As families across the United States gathered around the dinner table to carve Thanksgiving turkeys, in Havana, Cuba, representatives of the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) sat down to tackle another agenda point of the peace process: drug policy.
Regardless of the violence and corruption wrought upon the Andean nation by narcotics, the discussions should be relatively straightforward compared with the previous negotiating topics of agrarian reform and the political participation of the leftist guerrillas, which stretched on for about six and five months, respectively.
Both the current administration and the FARC have called for extensive reform. Last September, President Juan Manuel Santos reiterated his request for an international review of the “War on Drugs” during his speech before the UN General Assembly. He has moreover appointed progressive academics such as Francisco Thoumi to the UN International Narcotics Control Board, and Daniel Mejía to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Drug Policy.
Despite FARC’s involvement in the drug trade, the rebel group’s maximum leader, alias “Timochenko,” released a communiqué on November 12 stating, “Our satisfaction for a Colombia without coca will be enormous.” On November 23, the guerrillas published a proposal on their website to work with officials to provide coca growers with viable economic alternatives.
As Adam Isacson, a Senior Associate of the Washington Office on Latin America, told The City Paper, “Colombia’s government and the FARC might actually be closer to one another [on drug policy] than to the United States,” a major ally of the Santos administration and a supporter of the peace process with the guerrilla group.
The current agenda point is indeed the most likely to affect U.S. interests in Colombia. A particularly contentious point would be the reduction or elimination of aerial spraying of coca with herbicides, a key component of Colombia’s U.S.-backed antinarcotics strategy since 1994, and which program still receives over US$40 million from Washington every year.
Yet opposition to fumigation is gaining strength. Mr. Mejía has publicly criticized the use of glyphosate as ineffective and harmful to both human health and the environment. When the negotiating parties invited Colombian civil society last September to join a public debate in Bogotá on the solution to illicit drugs, hundreds of citizens from rural areas packed into buses to call for an end to the overhead spraying program.
The U.S. may also balk at a post-treaty agreement regarding extraditions. U.S. courts have indicted just about every significant FARC leader on drug-trafficking charges, but guerrilla commanders have made it clear that they will not lay down their arms only to fill U.S. prisons. While the Obama administration is unable to revoke the extradition requests of its penal system, the Colombian government is expected to guarantee that rebels complying with the terms of the peace accords will not be shipped north.
Nevertheless, the peace process might stall if FARC insist on the legalization of coca or illicit drugs themselves. Colombia’s Supreme Court has already upheld permission to retain a “personal dose” of some drugs, and the President has repeatedly mentioned the need to discuss decriminalization as part of an international effort against narcotics. Still, Santos has rejected the notion of becoming “the vanguard of that movement because then [he] will be crucified.”
The FARC should accelerate the current round of negotiations by recognizing their participation in Colombia’s drug trade. Publicly, the guerrillas reject the label of narco-traffickers. The rebels claim to only protect coca growers from would-be extortionists, and to apply a “revolutionary tax” on the cocaine that passes through their territory.
In reality, proof of the FARC’s involvement with all aspects of the narcotics industry is insurmountable. For Colombian authorities, it is no coincidence that that the guerrilla strongholds of Nariño, Putumayo, Guaviare, Cauca and Norte de Santander are also the departments with the highest levels of illicit cops, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s latest coca cultivation survey.
It is true that evidence of international trafficking and personal enrichment among the FARC is low, and the rebel group’s Secretariat may view the business as a “necessary evil” to fund an irregular army and political objectives. Still, the daily collusion in trafficking between fringe guerrilla fronts and the successor groups to right-wing paramilitaries in Nariño is a glaring contradiction to the official FARC narrative.
“The Colombian people are expecting some admission of the FARC’s involvement [in narco-trafficking] (…) their rhetoric wears on the public,” explained Christian Voelkel, International Crisis Group’s analyst for Colombia and the Andean region, to The City Paper.
Finally, the current agenda point raises opportunities to steer poor rural farmers away from coca cultivation. Should the government complement alternative development and crop replacement with the provision of land titles, public and food security, and road-building, the initiatives could prove very successful. But, as Mr. Isacson notes, “It’s got to be part of a bigger effort to govern abandoned territories.”
The proposals of the Colombian government and the FARC on drug policy reform are compatible. U.S. President Obama might very well raise several concerns when President Santos visits the White House on December 3. The Colombian people will maintain an attitude of disengaged skepticism. Nevertheless, negotiations between the State and the guerrillas have never come so far. The only choice is to plough forward.