Will the end of the Farc mean the end of the Colombian drug trade?

With on-going peace negotiations between the government and the Farc and President Santos declaring that we need a global rethink on drugs it seems that Colombia could be at a turning point not only the longest running conflict in the Western Hemisphere, but also in the disastrous War on Drugs, which after billions of dollars has yet achieve any substantial positive consequences.

The issues of the armed conflict and the drug trade are inextricably linked. However reading national and international media it would be easy to believe that the left wing guerrillas are the only armed groups that have control of the cocaine trade. This perception can be dangerous, as the general public, not only in Colombia but also globally, might therefore believe that without the Farc there would Colombia would not be one of the biggest Coca producers in the world.

It is true that the Farc and other left-wing groups are involved in the drug trade. However in some cases the links between the drug trade and the left wing insurgency are somewhat coincidental. The rural isolated areas where coca is grown are also places where the insurgents have throughout their 40 year existence been based, hidden by the thick foliage from the Colombian air force planes above and able to wield some influence over the local population, in areas where there is little presence from the Colombian state.

However they are not the only armed group involved in this lucrative drug trade and probably not the group that is profiting most out of it either. What the official government terminology refers to as Bacrim or Bandas criminales (criminal gangs) are descendants of the right wing paramilitary groups who officially demobilized in 2005. Some Colombian Human Rights groups argue that these criminal structures are effectively the same as the paramilitaries and maintain the same links with private business interests and the military but under a different name. They also control a large part of the drug trade as historically right-wing armed groups have had as much involvement in the illicit industry as the left-wing insurgents and in the eighties Israeli mercenaries were brought over to train paramilitaries and the private armies of Pablo Escobar. Estimates from Colombian NGO’s state that there are more than 10000 Bacrim operating in the country, much more than the Farc’s estimated 8000 members.

Up until now neo-paramilitaries have an advantage as they are characterised by the government as armed criminal gangs instead of an armed insurgent group which means that under International Humanitarian Law the rules of engagement are much stricter. For example, whereas members of the FARC spotted out in the open can be attacked by aerial bombardment, neo-paramilitaries have to open fire on the military before they are fired upon. Although this month a constitutional reform was approved by the, it has yet to be seen how these changes will be seen in practice. Especially as the military has had a history of collaboration with the paramilitaries and many military leaders sentenced to prison in Colombia and the US as well as court cases in the national and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The neo–paramilitary organisations are also in control of the main towns, roads and rivers along the major drug routes, meaning that for the raw coca leaf to be processed and transported out of the country means that alliances are forged between the Farc and neo-paramiltaries as the lucrative profits of the drug trade make sworn enemies forget their differences.  The government have already acknowledged links between the Farc and armed or neo-paramilitary groups but reports such as this one state that actually the Farc’s role in the illicit drug market is mainly based around the taxation of illicit crops and that the ‘narcoguerilla’ theory and there supposed involvement in the international drug trade is more to do with political discourse than the reality of the situation.

General Jose Roberto Leon the head Colombian National Police Force recently stated that the Farc control 60% of the drug trade in the country and that they earn $1 billion a year from the domestic sale of the product and that they are undoubtedly involved in trafficking the drug oversees.  However this year during peace negotiations in Havana the Farc have proposed that the government stop criminalizing coca farmers and that there should be legal markets for poppy, marijuana and coca production. They say that this proposal is in order to improve the lives of the rural population, of whom many already cultivate coca and receive only a minor fraction of the profits. The issue of the illegal drug trade is on the agenda for the peace negotiations and will be debated later this year. However the Farc have a history of violence, kidnapping and human rights abuses, which is known only to well to the Colombian public and this will most likely be used by the media to delegitimise the drug policy debate.

The fact that this is an issue on the negotiating table is a positive step but also questions to what extent they are actually involved in the international drug trafficking trade; by proposing a legal market they would be reducing the profits generated as the illicit nature of the cocaine market is what makes it so profitable. The Attorney General’s Alejandro Ordóñez claims that the Farc are proposing a legal coca market for financial gains are weak, considering that the nature of an illicit market makes it far more profitable than a legal one.

General Jose Roberto Leon’s claim that the demobilisation of the Farc will create a vacuum that will not be filled and that drug production in Colombia will be greatly produced, is also not very credible. What is more likely to happen is that large criminal groups or neo paramilitary forces, already making profits through drug trafficking and other illegal activities will move in to fill that vacuum.

Therefore more progressive drug policies, concerning the legal cultivation of mainly coca but also marihuana and opium, need to be discussed, and implemented parallel to the peace negotiations and a possible demobilisation of the Farc.

If this does not occur, a demobilisation of the Farc will achieve little in terms of security. A possible scenario could be increased violence as criminal gangs and neo-paramilitary forces, or Farc members who do not want to demobilise scramble to fill the vacuum in the drug production infrastructure left by the Farc. Without the existence of the Farc, the government would be left without the insurgency group, which has been blamed for the last 20 years for the drug problem in Colombia. The government and security forces might be forced to take action against the neo-paramilitary groups breaking, the not much talked about, links and collaboration that dates back to the formation of the paramilitaries in the eighties. This could lead to a similar situation as Mexico, where drug cartels with no political ideologies are waging a bloodthirsty war against each other and the government. In the case of Colombia it could return very quickly to the situation of the eighties where Pablo Escobar waged a brutal war on the government. The danger is that if there is no reform in global drug policy history could repeat itself, as increases in violence lead to more misguided and damaging policy.