Violent strife

Rekindling the war on drugs

In early 2019 Iván Duque, the president of Colombia, and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state of the USA met in Cartagena. They discussed the issues of increasing coca cultivation and rising cocaine production in Colombia and the impacts of both trends on the USA. The policymakers agreed to step up the war on drugs again by destroying coca fields with pesticides.
By starting to destroy coca plantations with pesticides once more, Colombia and the USA are set to make organised crime stronger, not weaker: State Secretary Pompeo (left) visiting President Duque in January. Colombian presidency/picture-alliance/AP Photo By starting to destroy coca plantations with pesticides once more, Colombia and the USA are set to make organised crime stronger, not weaker: State Secretary Pompeo (left) visiting President Duque in January.

The background is that the drugs crisis in the USA has been worsening. The New York Times reports that 70,000 people died of drug overdose in the USA last year. By comparison, the Vietnam War cost the USA about 58,000 lives. According to the Natio­nal Institute on Drug Abuse, a government agency, 17 % of the inhabitants of the USA over 26 years of age report that they have used cocaine in their lifetime. Moreover, the cocaine-related overdose death rate has increased by 3.5 times from 2010 and 2017.

When President Duque ran for office, he argued that the increase of coca crops was a consequence of the permissiveness of the previous government. Juan Manuel Santos, his predecessor, had stopped the spraying of illegal crops with pesticides. The chemicals were found to cause cancer. His decision, moreover, was an important signal in his government’s peace negotiations with the FARC-EP militia.

Repressive action against coca farmers has contributed to escalating Colombia’s long civil war in the past. Indeed, the drugs trade is intricately linked to the conflict. Illicit crops are grown and narcotics are produced where various armed groups have established themselves. They could do so because the state has proven unable not only to delivering development, but even to assert its role as a legitimate force.

Therefore, the issues of illicit crops, drug trafficking and rural development were high on the agenda of the peace talks. Agreements were made to develop the areas where coca is grown. Relevant measures included coca crop substitution, the formalisation of land ownership and infrastructure programmes. The idea was to bring the state closer to marginalised citizens. The Santos government launched voluntary coca-crop substitution programmes, many of which have run into difficulties however. As scholars from the Fundación Ideas Para La Paz (Ideas for Peace Foundation), a civil-society outfit, have pointed out, reasons include the change of government and bureaucratic hurdles which are compounded by the clientelistic nature of the state.

Unintended side effects

Experience shows that attempts to eradicate illicit crops by repressive action do not work. The idea behind chemical spraying or manual destruction of fields is basic: if coca harvests are reduced, cocaine producers will not be able to process the raw materials they need. That in turn, will make cocaine more expensive, which, in theory, should depress demand and, in a virtuous cycle, further reduce cultivation.

That reasoning is flawed. It ignores several important aspects:

  • Production does not drive demand. It is the other way round. As drug consumption keeps increasing in the USA, which is the world’s most important cocaine market, prices go up. Coca cultivation and cocaine production rises accordingly.
  • Drug producers have demonstrated their ability to improve their productivity, making more cocaine with fewer coca leaves. At the same time, Colombia is a huge country, and there is a lot of land in remote areas where coca can be cultivated.
  • Restricting supply does not lead to price increases that might make cocaine unaffordable. Users – and especially addicts – are willing to pay any price.
  • The untended side effect of driving up cocaine prices are higher profit margins in the illicit drugs trade. Criminals are thus empowered to fund armed groups and to provide more incentives to coca farmers.

Colombia has a long history of trying to eradicate the cultivation of illicit crops (coca, marihuana and opium poppies). Since the 1970s, these efforts have not been successful. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent on spraying chemicals, but some crops always survived. Unfortunately, the belief that eradication will eventually work, has not died either.

There are two main drivers of the illicit drugs economy in Colombia: the growing demand in the USA and deeply entrenched poverty in Colombia, especially in remote areas. Unless these issues are addressed, any repressive policy is doomed to fail.

In 2015, Colombia’s national census of rural husbandry (Censo Nacional Agropecuario) showed that 20 % of children aged between 5 and 16 years in rural areas did not go to school. More than 70 % of the age group 17 to 24 lacked access to any kind of formal education. The lower estimate for the poverty rate in rural areas was around 44 %. Such data reflect the social conditions of the places where coca is grown. The communities concerned simply lack alternative sources of income. They lack opportunities and are exploited by the illicit drugs industry.

Over the decades, repression has only alienated poor peasants from the Colombian state. It did not reduce the illicit drug trade’s revenue, but actually helped it to entrench its business model and financed armed groups. To the grassroots communities concerned, state agencies became the enemy. Armed groups became defenders, and the state became an aggressor.

If the Duque and Trump administrations were serious about getting tough on the production of drugs and the coca crops, they would not start spraying pesticides again. That strategy has been tried, and it does not work. A more promising approach would be to increase the state’s positive presence in the relevant areas, challenging the local supremacy of armed militias there. Apart from providing security, the state should build infrastructure and ensure that people get the public services they need – from electric power to health care and education. So far, the state is basically absent however, and since it has never done anything for poor farmers, it is then predictable that farmers side with whoever has a presence in their territories.

Issues of health and finance

If demand decreased in the USA, that would obviously weaken the drugs trade. However, repressive policies in the USA have failed to achieve that. For decades, the authorities considered drugs a crime issue, but harsh law enforcement and mass incarceration have not reduce demand. The USA would be well advised to treat drugs abuse and addiction as health problems (see interview with Steve Rolles in focus section of D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2018/12). Doing so and addressing the cultural norms that relate to drugs consumption might make a difference.

At the same time, it would be important to focus on the finances. Restricting the flow of drug revenues to Colombia is critical. Huge sums are involved. It is unlikely, that this money entirely bypasses financial institutions. It is irritating that policymakers who claim to be tough on drugs hardly ever discuss issues that relate either to health or the financial sector.

Renewed pesticide spraying will lead to the disaster of armed violence escalating via the financial incentives for armed groups and traffickers. That will cause massive suffering. The deep irony is that the leaders who claim to bring order and fight drugs, in fact actually perpetuate both addiction and violent crime. Duque is popular among opponents of the peace process, and Trump, in spite of his many legal problems, thrives on law-and-order rhetoric. In a perverse way, leaders of this kind can become stronger not by solving problems, but by making them worse. Ultimately, their relationship with organised crime is symbiotic – whether they know it or not.

Fabio Andrés Díaz Pabón is a research associate at Rhodes University in South Africa and a researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. His book “Truth, Justice and Reconciliation in Colombia” was published by Routledge in 2018.

Related Articles


Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals will require good governance – from the local to the global level.


The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.