Throughout the last three decades, Colombia has waged a war on coca and cocaine. This is a war that has benefited the nation and its people in many ways, but it has not ended the fight against drug lords. In fact, the FARC and the Medellin Cartel continue to grow, and it’s unclear how Colombians can permanently remove them from power. Fortunately, there are several strategies that the Colombian government and military are working to combat drug trafficking and insurgency. These strategies include agrarian reform, counter-insurgency training, and disentangling the FARC from drug trafficking.
Colombia’s agrarian reform
During the Colombian civil war (1960-1996,) millions of peasants were forced from their land. This was accompanied by the emergence of a new neo-colonial land holding pattern. This was the result of a series of policies that legitimized commercial control over rural land.
During the conflict, Colombia’s palm oil production grew four-fold. The country ranks fourth in the world’s palm oil production, behind Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. These countries dominate the industry by producing 86% of the total sown area.
Oil palm plantations were attacked by FARC guerrillas in the early 1990s. These guerrillas were dissident factions of the FARC. The guerrillas were joined by opposing right-wing paramilitary groups, which acted alongside army units to protect elite properties and suspected sympathisers.
In 1996, large properties occupied 40% of the country’s sown area, while small properties accounted for 3.2%. The agrarian reform law Law 160 of 1994 limited the size of family agricultural units. However, it did not solve the land shortage. Instead, many families were forced to sell their lands below their true value.
The law also created a system of ‘demobilization, disarmament and reintegration camps’ that housed former guerrillas and paramilitaries. However, some of these camps were situated in areas that were unsafe for reintegration.
The law was also not effective at reducing rural poverty. Instead, the number of families that settled was lower than expected. Moreover, the law experienced financial problems.
Despite these limitations, Law 160 did create a legal framework that allowed for cooperatives and direct employment to replace subcontracting and illegal co-operatives. The new union was able to move 730 workers from the Indupalma plantation into direct employment. This process improved wages and eliminated illegal co-operatives.
Disentangling the FARC from drug trafficking
During the peace process, the Colombian government agreed to dismantle the illicit drug economy. It also promised to institute a nationwide crop substitution program. The project would help 200,000 families to find legal ways to earn a living, including by growing other crops.
The program is aimed at implementing the peace agreement. A senior government official says it is aimed at pacifying high-conflict areas and laying the groundwork for economic development. Foreign donors have criticized the program’s overreliance on subsidies for individual farmers. The government has also struggled to meet its promises.
The FARC is one of three leftist guerrilla movements in Colombia. The group has been designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization since 1997, and has been charged with drug-related crimes in several indictments. In a terrorism indictment filed in the District of Columbia, the group was charged with conspiring with terrorists to kidnap and kill Americans.
In 2004, a U.S. airplane crashed in a jungle region of Colombia, killing three Americans. The FARC was one of the three groups charged. It was also accused of smuggling cocaine to the United States.
Since 2016, the National Liberation Army has expanded its territorial reach, and it controls key coca trafficking routes in the country. It has also greatly expanded its weaponry.
The drug trade has been at the heart of Colombian violence for more than 50 years. The FARC guerrillas snuck into the business in the early 1960s, and began to sell coca leaf. They also set a minimum price for the product, allowing farmers to make a living and secure stable revenues.
Drug money later went to paramilitary groups, and helped fuel leftist insurgencies in Colombia. After the peace agreement, new armed groups emerged, and seized control of the FARC supply chain.
Colombia’s military’s counter-insurgency training
Using aerial spraying, U.S.-backed Colombian forces have destroyed nearly 900 thousand hectares of coca cultivation. This translates into roughly one-third of the country’s total coca crop. However, the aerial spraying program also routinely takes ground fire from guerrillas and coca farmers.
While the aerial spraying program is the backbone of bilateral anti-drug cooperation, it isn’t the only U.S.-funded program to combat illegal drug trafficking in Colombia. A variety of other programs are also in place, including training, equipment and intelligence. Despite some criticism, many of these programs are largely non-combatant.
One of the most notable of these programs is Plan Colombia. Based on USAID, IMET funds and state-controlled FMF funds, Plan Colombia is designed to help the Colombian government implement its anti-drug policy. It is also a means to promote economic and social justice in Colombia.
Other programs include aerial eradication of coca fields in rural areas. A State Department program provides training to Colombian police forces and equipment such as night vision goggles and UH-60 helicopters. The department has also launched a program to secure the Cano Limon-Covenas Pipeline, which benefits US multinational oil corporation Occidental Petroleum.
Another program is the government presence program. It is aimed at establishing a government presence in every municipality in Colombia. It involves the creation of 68 squadrons of Carabineros of 120 policemen each. In 2002, fifteen percent of municipalities in Colombia had no government presence.
While the program has not succeeded in eradicating the drug trade, it has helped reduce the size of the coca field and improve the safety of the country’s rural population. The Colombian military has also seized and destroyed 107 tons of finished cocaine.
Colombia’s non-confrontational strategy vs the Medellin Cartel
Throughout the 1990s, Colombia’s government targeted the Medellin Cartel. The cartel was infamous for its dominance of the cocaine trade, and for the politically motivated violence it employed. It used bombings, political assassinations, kidnappings, and indiscriminate killings of law enforcement in an attempt to destroy the Colombian government.
As a result of the aforementioned violence, a number of human rights defenders were killed. These included FARC guerillas, who used landmines in their campaigns.
The Colombian government also made an effort to improve its police force. Several heavyweight UN agencies also set up offices in Colombia in the late 1990s. The UN’s Office for Human Rights agreed to support the government’s efforts to handle internally displaced persons.
The Colombian government’s efforts to demolish the Medellin Cartel were not without controversy. Some officials argued that the “bend and break” strategy was a waste of time. Other critics claimed that Colombia’s government did not have enough resources to wage a full-scale war against the cartel. In any event, the demobilisation of paramilitary groups was a good move. This was followed by a reorganisation of smaller groups.
It should also be noted that the biggest drug cartels in Cali, which controlled the transportation of cocaine and sales abroad, were vertically structured and not particularly violent. In fact, the Cali cartel contributed vast amounts of money to the presidential campaign of Ernesto Samper.
The biggest drug cartels in Cali, however, were not the only major players. In fact, several smaller groups also flourished. Their smaller size allowed them to operate outside the control of the larger cartels.
In addition to these smaller groups, there were also the Los Extraditables. These groups expanded the scope of the drug war to include prominent Colombians, and even state agents. These groups passed as legitimate political actors, and obfuscated the murderous resistance they displayed against extradition.
Colombia’s 30-year war on coca
During Colombia’s 30-year war on coca drug lords, the government has failed to implement economic reforms that would boost rural economies and reduce violence. Instead, the government has shifted its strategy to destroying coca crops in a bid to end rural insecurity. This approach has worsened rural insecurity and criminalised rural Colombians.
Since the 2016 peace agreement, the government has expanded its efforts to eradicate coca crops. Officials claim that the campaign reduces rural violence, but evidence shows otherwise. The campaign is backed by the U.S., which has spent $11.6 billion on bilateral aid to Colombia since the millennium began.
The Duque government has set goals for eradicating 80,000 hectares of coca in 2019, and plans to reach 130,000 hectares by 2020. It also plans to restart aerial fumigation.
Aerial fumigation can reach areas that may not be affected by a manual eradication campaign. However, it can intensify violence. A recent report based on remote conversations in Cordoba and Antioquia found that a majority of coca farmers reported increased domestic violence, child labor, and sexual violence.
Aerial fumigation is also expensive. In addition, farmers need land titles to make the transition. It also increases the pressure on rural economies. The government believes that the most profitable coca is grown on plots between 30 and 40 hectares.
In addition to targeting coca crops, the Duque government has also expanded a program of manual eradication. The program offered short-term monetary incentives and technical assistance to farmers. Farmers also received $500 for livestock and subsistence crops.
However, farmers said they were not offered any real incentives to abandon coca. The program also stigmatized farmers as illegal collaborators.