, where they board buses to check each passenger’s identification card.

The U.S.-backed program that followed Plan Colombia is called the National Territorial Consolidation Plan. As its name suggests, its goal is to help the Colombian state establish basic services, infrastructure, and economic development, as it pushes back guerrilla and paramilitary forces. Bogotá hopes to create alternatives to coca production, and U.S. counter-narcotic aid has shifted to reflect this focus. More money now goes to support state building and alternative livelihoods, and a smaller share goes for military activities.

German Chamorro, who oversees the implementation of the National Territorial Consolidation Plan, says community input is a key part of the process. Eradication efforts are centered “on restoring the rights of those growing [coca] through alternative projects,” says Chamorro. Following eradication, the idea is that coca growers would be offered technical assistance and support to switch to legal crops.

But for many Colombians who depend on coca cultivation to eke out a living, that help has yet to arrive. The Committee for the Integration of the Colombian Massif (CIMA) represents small-scale farming communities in Cauca. The organization’s agro-environmental coordinator, Alexander Fernández, says agricultural support has favored the cultivation of capital-intensive bio-fuels and export crops. Large-scale landowners have been the chief beneficiaries of these projects, leaving small-scale farmers behind. “What’s needed,” he says, “is agrarian reform.”

Small-scale farmers struggling to earn a livelihood in the heart of Colombia’s coca growing regions say they find themselves caught between the Colombian military on one side, and paramilitaries and guerrillas on the other.

In the neighboring department of Valle del Cauca, 35 families of the Nonam indigenous people raise animals, grow corn and yucca, and fish along the Calima River. But the river is also used by paramilitaries to bring chemicals to process the coca leaf in jungle laboratories, and ship out processed cocaine.

In 2010, drug traffickers killed several people in a neighboring settlement. Then they entered onto the Nonam’s land and imposed new rules. “They prohibited fishing, prohibited work hours,” says the community’s leader, William Garcia Chocho. Fearing for their safety and their economic security, the community was forced to abandon their land and livestock — joining some of the nearly 4 million internally displaced people in Colombia. They returned a year later to rebuild their lives.

Chocho says his community doesn’t grow coca, but adjacent communities do. But that hasn’t stopped their fields from being fumigated with the herbicide glyphosate, which government planes spray onto coca fields. In March 2012, without prior warning, the Colombian government conducted aerial spraying and chemicals drifted onto their land. The fumigation “impacts the trees, the animals, the fish, the rivers, and the creeks,” says Chocho.

The U.S. government says glyphosate is safe, but others disagree. A French research team found the chemical to be harmful to human placental cells. Meanwhile, a University of Pittsburgh study reported that glyphosate “can cause extremely high rates of mortality to amphibians and that could lead to population declines.”

Colombia is the only country that allows aerial fumigation of drug crops. Manuel Rodríguez, Colombia’s first environment minister, authorized aerial spraying in the early 1990s under strict guidelines. But Rodríguez believes the next administration abandoned these regulations: The Environment Ministry “was weakened by the government of [President Álvaro] Uribe, and it has not really recovered,” he says.


When Santos first floated the possibility of legalizing drugs, he was mindful of the vested interests he was taking on. “What I won’t do is become the vanguard of that movement because then I will be crucified,” he cautioned.

The contrast between Washington’s reaction to Santos’ statements and those of an earlier Colombian drug war critic are indicative of waning support for the status quo.

Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellín cartel, stood at the top of Colombia’s cocaine business in the late 1980s. With the United States pressing for his extradition, Escobar launched a campaign of terror to prevent it. He launched regular bombings in the capital and his henchmen murdered senior politicians who supported extradition — including the man once tipped to be the next president, Luis Carlos Galán.

In 1992, Colombia appointed Gustavo de Greiff as its first attorney general. He was given a security detail of 17 armed guards and tasked with taking down Escobar. De Greiff did just that: Escobar was killed in 1993, and then de Greiff set about dismantling the Medellín and Cali cartels. But new paramilitary groups continued to fill the void — and a drumbeat of corruption scandals revealed the drug trafficking organizations’ success at buying everyone from small town mayors to members of Congress.

Some 20 years on, sitting in his home office lined with legal tomes, de Greiff wonders what was accomplished. “We killed Escobar. We dismantled many, many small cartels and nothing happened,” he says. “Cocaine continues to flow to the United States, and the narco-traffickers getting rich. … So I started to say, ‘let’s try to study another strategy because prohibition is doing nothing.'”

De Greiff called for legal, regulated markets for drugs as a way to take profits away from violent syndicates terrorizing Colombia. That provoked the ire of both the United States and then-Colombian President César Gaviria.

De Greiff says Gaviria was almost in tears over his attorney general’s outspoken criticism of prohibition. “He told me please don’t talk about legalization, the United States government doesn’t like that, they will create problems for us.”

In November 1993, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno met with her Colombian counterpart in Washington. It was a stormy meeting. De Greiff says Reno accused him of sending the message to narco-traffickers that the Colombian government was blessing their actions. Halfway through his four-year term, the Colombian government forced him out. Later, while De Greiff was Colombian ambassador to Mexico, the United States withdrew his visa, accusing him of ties to the Cali cartel.

Times have changed. De Greiff notes with a wry smile that Gaviria is now an outspoken critic of the drug war. Meanwhile, not only did Santos and Molina call for a reexamination of global drug policy at the April 2012 Summit of the Americas, U.S. President Barack Obama responded by saying he was open to a debate on drug policy. Meanwhile, the U.S. drug czar’s office contends that it is committed to a “21st Century approach” that rejects the old drug war model but also the creation of legal, regulated markets for prohibited drugs.

So far, Santos’ statements have not been accompanied by policy changes at home. But his outspokenness has emboldened some unlikely people.


In an upscale northern neighborhood of Bogotá with numerous car dealerships, fancy gyms, and expensive cafés, stands the Rodrigo Lara Bonilla building. It is named after Colombia’s former justice minister, who was killed by the Medellín cartel as part of its campaign of terror. The building is home to around 100 staff of the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), its largest office outside Afghanistan.

Inside the UNODC’s offices, project coordinator Leonardo Correa oversees the United Nation’s illicit crop monitoring program. Correa explains how the United Nations is working with the Colombian government to eradicate coca production: He draws diagrams, points to maps, and speaks of hectares under cultivation and the life cycle of a coca bush. He points out how coca cultivation is down and the government is working with coca leaf growers to find alternative livelihoods.

But if all this progress is being made, why have the presidents of Mexico and Colombia called for a re-examination of drug policies, while Uruguay is moving towards legal regulated drug markets?

“Because it is necessary,” says Correa. He may be a drug warrior, but Correa is still a Colombian. “Here in Colombia, we suffered a lot of the problems associated with the production and drug traffic. So really it’s a painful situation for Colombians that after 30 years fighting with and dealing with this problem, we are still in the same situation.”

You hear the same thing from Colombian officials in charge of drug eradication. Ricardo Guerrero, an adviser on international affairs and cooperation for the National Territorial Consolidation Plan, notes with frustration that every time Colombia takes out the head of a drug trafficking organization, someone else takes his place.

“We are against narco-trafficking, we are against consuming,” says Guerrero. “That’s not the issue, the issue is how do you get over the problem. … We have been doing some things that maybe doesn’t bring the results we want to get, and there is a need to reevaluate.”

Colombia has paid a high price for the U.S. appetite for cocaine and its global, militarized response to this demand. The standard units used to measure the drug war — hectares fumigated, tons of cocaine seized — don’t capture the full picture.

Drug traffickers have amassed large tracts of land and diversified into other sectors, from illegal mining to selling oil on the black market. “The problem in Colombia today is not drugs, it’s entrenched organized crime. The issue is not to legalize drugs but to legalize Colombia,” says Francisco Thoumi, a leading Colombian economist and member of the International Narcotics Control Board.

Claudia López has done more than any other journalist to uncover the penetration of the state by paramilitary drug trafficking organizations. Her reporting has led to the criminal investigation of a third of Colombia’s Congress, as well as scores of mayors and governors, concerning their ties to paramilitaries. But for López, this corruption is an inevitable result of policies that create criminal markets. “The relationship is causal — it’s not Colombian,” says Lopez.

“A mafia that needs to launder money and has been globally declared illegal. … If they don’t have political power to prevent being punished and prosecuted, they have huge risks,” says López. “[T]he most effective way to reduce that risk is to achieve political power.”

One way or another, the state has to begin regulating the drug market, says López, or criminals will continue to do so, holding sway over the country’s most vulnerable communities.

Meanwhile, the corrosive effect of these criminal interests is spreading across the region.

The high levels of drug-related violence once seen in Colombia have, in recent years, migrated to Mexico, and are now moving down into Central America. Homicide rates have increased in five out of the region’s eight countries — Honduras and El Salvador now have the world’s highest and second highest murder rates. It’s no secret where the blame lies: According to the UNODC, “drug trafficking [is] the root cause of the surge in homicides.”

If the root cause of this problem isn’t solved, the war on drugs is only going to get bloodier, say experts.

“We worry about Bolivia, we worry about Venezuela, we worry about Paraguay. In Central America and Mexico, the squeeze is now being pushed downwards,” says McDermott of Insight Crime. “We are seeing Honduras in an extremely vulnerable state. And we worry about Belize. We worry about things being pushed back into the Caribbean.”

Engle is a freelance journalist who writes about drug policy. His work has been featured by the BBC, NPR, The Nation, and the Columbia Journalism Review.

© 2013, Foreign Policy.

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