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It’s been almost two-and-a-half years since FARC guerrillas signed a peace accord with the Colombian government. But the agreement has failed to eliminate many of the underlying causes of the conflict that continue to affect the Andean nation. Perhaps chief among them is drug trafficking.
Since the beginning of the peace talks between former President Juan Manuel Santos and the guerrilla Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), coca cultivation in Colombia has grown relentlessly. In 2012, 47,490 hectares were used for coca cultivation, according to figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In five years, that acreage multiplied by more than 3.5 times over; in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, 171,000 hectares were used for coca cultivation. The FARC has disappeared, but the demand for cocaine has not diminished and other armed actors have quickly taken their place.
Money for the war
Drug trafficking has been the fuel for violence in Colombia for decades, especially given its ability to provide economic resources for internal conflict. In its initial phases, the intensity of the conflict was relatively low, but it exploded between 1990 and 2010, as did the drug trade. The trade permeated all layers of the conflict, from the guerrillas to violent right-wing paramilitaries.
For Kyle Johnson, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, it’s important to remember that “the FARC was just one actor in a complex chain” of drug trafficking, who “played a key role” in the phenomenon, especially in “the territorial control and the routes” of the business, but that had little relevance at the level of international distribution. Johnson believes that “the role of the FARC in drug trafficking was a bit exaggerated” by some governments and analysts, which generated “a slightly exaggerated expectation” of the impact that the disarmament would have on the illegal economy.
The FARC initially distanced themselves from drug trafficking, but in the 1980s they adopted a tax called “grammage” that taxed activities related to illicit trade in the territories under FARC control, such as crops, processing laboratories and the exportation of drugs. Drug trafficking cartels did not welcome this initial foray into the drug trade, and they soon joined forces with the paramilitaries to fight the guerrillas.
The narco-paramilitary alliance was one of the causes of the resurgence of violence in the armed conflict, as well as the growing participation of the FARC in the drug trade. Beginning in the 1990s, “the FARC began to take a look at anything” that would generate income for combat, explains Johnson. Some fronts began to be directly involved in the commercialization of cocaine and to occupy a “higher position in the drug trafficking chain.” With extensive control over the various Colombian borders, the guerrillas could take the product to Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama. The disparities between the various fronts widened, leading to certain blocks of the FARC becoming more deeply involved with the drug trade. According to figures published by Professor Jerónimo Ríos in Brief History of Armed Conflict in Colombia, drug trafficking came to supply between 40 and 50 percent of the FARC’s income in its final years.
The new drug trafficking landscape
The transition of the FARC to normalized political life did not signal the end of drug trafficking in Colombia—far from it. Juan Carlos Garzón, a researcher at the Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP), says that since the beginning of the negotiations between the guerrilla group and the Santos government, “a realignment of illegal actors began” in the territories previously occupied by the insurgent group, a dynamic that was consolidated with the FARC’s abandonment of weapons. In many of these territories, the “deficient capacity of the state to reach these areas” meant that the illicit economics didn’t disappear when the FARC disbanded. While Johnson admits that the Colombian government could not have prevented the new actors from establishing themselves in these zones, he says that “the plans to occupy them should have been implemented earlier. [The Armed Forces] have the belief that disbanding an armed group meant controlling their previous territory, but this relationship is not as direct as they thought.”
The redistribution of illegal drug trafficking groups did not occur uniformly throughout the country. In some cases, “the FARC’s capabilities were transferred” to other organizations through “explicit or implicit agreements”, Garzón explains. In others, conflict led to the conquering of abandoned FARC territory; this was particularly prevalent in border areas, including the Catatumbo, adjacent to Venezuela, where the guerrillas of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) and the armed members of the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL) continue to fight for control of the territory. Similar conflict is ongoing in the Urabá region, on the Panamanian border, where the ELN and the Gulf Clan, the biggest gang to emerge from the paramilitary groups, continue fighting for territory. Garzón explains that the Colombian case is especially complex because, despite the disarmament of the FARC, there are still “many armed structures that remain in the territory.”
Among the most prominent of these armed groups are the heirs of the paramilitary groups, who have reinforced their presence since the FARC’s disbanding. Known as “Bacrim” (criminal gangs), they emerged after the 2006 demobilization of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), the most powerful paramilitary group in the country. Despite the disappearance of the AUC, many members joined the ranks of smaller groups dedicated to criminal activity such as the Gulf Clan. The EPL, an old guerrilla group, is also an important actor. The FIP estimates that these groups have a presence in 1,323 municipalities in the country, and that in total there are approximately 2,100 members. They are no longer organizations with national scope, but instead focus on gaining control over specific areas.
The new drug lords rely on these disparate groups to carry out their illegal activities. The InSight Crime Colombian Organized Crime Observatory refers to them as “the invisible”, because they seek less public notoriety and exercise leadership from the shadows. Their structures are very small and depend on the outsourcing of most of their activity to the groups that operate in the territory.
Another actor that has emerged from the FARC’s abandonment of armed conflict is the ELN, the last operating guerrilla group in Colombia. In some areas there have been “transfers” between the two groups, in terms of both territory and fighters who have joined the ELN since FARC disbanded. Despite the fact that it’s difficult to concretely map, InSight Crime research shows that the ELN’s greatest expansion has occurred in the border areas previously occupied by FARC guerrillas. The clearest examples are the Vichada region, a department on the border with Venezuela lacking in state services, and the area surrounding Tumaco, one of Colombia’s main Pacific ports, which in recent years has been shaken by armed conflict between the ELN and other illegal groups, such as the “Bacrim.”
But perhaps one of the most direct consequences of the disarmament of the FARC has been the creation of bands of former guerrillas who abandoned the peace process and made their military and territorial knowledge available to the drug traffickers. Since the beginning of the process, there have been fronts that were reluctant to agree with the government. In 2016, the First Front of the FARC announced its withdrawal from peace talks and refused to demobilize along with its comrades. They were the first dissidents, but they were later joined by members of the Eastern Bloc, which operated in eastern Colombia. For now, there are at least 600 combatants organized into several groups. Johnson stresses that “the fronts more involved in drug trafficking”, which are therefore wealthier, “in general have generated greater levels of dissidence.”
The paths of dissident groups vary. Some are “much more similar to what the FARC were, in terms of their relationship with the population and control of their territory,” explains Garzón. These groups are especially prevalent in the “historical zones” of guerrilla rule, such as the central region of Meta. There, dissident groups have formed more recently than in other cases, a phenomenon Garzón attributes to “the delays and problems that have occurred in the reincorporation process and the security guarantees” for ex-guerrillas who gave up their weapons. “The peace process took a look time to take off”, as did economic resources offered by the government; according to Garzón, these factors added to the “legal uncertainty for ex-combatants” that has pushed some former FARC guerrillas to abandon the reincorporation and join the swelling dissident ranks. 107 ex-guerrillas have been killed since the signing of the peace agreement, according to the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office.
On the other hand, there are groups born of former FARC members that “do not follow the political line” of the insurgent organization, says Garzón. These groups are “more fragmented” and arise from detachments of the peace process that are more individual and motivated to co-opt the criminal networks that already existed in the territory when the FARC was still active.
Poverty in coca-producing regions
Illegal cultivation occupies 171,000 hectares of Colombian territory. Since 2013, the area consumed by illegal coca cultivation has increased by an annual average of 45 percent. In addition, crops today produce 33 percent more coca leaf than they did in 2012. 25 percent of plantations are less than 20 kilometers from an international border; the areas with highest concentrations of coca production include with border with Ecuador, the Pacific coast, the Venezuelan border, and regions near the Amazon and, therefore, Brazil.
This is occurring despite the fact that a key component of the peace agreement with the FARC was the Comprehensive National Plan for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS), a program that seeks to subvert the process of drug trafficking from its origin. Through economic and social incentives, the PNIS helps coca-producing families leave the illicit economy and begin to grow other types of crops. This is the Colombian government attempting to tackle the problem at its root: coca production is most prevalent where economic opportunities are scarce, in regions outside the reach of the services provided by the Colombian state.
According to the FIP, 57 percent of families living in coca-growing areas live below the poverty line, well above the average in rural Colombia (36 percent). A grower’s monthly income per hectare is about $131, half the Colombian minimum wage. However, for these families, coca cultivation is more profitable than the available alternatives, especially because of the lack of regional road infrastructure, which makes it difficult to commercialize legal agricultural products. Coca yields harvest more often, sells at a better price, and is collected by armed drug traffickers at family farms, which means farmers do not have to worry about distribution.
The implementation of the PNIS has been slow and difficult due to the security situation in the areas it targets, but also due to an “insufficient operational capacity” of the state, which has failed to dedicate sufficient economic and technical resources to the plan, according to the latest FIP report. There are currently around 99,000 families linked to the PNIS; the UN estimates that there are some 200,000 coca farming families in Colombia, although Garzón says the real figure could be higher. The goal of the PNIS is the voluntary eradication of 51,824 hectares, of which it is estimated that 29,393 (56 percent) have been eliminated. The level of compliance of targeted families is high; the FIP report claims that 94 percent have eradicated their crops. However, the vast majority of them have not yet generated an economic alternative to support the transition from coca cultivation. The arrival of the conservative Iván Duque to Colombia’s presidency has not helped; his party, the Democratic Center, was fervently against the peace agreement with the FARC.
Several organizations have reported that, since Duque took office, the payments from the PNIS to participating families have been suspended. In addition, the general budget proposed by the Duque administration cut the territorial approach issues of the peace agreement, including the PNIS, by around $140 million while increasing defense spending by around 53 percent. “Duque decided to continue with the program, which is not a minor event,” says Garzón. However, he continues, the first months of his term have plunged participating communities into “uncertainty” because “many aspects of the PNIS have been frozen.”
Historically, Democratic Center governments have approached the fight against drug trafficking with an emphasis on forced eradication, through the intervention of the armed forces and the aerial spraying of glyphosate, instead of the voluntary eradication favored by the Peace Agreement. Although Colombia’s Constitutional Court banned the use of glyphosate in 2017, Duque put the use of the chemical back on the table at the beginning of his term. The real impact of aerial spraying is minimal: spraying 800 hectares of coca would reduce the supply of cocaine by 0.004 percent. Forced eradication at the hands of the army also present disadvantages; in territories where the army has previously intervened, 35 percent of the area has reverted to coca production. According to Garzón, armed intervention fails to lead to “a change in the condition that led to cultivation in the first place.” For contrast, in areas where the communities voluntarily gave up cultivation, only 0.6 percent of families have re-planted coca bushes.
The “mere discussion of re-starting aerial spraying works against” the progress made by the PNIS because coca growers are opposed to the measure, says Garzón. In regions where the state has failed to establish a presence in other aspects, “communities see the arrival of the strong hand of the state” as something that prevents the possibility of “a relationship of legitimacy.”
Another difficulty faced by voluntary substitution efforts is the presence of the aforementioned armed groups involved in drug trafficking, who threaten the community leaders in charge of the process with violence in order to prevent the voluntary eradication of crops. In the first seven months of 2018, homicides increased by 40 percent in the municipalities where families were participating in the PNIS. The National Coordinator of Coca, Poppy and Marijuana Growers (COCCAM) denounced the murder of 36 leaders of voluntary eradication efforts between January 2017 and June 2018.
For Kyle Johnson, Duque’s arrival to power “is a bit daunting.” The analyst expects “a more intense war” against armed groups that will likely be successful at dismantling military targets. However, he adds that “as long as the prevailing government philosophy is that the best way to protect the population is by killing the bad guys, we will not see much progress, because what these areas actually need is increased presence of government services.”
Since the disarming of the FARC, the actors, figures and methods have changed. But the conclusion is clear: drug trafficking in Colombia is more alive than ever before.
Mar Romero Sala is a freelance journalist located in Bogotá.