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Colombia’s Peace Process Comes at a Price

By Amanda Mattingly

Colombia’s peace has come at a price as the country finds itself back at the top of the list of global cocaine producers. Of course, peace is not directly correlated with a proliferation of cocaine, but in the negotiation process with the rebel group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration has inadvertently allowed for a flourishing of coca and a surge in cocaine production. Unfortunately, proposed cuts to U.S. assistance to Colombia will exacerbate the problem further if this rollback becomes a reality.

Coca cultivation in Colombia has been climbing steadily over the last several years—increasing by approximately 18 percent in 2016 alone—primarily because demand for cocaine persists and Colombian farmers still do not have a legal alternative that is as lucrative as the illegal coca plant. According to a report produced by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), Colombia planted approximately 188,000 hectares in 2016, making it the fourth consecutive year of increases in coca production. Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas confirmed the U.S. assessment, noting the huge challenge that the country faces in keeping up with manual eradication and providing crop substitution alternatives for the coca growers.

In addition to these fundamental economic drivers, the Colombian government has shifted its strategy away from aerial eradication. In 2015, the government said it favored manual eradication and enhanced interdiction efforts over spraying due to health and environmental concerns. These concerns are real, but the decision to stop spraying also had a lot to do with the peace negotiations. Coca growers farm much of the FARC’s territory and it is no secret that the rebel group has been funded largely by the profits of the illegal drug trade. The decision to halt aerial eradication of coca was a concession the Colombian government made in an effort to make peace.

At the same time, Colombian farmers returned to coca growing last year with the hope of admittance to a crop substitution program established in the peace accords. Opponents of Colombia’s counternarcotics strategy, which has been backed by the U.S. government for almost two decades, have long argued that the coca growers do not have a viable alternative to the coca plant and that it is the government’s obligation to assist them in exchange for giving up the crop. This issue was a major part of the peace negotiations, and the plan now includes a program for farmers to receive government subsidies. The unfortunate but predictable result has been that farmers who had already made the switch, and even some miners looking to cash in, went back to growing coca so as to be included in the new program.

More coca in Colombia means more cocaine finding its way back into the United States, but it’s not for a lack of cooperation between the two countries. The inception of “Plan Colombia” in 2000 has strengthened counternarcotics coordination, including training and intelligence sharing. Since then, Colombia has received approximately $10 billion in American assistance to implement the plan. Last year, the Obama administration requested funding from Congress for ongoing support to Colombia in the post-peace process period. These resources would help the Colombian government meet the significant demands it faces in pursuing its counternarcotics strategy, enhancing its presence in the formerly FARC-controlled areas of the country, and creating viable economic opportunities for the people, including coca growers. 

However, the Trump administration’s newly proposed budget cuts of around $34 billion to the State Department could reduce U.S. aid to Colombia going forward, as INL Assistant Secretary of State and former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield recently informed his Colombian counterparts. Unless Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is willing to make a specific request to the president or the U.S. Congress alters the budget substantively, the cuts will mean less money and less support for Colombia.

The Trump administration may want to shift funds to an “America First” agenda that is more “hard power” driven and moves away from development assistance. But while the U.S. government still considers the FARC a terrorist organization, it must also weigh the very real cost of not supporting Colombia as it seeks to implement the peace accords and pursue a more comprehensive counternarcotics strategy. Cutting budgets would undermine American foreign policy objectives in Colombia that have constituted the cornerstone of U.S. international counternarcotics strategy for multiple Democratic and Republican administrations. The reality is that Colombia’s coca cultivation and cocaine production will only increase further under this scenario.

The longer-term benefit of peace in Colombia is worth the cost of providing Colombia with the resources it needs to present viable alternatives to drug profits and war. Ultimately, this is in the interest of both Colombia and the United States. 

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Amanda Mattingly is a Senior Director at The Arkin Group and a Truman National Security Fellow. She previously served as a foreign affairs officer at the State Department and the National Security Council. Views expressed are her own. 

Another recent article in the Latin America Advisor, "Why is Coca Cultivation on the Rise in Colombia?" can be found here.

[Photo courtesy of Policía Nacional de los colombianos]

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