As peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC rebels stumble on, a report from the Transnational Institute finds deep flaws in the May agreement on illegal drugs, with implementation difficult and little probability of improving the situation on the ground.
In a report titled "Drugs, Armed Conflict, and Peace" (pdf) Ricardo Vargas -- a research associate at the Transnational Institute -- examines the partial agreement on illegal drugs reached in May during peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government.
In a joint press release issued on May 16, both parties outlined the main points of the accord, which include the implementation of illegal crop substitution programs and the severance of the FARC's ties to drug trafficking. The agreement places an emphasis on the eradication of illegal coca crops and stipulates that coca growing communities will be allowed to participate in the planning and implementation of crop substitution programs.
According to Vargas however, the agreement will likely have a minimal impact on the drug trade because it fails to address the root causes of the illegal drug economy. Vargas argues that illegal coca cultivation is a "symptom of social exclusion" and therefore cannot simply be solved by eradicating coca crops.
For crop substitution to work, he wrote, communication and infrastructure deficiencies in rural areas need to be addressed, along with factors related to environmental protection. He argues that local farmers need to be given a voice in the exploitation of natural resources and other issues affecting their communities, rather than only being allowed to participate in decision-making related to coca eradication.
Vargas also questions whether or not the FARC's commitment to end its involvement in the drug trade will have a significant impact on the illegal drug economy. Given the number of criminal groups involved in drug trafficking, he argues that another organization is likely to take the FARC's place. Vargas adds that the guerrilla group's absence could actually serve as an added incentive for rural farmers to continue cultivating coca, as they would no longer be taxed by the FARC.
From a drug policy perspective, the report also points out the flaws in the agreement's underlying approach to illegal drugs. While the terms of the agreement indicate a belief that prohibition is the answer to the illegal drug trade, Vargas stresses that the idea of finding a "definitive solution... is unrealistic." Instead, he writes, Colombia should consider a more comprehensive strategy involving commitments from other countries to consider regulating drugs. The report states that the current agreement amounts to "old recipes in new packaging" as it echoes the emphasis on prohibition that has fueled current regional drug policies.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Colombian government and the FARC have been engaged in peace negotiations since 2012 and have so far reached agreements on land reform, political participation and illegal drugs. The next round of peace talks, on victims of the conflict, is scheduled to begin on August 12. While the partial agreement reached on illegal drugs serves as a promising sign that peace negotiations are moving forward, in the event of a final agreement ultimately being signed, the drug trade measures stipulated will likely prove difficult to enact.
As Vargas points out, coca cultivation is facilitated by widespread poverty and a lack of rural development in remote areas of Colombia. As a result, previous attempts to implement crop substitution programs have largely failed because of transportation difficulties and fluctuations in the prices of legal crops. Whereas drug traffickers are typically willing to retrieve coca directly from farmers, other crops require reliable access to markets, which many remote rural areas lack. According to El Tiempo, coca is replanted in an estimated 42 percent of voluntary or forced eradication cases.
Meanwhile, the FARC is heavily involved in drug trafficking, which the organization uses as a means of funding its insurgency. Although the FARC's top leadership has long claimed they only impose a tax, or "gramaje," on drug production and trafficking in their areas of operation, evidence strongly suggests certain guerrilla units, or "fronts" participate in all aspects of the drug trade.
The recent capture of the commander of the FARC's 30th Front provided an illustration of the extent of the guerrilla group's drug trafficking activities. Martin Leonel Perez Castro, alias "Richard," allegedly ran the group's Pacific coast drug operations, managing coca cultivation, cocaine processing, and drug trafficking routes to Central America. Perez allegedly had alliances with Mexican cartels and had previously worked with the criminal group, the Rastrojos.
Vargas' assertion that the FARC will be quickly and easily replaced in the drug business is supported by reports that Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel is buying up the FARC's cocaine laboratories and other drug trade assets. There are also numerous Colombian criminal groups who will likely be eager to take over the FARC's territory, including the powerful criminal syndicate of the Urabeños.
Another major obstacle to the implementation of the agreement is the likelihood elements of the FARC will criminalize at some point during or after the peace process. There are some notable examples of illegal armed groups in Colombia that have undergone lengthy negotiation processes with the government only to have certain factions fail to demobilize.
The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) signed a peace accord with the Colombian government in 2003, but factions of the organization have morphed into narco-paramilitary groups dedicated to drug trafficking and other illegal activities.
The guerrilla group the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) underwent a similar process. The majority of the organization demobilized in 1991, but one faction refused to give up its weapons and has become a major player in the drug trade in the northeastern border region near Venezuela.
Regardless of what is agreed upon in Havana, elements of the FARC will undoubtedly continue to profit from the drug trade after any peace agreement is reached. And unless the Colombian government invests in rural development, small farmers will likely continue to supply the group -- or any organization that might take its place -- with coca.
As the Colombian government moves ahead with the peace process, it will be essential to consider whether the agreements being made are sustainable, and whether they will simply lead to a new chapter in the country's bloody drug war.