Colombian army special forces perform a technical demonstration for U.S. and Colombian security officials
In September, Raul Castro convened a historic handshake between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londono, leader of the FARC rebel group: the government’s primary adversary in the country’s decades-old civil war. Despite the rain of applause that followed, Santos could understandably only muster a weak smile for the cameras. He had just publicly acknowledged the leader of a militant group that has been at war with the Colombian government for fifty years, killing an estimated 220,000 Colombians. Over the course of the conflict, right-wing paramilitaries in the pay of large landowners have also contributed to the violence. In total, the civil war has “displaced millions over half a century.” But over the past decade, both the government and the rebels have taken steps towards establishing a permanent truce that could put an end to the chaos — although not without making frequent missteps along the way.
Besides officially bringing a close to the longest war in Latin America, the deal Santos and Londono agreed upon promises disarmament, land reform, and “special tribunals to try former combatants:” all measures that would constitute a boon for Columbia. The internal stability that will hopefully come as a result of the agreement could finally lead to the full opening of the national economy to international business. Foreign investment is sorely needed given the detrimental effect of price drops in oil, Colombia’s primary export, on the nation’s economy.
Santos doesn’t shy away from touting Colombia’s economic potential. Days after the agreement in Havana, the president appeared on CNBC to predict that “‘growth of the country could increase around 1.5 percent forever’” if peace is effectively established. This isn’t such an unrealistic goal for the South American country, which reported economic growth in the second quarter that far exceeded expectations. Most importantly, the latest deal, brokered after three previous ill-fated peace talks, will at long last begin the healing process for Colombian civilians, who make up four out of every five of the casualties claimed in the conflict. For any of these positive changes to go into effect, however, the peace must be a lasting one. Provided the Colombian public approves of the peace deal in the upcoming referendum, it will take more than a handshake to maintain it.
For Colombia to fully heal, it is imperative that ex-rebels reintegrate into society. Bogota has dedicated an entire government department to this task, which runs seven-year programs that provide psychological and educational support for militants willing to lay down their arms. While the organization’s efforts have proven successful at engineering reintegration in many cases, the drug trade threatens the durability of the programs’ results. Between 20% to 25% of ex-rebels that go through the program relapse into involvement with crime. The Agency’s Director, Alejandro Eder, explains the ex-rebels’ dilemma precisely: “‘Hey, shall I go into this reintegration programme, and go to the psychologist, and learn how to be a baker, or shall I manage this $20m-a-year drug route?’” Clearly, combatting drug trafficking is key. Washington, with its own “War on Drugs” in mind, hasn’t taken a neutral stance.
Since the conception of the Plan Colombia aid program in 2000, the United States has given Colombia over $5 billion, primarily funneling money to the military in support of its anti-drug operations. While Colombian forces have made progress in rolling back the FARC, their strategies have been criticized by drug experts and NGOs that closely monitor the country. For example, many security experts point out that the aid has barely dented Colombia’s drug production rates, which was one of the plan’s original goals. In 2011, the Washington-based NGO, Inter-American Dialogue, reported that “roughly 90% of cocaine sold in the United States still comes from Colombia”, a statistic that clearly shows the limits of firepower in addressing the conflict’s underlying issues. Amnesty International takes an even harsher stance, calling Plan Colombia “a failure in every respect.”
With these sobering claims in mind, Bogotá needs to avoid falling into Captain Ahab-esque fanaticism in carrying out their “war on drugs,” an admittedly American concept. Colombia should continue the fight— Colombian forces have just killed another cocaine kingpin targeted by the US for $5 million — but complement it with initiatives aimed at undermining the black market for drugs.
First, Bogotá should channel a portion of the millions it receives every year from the U.S. into building social programs focused on alleviating poverty and creating counterincentives to drug production. According to Colombia’s page on foreignassistance.gov, 71% ($211.70 million) of projected aid in 2016 is for “Peace & Security,” while a meager 7% ($21.42 million) is set aside for “Education and Social Services.” This highly ineffective allocation makes no sense in light of the recent peace deal, which stipulates disarmament as soon as next year. Instead, root causes of drug-related conflict must be addressed.
Second, Colombia might want to consider following Uruguay’s footsteps and regulating marijuana instead of banning it, thus rendering the black market obsolete. Under the Uruguayan provision, citizens can cultivate up to six plants and form growing clubs as long as all sales are registered by the state, which sets prices and controls dispensaries. Though there have been implementation and enforcement problems for these dispensaries, this law has so far proven successful. When Uruguayans went to the polls almost a year after the law came into effect, they re-elected the Broad Front coalition for another presidential term, implicitly expressing approval of the law.
Although the recent negotiations in Colombia signify a major step forward towards ending armed conflict, to build a lasting peace, Santos and his government should carefully consider the effectiveness and failures of past policies and pioneer new solutions. Only when the war on drugs is complemented by a proactive campaign for peace will Colombia truly become capable of mending its wounds.
Matt Lam is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, studying Economics.
Image Attribution: “Colombian Army Special Forces” by Jerry Morrison, licensed under CC by SA 3.0