Is Colombia About to Turn its Back on the ‘War on Drugs’?

Narco-trafficking routes through the forest are also highways for other environmentally damaging criminal activities, such as wildlife trafficking and illegal gold mining. These combined criminal activities have made Colombia one of the most dangerous countries on Earth for environmental defenders, who are killed in alarming numbers by organised criminal groups. Notably, Petro’s vice president, Francia Márquez, is an acclaimed environmental defender who has faced assassination attempts as a result of her work.

The Response to the Petro Presidency

Colombia’s most prominent ally, the US, has been vocal in its support for Petro, and Samantha Power, administrator of USAID, has expressed a desire to continue working with the Petro government on key issues such as peacebuilding, climate change and tackling inequality. However, when asked how the US would continue its approach to counternarcotics given Petro’s recent statements about the failure of the war on drugs, US representatives gave a non-committal response highlighting the need for dialogue, cooperation and compromise.

The reaction in some quarters has reflected the issues likely to face Petro. The Colombian market sunk following Petro’s election victory, amid concern that his progressive policies may discourage domestic and foreign investment. There has also been concern that the security forces, whose role as perpetrators of violence against civilians has been highlighted in recent years, may not accept his left-wing agenda after years of conservative rule. While his intelligent choice of finance minister has assuaged some such fears, his choice of a defence minister with a strong anti-corruption background has led to concern among the established political and military elite. This emphasises the balance that Petro must now strike between his own agenda and his desire to unite a historically divided Colombia.

Conclusion

It may not be the most popular sentiment in some quarters, but Petro’s statement that the war on drugs has failed is reflected in the soaring cultivation, production and consumption of cocaine. So far, Petro has shared few details of his alternative vision for the war on drugs, though he has emphasised the need to reduce demand and his willingness to work with the US on this new agenda. Whether the US and other consumer countries will accept such an alternative remains to be seen. Whatever his new approach is, as the violence and degradation associated with the cocaine trade continues, the need to find a functioning and sustainable response to the harms the trade engenders is more pressing now than it was back in 1971 when the war on drugs was first declared.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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