Monday, April 10, 2017

Colombia's Changing Approach to Drug Policy

Counternarcotics policy has long been a key component of the U.S.-Colombian relationship, which some analysts have described as “driven by drugs.” Now, Colombia is changing its approach to counternarcotics policy, with implications for the U.S.-Colombian relationship.

U.S. concerns about illicit drug production and trafficking in Colombia grew significantly when Colombia became the dominant producer of cocaine in the Andean region in the mid-to-late 1990s. The United States has worked closely with Colombia to eradicate drug crops and combat trafficking. Over the past 17 years the United States has also forged a partnership with Colombia—perhaps its closest bilateral relationship in Latin America—centered on helping Colombia recover its stability following a decades-long internal conflict with insurgencies of left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries, whose longevity has been attributed, in part, to their role in the country’s illicit drug trade. Between FY2000 and FY2016, the U.S. Congress appropriated more than $10 billion of bilateral foreign assistance to support a Colombian-written strategy known as Plan Colombia and its successor programs. In addition to counternarcotics, the United States helped support security and development programs designed to stabilize Colombia’s security situation and strengthen its democracy.

A peace accord between the government of Colombia and the country’s main leftist insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was signed in late November 2016 after four years of formal peace talks. The Colombian Congress unanimously ratified the peace accord, which had been revised following the narrow rejection of an earlier accord in a national referendum in October 2016. The final peace agreement addresses important issues, such as illicit crop cultivation—a major source of FARC income—and rural development. According to President Juan Manuel Santos, the peace accord will draw former FARC members into efforts to counter illicit drug production and trafficking.

In 2017, as Colombia begins to implement the final peace accord and demobilize the FARC, the country is facing a large increase in cocaine production. During the protracted peace negotiations with the FARC, the Colombian government altered its approach to drug policy. A major change was the decision to end aerial spraying to eradicate coca crops, which had been a central feature of U.S.-Colombian counterdrug cooperation for more than two decades.

In addition, Colombia’s counternarcotics policies shifted in 2015 to a public health approach under President Santos. The shift was influenced by broader hemispheric trends to reform traditional antidrug practices in ways that proponents claim can reduce human rights violations. On the supply side, Colombia’s new drug policy gives significant attention to expanding alternative development and licit crop substitution while intensifying interdiction efforts. The revised drug policy approach promotes drug-use prevention and treatment for drug users. According to Colombian officials, the public health and prevention dimensions of the revised strategy will be led by Colombia’s Health Ministry, in coordination with other agencies.

This report examines how Colombia’s drug policies have evolved in light of Colombia’s peace agreement with the FARC and its changing counternarcotics policy. It explores both policy and oversight concerns, such as

prospects for reducing coca and poppy cultivation under Colombia’s new drug policy and the peace accord with the FARC;

the role of Colombian drug trafficking organizations, including powerful criminal groups containing former paramilitaries, in a post-peace accord environment;

U.S.-Colombian cooperation on counternarcotics and Colombia’s future role in regional antidrug efforts; and

shifts in U.S. government assistance to support Colombia’s revised drug policy and how Colombia’s new policy converges with traditional U.S. priorities.

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