Cocaine Complicates Peace Talks in Colombia

6 MINS READMar 15, 2015 | 13:01 GMT
Cocaine Complicates Peace Talks In Colombia
A Colombian guard watches over packages of cocaine displayed for the press in Turbo, Colombia, 2014.

As peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia progress, the subject of conversation will inevitably turn to cocaine. The militants' deep involvement in the production and smuggling of the drug will undoubtedly complicate the government's ability to give leaders of the group, known as the FARC, criminal amnesty as part of any peace agreement. But even if the Colombian government and the rebels come to accord on how to handle criminal charges, the flow of cocaine out of Colombia is unlikely to decline, even in the short term. Consistently high demand abroad and domestic factors in Colombia will keep some cocaine production and trafficking networks to the United States operating unabated, though minor shifts in drug export patterns are to be expected.

There are myriad reasons to be optimistic about progress toward a peace deal with the FARC in 2015. Recent steps taken by the Colombian government and the rebels indicate that both sides intend to de-escalate the conflict on the battlefield to allow negotiators to progress toward a demobilization — arguably the most complicated part of the talks. On March 10, the Colombian government agreed to temporarily halt targeted airstrikes against the FARC. Days before, the rebel group agreed to collaborate with the Colombian government to clear the land mines and improvised explosive devices that the group has planted across the country. Moreover, the rebels have slowed down attacks against oil infrastructure. Between January and February, there were at most three suspected militant attacks on oil pipelines, compared to 21 over the first two months of 2014. This reduction is the product of the FARC's unilateral cease-fire implemented Dec. 20. That the truce has held since then indicates that the rebels are serious about ensuring the talks continue. 

The biggest possible complication left in the talks remains the FARC's deep involvement in drug trafficking. In the early 1980s, the rebel group turned to taxing coca growing, cocaine production and cocaine trafficking to fund its insurgency. Eventually, the group became directly involved in coca cultivation and cocaine production. By the late 1990s, the boost in funding from cocaine could be seen in the FARC's growing military strength and presence across the country. Though the Colombian military subsequently reclaimed vast swathes of territory during the early to mid-2000s, the rebel group has remained involved in the cocaine industry across the country. 

This issue will continue plaguing Colombia beyond the current peace talks. The Colombian government will struggle to find a negotiated solution that involves pardoning select rebel leaders wanted on drug trafficking and kidnapping charges, mainly because the United States can still seek their extradition, even with clemency granted by Bogota. Colombia stated it will seek Washington's support for any agreement reached. Should the talks succeed, broader factors will keep Colombia a key drug-producing state for years to come — namely strong U.S. demand for cocaine, the economic underdevelopment of coca-producing regions in Colombia and deeply entrenched criminal networks, well-positioned to continue their current activities. 

Drivers of the Drug Trade

Flows of cocaine out of Colombia — along with other major drug producers like Peru and Bolivia — may ebb and flow. Yet, continuing demand for Andean cocaine in the United States, Europe and East Asia will keep existing production and trafficking structures largely unchanged for the next several years. This is not to say the cocaine market has been static in past decades. Overall, the availability of cocaine is significantly lower than it was previously, and the drug has lost ground to heroin and other recreational drugs in the U.S. market. The scale of coca plantation in Colombia — currently estimated at around 48,000 hectares — has declined by nearly 92,000 hectares since 2001, partly because of consistent law enforcement pressure. Nonetheless, cocaine is still rooted in the Andean region, and virtually all production of the drug comes from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Despite the slide in global consumption, cocaine trafficking and the United States' ongoing interdiction efforts will continue affecting Colombia for years to come. 

Colombia Coca

Colombia Coca

The deep poverty in Colombia's coca-growing regions will also continue to spur the cocaine trade. Most of Colombia's coca growth and cocaine production takes place in the country's northeast and southwest, as well as in specific regions of the northwestern hinterland. The role of these areas in the trade is partly strategic, as most are close to sea lanes and national borders that are ideal for smuggling shipments out of Colombia. But the poverty in these areas also creates a steady stream of locals willing to join the industry. Unlike Colombia's Andean core, these departments are largely underdeveloped and — outside of the limited opportunities offered by extractive industries such as oil and mining — have significantly fewer economic opportunities than the rest of the country. Placeholder agreements reached with the FARC in 2013 and 2014 indicate that the government will undertake rural development programs such as electrification and irrigation to improve living standards in these areas.

However, financial pressures on Colombia's government may limit Bogota's ability to follow through on such initiatives, even over the next few years. Low global oil prices since the third quarter of 2014 have reduced Colombia's income from petroleum exports, which make up nearly 50 percent of the country's overall export revenues. More crucially, the government relies on energy taxes to fund around 20 percent of its budget. Bogota can (and likely will) take on debt or seek funding from international organizations for implementation of any eventual peace agreement. Legislation was recently passed to raise funds for the peace deal. However, given the lucrative profit margins in cocaine production, it is unlikely that rural development will significantly offset the incentive to become or remain involved in drug production.

The FARC and other criminal groups have networks in place to continue profiting from cocaine. Politically, the government will likely try to take measures to extricate the rebel group (or at least the top leadership) from the cocaine trade, but the situation on the ground is much more complicated. A major possible sticking point is the network of alliances between individuals in the FARC's Ivan Rios Bloc and the Urabenos criminal group in northwestern Colombia. The leader of the FARC bloc has familial ties to some of the local and national Urabenos leadership. Additionally, the 57th front, which is under the Ivan Rios Bloc's command, is deeply involved in coca growing and trafficking. Even with a demobilization of the FARC, such networks that have seemingly strong alliances with groups explicitly excluded from the peace deal will have little short-term incentive to stop illicit activities. The government faces a similar challenge in demobilizing the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, which is also allied with local criminal groups. The ELN's direct involvement in the cocaine trade is notably smaller than FARC's, so ELN will likely pose less of a challenge for Colombian security forces. Overall, the Colombian government will continue devoting significant resources to counternarcotics operations, and specific areas of the country will remain dangerous for travellers and investors.

Overall, the Colombian government has a strong incentive to reach a peace deal with the FARC. Ending or at least slowing down the politically motivated attacks from the insurgency would open up areas of the country's underdeveloped interior to investment and alleviate the effects of decades of continuous violence. But the challenge of drug trafficking is here to stay. Even if the Colombian government manages to remove some FARC members from the field, the group's remnants or other criminal groups will keep Colombia active in the international cocaine trade.

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