Drug trafficking cannot keep fuelling the war

Recognising the links between the conflict and drug production has been a fundamental step forward. Español


democracia Abierta
23 November 2017

Standing guard after burning a coca laboratory near Tumaco, Colombia, in the southwest state of Narino, June,8, 2008Photo: AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez. Some rights reserved.

This article forms part of the section on the Negotiating Timeline: From Start to Finish, from the project “Peacemaking in Colombia: Lessons from the negotiators”, a collaboration between DemocraciaAbierta and the IFIT.

Visit the Negotiations Timeline here. 

Process Design

It was widely agreed that if the subject of drugs was not addressed, there would be no peaceful solution for Colombia. By putting the issue of illicit drugs in a territorial context, negotiators could begin to construct the overall implementation of the agreement. There were a lot of expectations for this agenda item, and during the exploratory phase we were able to explore these point by point.

During the exploratory phase, the title of the agenda item was very general, which was to be expected at that point in the negotiations. Then negotiators started working from documents produced by experts on the subject of drugs and organized crime that mapped the drug problem in the country. The negotiators needed to understand the evolution of Colombia’s drug problem so they could be clear on how it could affect the country moving forward. These documents addressed the increase in coca production, and the need for a real solution for the peasants who live and work there. There were only very broad references to actual drug consumption, as opposed to the more significant issues of cultivation and trafficking, because it was not clearly tied to the conflict.

Both parties viewed drugs in a different light. For the FARC, it was about a broader transnational policy and the global approach to the fight against drugs. The government, on the other hand, prioritized organized crime, because it saw armed conflict as the biggest problem facing Colombia. When the FARC lays down its weapons, the Government argued, then Colombia will manage the violence and crime associated with drug trafficking. The two parties were able to agree on organized crime as the important issue to focus on for the time being.


The Negotiations and Challenges

The most difficult point was getting the FARC to publicly state that they would cut any ties that they might have had with the drug trafficking network as a consequence of the rebellion. Fortunately for the negotiators, this recognition on the part of the FARC was such a critical aspect of the whole agreement that they were confident they would achieve this commitment. However, that disassociation phase was still quite complex. At this stage, Norway, one of the guarantor countries, played a very important role in bringing the parties closer together during the lengthy implementation phase. The parties had to spend just a few weeks writing and arriving at agreements very quickly: how to replace drug-producing crops, how to implement this replacement, and how to address the affected farm labourers’ involved in cultivation. The issue of consumption was dealt with in half a day, but the overall negotiation was far more difficult and lasted two weeks.

Another difficult moment was the subject of aerial herbicide spraying as part of the government’s program regarding the eradication of illicit crops. The government was not willing to review it as part of the negotiations, because it was too controversial issue to engage with during the negotiations, but following a warning from the World Health Organization (WHO), it was banned.


Confident Building Measures (CBMs)

At this point, the CBM was related to the implementation aspects of crop substitution in El Orejón, where demining activities were also being carried out. Demining the territory was important, but the second priority was to determine how much coca was planted in the territory. In addition, it was important to examine the coca market dynamics and the implications for integral demining. The government proposed this action as a pilot program. Eventually, the FARC started to work on shifting the territory a little after the parties had agreed on this point.

The FARC, along with the government, began to go to El Orejón to take advantage of the work dynamics that had been established and to work with the farm labourers on the voluntary substitution of illicit crops. This was necessary given the conditions of the territory and the great changes that were required on remote farms over a vast geographic area. It provided a great opportunity in terms of understanding how the government could begin to work with the communities. This experiment also provided many clues about how to work collaboratively, how the FARC could contribute to the voluntary substitution of crops, and, above all, how to understand the impact on local communities. It remains a sizeable challenge for the FARC to work with the community, and will continue to require a dynamic approach over time.



Some sectors of the 'No' vote spoke about this agenda item, but not on the same scale as with other bigger issues. The government addressed the issue by listening to all proposals, copying all documents, and reading them paragraph by paragraph. It was a very interesting technical exercise, though highly costly and time-consuming. However, after reading every proposal and subsequently creating concrete proposals, the organization reached a very clear outcome.

On the subject of illicit drugs and organised crime, the 'No' vote’s opposition was formed around five key issues:

1) The extent of the FARC’s contribution to drug trafficking in the country. The opposition also specifically reiterated the need for the FARC to submit drug-trafficking route information;

2) The legal approach regarding the growers. It could not in any way be interpreted as providing them with an opportunity to operate within illegal activity. This was difficult, but it needed to be set in stone;

3) The issue of clarifying and reiterating that the national government had not renounced its instruments to end illicit crop cultivation, and that it did not give up aerial spraying;

4) The clarification of the FARC's recognition regarding justice and how drug trafficking cases will be judged, which is much more related to item 5, but nevertheless overlapped with this issue; and

5) Drug consumption (although this was argued less intensely than the other four points).

There were major modifications after the referendum on the subject of drugs and organized crime. The most substantial change was related to justice. However, it was also important to reiterate the commitment of the FARC, and ensure that the Colombian government was not giving up aerial spraying. These adjustments to the final agreement were all made.


Implementation and Challenges

While the institutional and legal arrangements to apply all measures on the subject of illicit drugs were being implemented, the short-term challenge was to find a way to go to the more remote territories to understand how quickly the process was moving there. The FARC had already left some areas, which were then unmonitored, but illicit crops continued to be grown in Colombia, so the question became: What actions can we take that don’t violate the agreement but that also represent concrete measures to curb the growth of illicit drugs?

There was a challenge in how to achieve this on a limited budget, and how long these territories could actually wait for the government to resolve violent situations with organized crime. Another major challenge is security.

Organized crime groups would not give up on this lucrative business without other incentives, certainly not anything based on an ideological principle. They are a violence-producing machine with the power to delay the peace process. Therefore, the security issue for this topic is very complex, with many actors’ livelihoods at stake. Peasants have been caught up in illicit activity for mere subsistence, but those behind the business are rentiers who will not let their business crumble.

There was also the additional challenge of how to change the cultivator’s mentality towards subsidies. In place of ‘hand-outs’, the Government was committed to developing the rural regions and ensuring that there would be new opportunities for these communities, benefitting everyone and not only individuals. This was of course a big commitment on the part of the Government, and required the communities involved in illicit-cultivation to have a lot of faith in this project.

Return to the timeline.

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