Policy decisions taken by the Colombian government in the pursuit of a peace accord have produced record cocaine use and trafficking levels, according to a damning new report from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA warns that “trends since 2013 reveal a remarkable increase in cocaine production, which poses an increasing threat to the United States.” The report adds that, “barring a significant shift in the Government of Colombia’s (GOC) policies, drug trafficking organization (DTO) behavior, or US drug consumer preferences, this trend is likely to amplify through at least 2018.”
According to data from both the US government and the United Nations, coca cultivation in Colombia has reached record highs. The DEA identifies “significant increases in northbound cocaine movement were driven primarily by increases in coca cultivation in the Andean region.” Progress on reducing cocaine usage in the United States also has been lost, with rates now at the highest levels since at least 2009 and 92% of the cocaine seized in the US coming from Colombia.
While Colombia historically has been a key ally in stemming the flow of illegal narcotics, the DEA points to changing factors and recent policy shifts by President Juan Manuel Santos as causing the dramatic loss of past progress. Nearly all of these changes came about during — or because of — Colombia’s peace process with its largest armed guerrilla group, signed late last year. Peace negotiations between the GOC and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have at times exacerbated the problem of illicit coca cultivation in Colombia.
A key factor in the rise of coca cultivation has been the FARC’s renewed push to encourage the illegal planting of coca by citing incentives created by the Colombian government under the peace accord. The Colombian government also “eased eradication operations in areas controlled by the FARC to lessen the risk of armed conflict during peace negotiations,” according to the DEA. Perhaps the most significant factor was the government’s 2013 reduction and eventual elimination of aerial spraying of coca crops, which has helped drive coca eradication down to the lowest levels since 1996.
The Colombian government is placing its hopes on the success of a new strategy that de-emphasizes forced eradication in favor of incentives, economic development, peer pressure, and the end of the FARC’s involvement in the drug trade; however, this is a risky proposition that, as the DEA notes, will take years before full implementation.
Furthermore, while the bulk of the FARC’s forces have demobilized in recent months, the threat posed by organized drug trafficking groups is far from gone. FARC dissidents, the ELN (National Liberation Army), and paramilitary groups remain active throughout Colombia and have been exploiting the vacuum left by the FARC to increase their operational capabilities. Perhaps even more dangerous is the FARC’s attempts to hide assets derived from criminal activities, in direct violation of the peace accord.
If the FARC fails to declare its assets or terminate its relationships with drug trafficking organizations, the credibility and viability of the peace accord will be severely undermined. Moreover, if the Colombian government fails to respond effectively to the explosion in coca production, it imperils its own peace accord and weakens the security and prosperity of its people.