Post-conflict in Colombia (13). Post-war on drugs

The Havana agreements offer an opportunity to put an end to the war on drugs through an approach from a territorial development perspective to what has been, until now, a security problem. Português Español

Juan Carlos Garzón-Vergara
31 May 2016

An anti-narcotic police officer guards packages of cocaine in San Jose del Guaviare, Colombia. AP Photo/Fernando Vergara. All rights reserved.

The war on drugs has been the way the Colombian state has related to extensive marginal areas of the country; and its counternarcotics policies, the language the central government has used to meet the challenges of the periphery. In these places, communities have become visible because they appear on the maps of illicit crops. There do not carry enough votes, and there are no incentives for the state to assume its most basic functions there.

Changing this reality requires understanding that the solution to drug trafficking is to be found in the adoption of a broader rural development perspective that overcomes responses based on subsidies and fragmented projects. What is needed is a rethinking of the relationship between the state and the territories and for the former to get over its historical inability to provide public goods and services.

Although the Havana agreements define a partial and limited path to respond to drug trafficking, Point One – Comprehensive Rural Reform - offers an opportunity to approach what has been seen until now a security problem from the perspective of territorial development. Taking this into account, the fundamental question in the post-conflict era will not be whether new groups will fill the gaps left by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but if the state will do something about it, beyond crop eradication and glyphosate.

From this perspective, we analyze the responses to the problem of drug trafficking in the Colombian rural periphery, pointing out some of the key factors for leaving behind the war on drugs, which necessarily involve changing the way in which the ineffective and weak Colombian state has been built.

The two sides of the state

In Colombia, the state has shown its two sides before the drug problem. On the one hand, that of a state that has strengthened the security forces, improving their capacity for armed deployment in the territory and for persecuting criminal organizations. It is important to understand that in a country where the armed conflict has been closely linked to the illegal drug economy, the defense sector has played the leading role, favouring repressive responses under the logic of counterinsurgency. This is the state of the search blocks, the dismantling of the big cartels, and the capture and neutralization of important capos.

The other side is that of a state that has made little progress in changing the conditions that facilitated the emergence of criminal organisations and the reproduction of illegal economies in several territories - a state under construction, uneven and deeply unequal, with a periphery ruled by multiple orders competing with each other for the distribution of resources, the use of force, the setting of rules, and taxation. On the periphery of this periphery - as J. Robinson calls it – is where violence, expropriation and forced displacement[i] is concentrated, and where illicit crops are located. This is where the state manifests itself through spraying, crop eradication and anti production strategies.

These two sides of the Colombian state rotate around an axis: the definition of an "enemy" – an enemy which, in addition to bestowing cohesiveness to the state, is not presented as a symptom but as an explanation for the problems of the periphery. In Colombia, the presence of guerrillas and criminals – drug traffickers - has been identified as the reason for backwardness and neglect; the perfect excuse political elites have been using to avoid their responsibilities. It is clear that the armed organizations outside the law have had their share in the marginalization and deterioration of these territories; they have also been the reason and the pretext for the weakness the state.

In the middle of this duality stands a system of fluid relationships, with changing characters and local elites taking advantage of both legality and illegality. It is an undeniable fact that corruption and cronyism belong to the political system that has given support to the head-on war on drugs. In the Colombian troubled state-building process – to use Fernán E. González’s[ii] words-, criminal organizations have also taken their share, using a narrow, rigged and excluding political system to their ends.

In rural Colombia, drug trafficking has also meant a persistent delay in production  relations, the availability of violence to resolve conflicts, property concentration, and a perverse mobilizing force for regions hitherto excluded from the formal economy to integrate themselves through illegality[iii]. This landscape of misrule is complemented by the existence of a fragmented society where authority is delegitimized and law is constantly being questioned.

Faced with these challenges, the Colombian state has been a giant with feet of clay, to use the Spanish expression, with enough power to repress criminal operations defying it, but without the capacity to settle and stay in the territory. Coca crops are concentrated in only 6 of the 32 departments in the country, and 70% of the cultivated area is concentrated in only 10% of the approximately 300 coca producing municipalities – out of a total of 1.123 municipalities in the whole of Colombia. The common feature of these areas is the historical absence of the state, whose functions have been taken over and co-opted by other actors.

Given this reality, the response from the rural periphery to drug trafficking is restricted to preventing a handful of groups from producing, exporting and selling drugs. The real challenge is to integrate these "runaway territories”[iv] which have escaped state regulation.

The Havana agreements: the state facing the mirror

Drug policy was not discussed at the negotiating table between the government and the FARC. The negotiations in Havana were restricted to three points: crop substitution, consumption prevention and public health, and the solution to the problem of narcotics production and marketing. The agreement did not include great changes or transformations. When we analyze the agreement as a whole, however, the dialogue process with the FARC offers a clear opportunity for the state to look in the mirror and rethink the relationship between the center and the periphery.

As for the FARC, the guerrilla group acknowledges (albeit timidly) its relationship with drug traffickers – for purposes of the rebellion - and commits itself to contributing "effectively ... to a final solution for the problem of illicit drugs." Such an agreement is no small feat, considering that most of the crops are in areas controlled by the guerrillas and that this group had historically denied being involved in the illegal economy.

For the time being, the main questioning has been directed at the FARC and its announced intention to really break away from the illegal economy. The fundamental questions, however, have to do with the institutional capacities of the state to structure and transform these territories. The Havana agreements outline a road map for crop substitution through a participatory bottom-up planning process, and a broad agricultural development agenda.

This position involves a shift in the way the country has responded to this problem and in its relationship with large areas of the country where the image of the state has been that of planes spraying, eradicating squads, and officials from Bogotá granting subsidies for not planting. We should not forget that, according to the United Nations Integrated Illicit Crop Monitoring System (SIMCI), 95% of the Colombian coca farmers have never received any benefit or subsidy from the state to move towards legality.

Under these conditions, repressive measures are necessary but clearly not enough. The challenge for the state is not only to "suffocate" criminal groups through strategic and intelligence operations, but to oxygenate these regions through integral institutional presence and access to public goods.

Key questions to respond to drug trafficking from the rural periphery

The end of the armed conflict in Colombia is closely linked to the state's ability to respond to the multiple criminal economies entrenched in the territories and, particularly, to transform the conditions that have allowed their reproduction. This involves answering at least four questions: How can the state provide public goods in the margins of its capabilities? What sort of rural development should be devised for coca growing areas located in the periphery of the state? How to delimitate the agricultural frontier and structure the territory? How to build a new relationship between the central government and the periphery?

It is a fact that coca farmers are located in remote and inaccessible places which are very hard to reach by the state. Under these conditions, the institutional offer will hardly settle where coca is being grown - at least not in the short or medium term. From the perspective of land use planning, a decision has to be made as to whether the efforts should be directed at redistributing land - through qualification – in places where the country has already built infrastructures and markets are accessible, or at bringing the state to the periphery of the periphery.

As noted by Alejandro Reyes, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that a third of the country’s agricultural area is currently underused.[v] Meanwhile, according to the SIMCI, coca crops detected in the 2014 census occupied 0.04% of the total arable land in Colombia. Much of the population involved in coca farming is a floating one, has no property titles, and operates in the informal economy. Given these characteristics, substitution based on individual and fragmented projects, is not only untenable but unfeasable.

To close the gap of public goods and infrastructures, it is essential to address the process of state modernization pragmatically, avoiding both the oversimplification of subsidies and the dogmatism that has pervaded the debates on rural transformation. Qualification is not the magic formula for solving the problems of agriculture, nor is urbanization of the rural population the means by which the country will transit to development.

To address these challenges, the government must begin by putting its house in order. The first step is to clearly define responsibilities within the state, shifting the center of gravity from the Ministry of Defence to institutions which can actually intervene in rural development. The government must change the logic of assigning functions to new bodies formed in the heat of announcements and speeches, but do not master the necessary skills or count on the necessary resources to do the job. Dispersion and duplication of functions go against the effectiveness and proper structuring of the state.

Second, the government must redefine its budget and its destination. On the one hand, it must break the established practice that most of the money stays in the bureaucracy and its consultants, while the affected communities receive support in drabs. On the other hand, it is important to know what to invest in and how. Colombia has important experiences in alternative development which must be taken into account to avoid repeating past mistakes. The formula based in subsidies in exchange for not planting is clearly not enough.

Third, the stick-and-carrot logic in the territories is exhausted. Eradication is being resisted by communities throughout the country. In the midst of the peace process, expectations raised have partly marked the course of an increase in coca farming, which has been helped by the ambivalence of government messages and the lack of a clear leadership to address this issue. The discourse of change in drug policies should lead to consistent executive action.

Overcoming these problems is clearly non-viable without an end to the armed conflict, hence the importance of the current negotiation process with the FARC. In the absence of war, the state will have to look in the mirror and acknowledge its limitations. This could be the opportunity to advance reforms that have been stalled in the shadow of a political system which has had military confrontation as its coordinates. To walk this path requires ending the war on drugs and closing the gaps between urban Colombia and the regions that have borne the brunt of armed confrontation and exclusion.


[i] Robinson, J (2016). La Miseria en Colombia. In Desarrollo y Sociedad, No. 76. Bogotá, First Semester 2016.

[ii] González, Fernán E. (2014). Poder y violencia en Colombia. Bogotá: Cinep y Colciencias.

[iii] Duncan, G.

[iv] Craib. R (20o4). Cartographic Mexico: A History of State Fixations and Fugitive Landscapes.

[v] Reyes, A (2016). La reforma rural para la paz. Bogotá: Debate.

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