Now Colombia is calling for an end to that war. It wants instead to lead a global experiment: to decriminalize cocaine.
Two weeks after taking office, the country’s first left-wing government proposes an end to ‘prohibition’ and the start of a government-regulated cocaine market. Through legislation and alliances with other left-wing governments in the region, officials in this South American country hope to turn their country into a laboratory for drug decriminalization.
“It is time for a new international convention that accepts that the war on drugs has failed,” President Gustavo Petro said in his inaugural address this month.
To be a radical turn in this historically conservative country, one that could disrupt its long-standing — and lucrative — drug-fighting relationship with the United States. US officials past and present are a cause for concern; the drug was responsible for an estimated 25,000 overdose deaths in the United States last year.
“The United States and the Biden administration are not in favor of decriminalization,” said Jonathan Finer, the White House’s deputy national security adviser, who met Petro here for his inauguration.
A former DEA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his current employer had not authorized him to speak about the case, said he feared the move would limit the agency’s ability to cooperate with Colombians on drug trafficking investigations.
“It would incrementally destroy the partnership,” he said. “It would be devastating, not just regionally, but globally. Everyone would fight from the outside in.”
Billions of US dollars have funded a strategy largely aimed at destroying the cocaine trade at its point of origin: the fields of rural Colombia. U.S. training and intelligence have fueled Colombia’s decades-long military efforts to eradicate coca, the base plant for cocaine, and dismantle drug-trafficking groups. And yet more than half a century after President Richard M. Nixon Declared Drugs “America’s Number One Public Enemy”, Colombian Trade Has Reached record levels. According to US figures, coca cultivation has tripled in the last ten years.
Felipe Tascón, Petro’s drug czar, said Colombians want to take advantage of a rare moment when many key governments in the region — including the cocaine-producing countries of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia — are led by leftists.
In his first interview since being appointed to the position, the economist said he wants to meet with his colleagues in those countries to discuss decriminalization at regional level. Ultimately, he hopes a united regional bloc can renegotiate international drug conventions at the United Nations.
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Domestically, Petro’s government plans to support legislation to decriminalize cocaine and marijuana. It plans to end aerial spraying and manual eradication of coca, which critics say is unfairly targeting poor rural farmers. By regulating the sale of cocaine, Tascón argued, the government would wrest the market from armed groups and cartels.
“Drug traffickers know their business depends on a ban,” Tascón said. “If you regulate it as a public market … the high profits disappear and the drug trade disappears.”
He does not want to reformulate his work as ‘counter-narcotics’ or ‘anti-drug’, but rather as ‘drug policy’.
“The government’s program does not talk about the drug problem,” he said. “It’s about the problems created by drug prohibition.”
Tascón has discussed his plans with his colleagues in Peru. Ricardo Soberón, head of Peru’s anti-drug agency DEVIDA, said it is too early to say whether Lima would support decriminalization, but he would welcome a regional debate on new approaches. Petro was able to find an ally in Bolivia, where in the 2000s the government of Evo Morales allowed farmers to legally grow coca in limited quantities.
As the main ally of the US against cocaine, Colombia is an unlikely pioneer in decriminalizing it. But it is also the country that has suffered the most from the war on drugs. Tascón said this is the country where the need for a new strategy is perhaps most urgent.
The point was driven home by the Colombian truth commission. The panel, appointed as part of the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, recommended in June that the government adopt “strict legal regulation of drugs”.
In a report, the commission said the militarized approach to drug trafficking has intensified fighting in the half-century of conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of Colombians.
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The Washington-based National Security Archive, an independent non-profit organization, provided the committee with declassified documents showing that the US government knew its approach would lead to many years of bloodshed in Colombia.
“We see no chance that the growth and drug trade in Colombia could be suppressed and kept that way…without a bloody, expensive and prolonged coercion,” read a 1983 CIA cable passed through the archives. The Washington Post was provided.
“One way to prevent this war from happening again is to rethink the way we handle coca and cocaine,” said Estefanía Ciro, who led the truth commission’s drug policy researchers. “The important thing is not that the markets exist or that there is coca, but the violence that the cocaine market produces.”
Finer, Biden’s deputy national security adviser, said the Petro government: drug policy approach overlaps with the holistic strategy the Biden administration announced for Colombia last year. But not about decriminalization.
“Colombia is a sovereign country. It will make its own decisions,” he said. “This is a relationship that is bigger and broader than just our collaboration and our collaboration on drug control.”
A delegation of US officials, including the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, plans to meet here next week with officials from the Petro -administration.
USAID administrator Samantha Power, who attended Petro’s inauguration here, said US officials “heard clearly” [his] message.”
Jim Crotty, a former DEA deputy chief of staff, argued that a legal cocaine trade “doesn’t get rid of the illegal trade.”
“As we’ve seen before in Colombia and elsewhere, there’s always someone there to fill that vacuum,” Crotty said.
Colombians are currently allowed to carry small amounts of marijuana and cocaine. But the proposed legislation aims to go much further by decriminalizing and regulating its use.
Decriminalizing cocaine will be an uphill battle in a divided Congress. Bringing the debate to the international stage will be even more difficult.
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But it’s a discussion that Latin America has already had – about marijuana. In 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the production and sale of recreational cannabis.
“We need to open the debate and break the taboo,” said Milton Romani, who was secretary general of Uruguay’s National Drug Council. “It may be a long way, but I don’t think it’s impossible.”
Colombia would have the “moral authority” to lead this effort, he said, “because so many people died for this.”
Mellington Cortés has seen this bloodshed firsthand.
In 2017, he was one of hundreds of coca farmers who gathered in the Nariño department to protest against the forced extermination of coca by security forces, when police began firing at the crowd. A shot hit him. Another killed his brother, one of seven protesters who died that day. The murders are still under investigation.
The 45-year-old continues to grow coca, what pays more than double the $130 a month he earned as a driver.
“It’s no secret to anyone that we grow coca to survive, to support our family and our children,” Cortés said. “There are no other resources here. We have forgotten.”