The Peace Process & the Prospect of Legalisation

Colombia is at a crossroads. The government under President Juan Manuel Santos and the Communist guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC), are in Havana negotiating an end to the longest civil conflict in the Americas extending back around five decades. Six topics are on the agenda for negotiations; agreements have already been reached regarding land reform and political participation of the FARC. The third and current topic of negotiation is one of the most controversial and problematic: the illegal drugs problem in Colombia.

To give some context, the FARC were formed in the 1960s to represent the landless peasant masses who wanted to challenge the unequal land distribution and inequality in the countryside. Since this formation, they have developed into one of the largest and most powerful Marxist-Leninist organisations in the world, and have undertaken a sustained campaign of bombing and assassination to challenge the Colombian state. These activities have been financed through extortion, kidnapping, and illegal mining, and perhaps most famously, the cocaine trade. The end of the Cold War brought a change in vocabulary in the United States which reflected this activity – the FARC were no longer labelled as ‘communists,’ but ‘narcoguerrillas.’

This term exaggerated the influence of the FARC in the drug trade. Whilst they taxed coca growers in strongholds like the Southern province of Putumayo, opposition paramilitary groups such as the United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC) were more heavily involved in cocaine production and trafficking. Given that these groups were essentially allowed to act with impunity by the Colombian state, colluded with the military, and were afforded far less attention by the US government than the FARC, the commitment of the political elites to bringing down the drug trade was clearly questionable.

Considering this history, the FARC’s proposal on the drug issue is particularly interesting. They call for the legalization of coca, poppy, and marijuana cultivation in the country, and an end to US-sponsored aerial fumigation of coca fields. In a declaration made on their official website, FARC commander-in-chief Timochenko explained that:

‘The phenomenon of production, commercialisation and consumption of hallucinogenic narcotics, ultimately understood as a serious social problem, cannot be treated with a military solution.’

Timoshenko added that the existence of these crops is due to the ‘way of survival’ of ‘peasants who have been abandonded by the State and by the violence of landholding elites.’ Legalization is thus depicted as a means of supporting the peasantry and reducing the damage of the drug war.

The drugs issue is in fact one of the topics on the peace agenda where the FARC and the government appear to agree the most. In August 2012, President Santos ratified a law deeming drug addiction a public health issue rather than a crime, obliging health insurance companies to cover the voluntary treatment of drug addicts. This legislation came two months after the Colombian Congress approved a bill to decriminalise small amounts of cocaine and marijuana for personal use. On the surface at least, legalization thus appears be a realistic prospect.

Colombia, however, is not a country that should be analysed on the surface. The peace process has exacerbated the tendency of the Colombian and international media to reduce the conflict to a bilateral struggle between the government and the FARC. In reality, the drug trade and the armed conflict feature a far more diverse array of actors including paramilitary groups, drug traffickers, multi-national corporations, and landowners. The narco-dollars produced by the industry fund the paramilitaries, which displace peasant communities and freeing up land for exploitation by multi-national corporations. They also protect the interests of these corporations and oligarchic landowners by eliminating peasant resistance and providing ‘private security.’ All of these groups thus have a vested interest in defending prohibition, given that legalization would reduce the price of drugs and cause profits to fall.  Colombia’s political elite, which draws heavily on individuals from these backgrounds, has traditionally acted in the interests of these social sectors. And this is not to mention the pressure to continue fumigating and maintain prohibition from across the border in the United States.

In short, then, the drug trade is likely to remain unchanged regardless of the FARC’s policy or the outcome of the peace process. Whilst the interests of Colombia’s economic elites and the narcos remain tied together, it is improbable that prohibition comes under any genuine threat. Of course, the secrecy shrouding the peace negotiations makes any accurate postulation impossible. But if Colombia really has arrived at a crossroads, the evidence suggests that it will go straight.