Colombia: Coca, cocaine and negotiating with the state

Pic: Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

by Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

The coca issue has gained a new lease of life in Duque’s Colombia, although to be truthful it never really lost its importance to the state. Trump’s scolding of Duque for not doing enough to halt the flow of cocaine to the USA and both his own vision and that of his master, Uribe, once again have placed centre stage the use of glyphosate to eradicate the crop. It is something which many thought was in the past, but is now part of our present, regardless of what point four of the Havana Accord says.

Spread of illicit crops

No wonder, it seems that country has gone through an increase in the spread of illicit crops. According to the shadow report presented in March 2019 by the Coalición Acciones por el Cambio to the 62nd session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotics Drugs (CND), between 1994 and 2015 Colombia fumigated 1.9 million hectares yet, despite this, there continue to be illicit crops in the country. The forceful fumigation failed, despite all the money spent on it and despite the warnings given to the US and Colombian governments that their efforts at eradication should be consigned to the dustbin and were not going to work.

The response to this socio-economic trend has been the usual one. The government demands eradication, the NGOs offer to mediate in the substitution of crops and, in passing, humbly ask the government to live up to what was agreed in point four of the Havana Accord signed with the FARC. But it should be pointed out, there is something, which was a common refrain when Plan Colombia was being implemented, that has been forgotten: crop substitution has failed and will always fail in the absence of structural socio-economic and political changes. The peasants are not poor because they made a mistake at sowing time, but as the direct result of state policies. The new crop substitution efforts will also fail.

One of the main things the NGOs have rightly pointed out is that the state’s budget for crop substitution is not enough to even meet their mediocre and unimaginative goals. Regarding the budget, Indepaz has pointed out that for the year 2018:

“In the balance of accounts, (cut off date August 7th, 2018), presented by, Eduardo Díaz, the Director for the Substitution of Illicit Use crops, he gave figures on eradication and the agreements made to that end and spoke of a sum of 300 million US dollars that had been approved by the Ministry of Housing, to meet the needs of the families involved. To date those millions, remain unspent.

“If they really want to fulfil the contracts signed, in the 2019 budget they will have to include at least 833 million US dollars for the Immediate Attention Plan (PAI) for the 79,497 families involved and other budgetary items to cover the commitments made with communities and vulnerable groups.” (1)

Failure of rural development

Budgetary failure regarding anything to do with rural development, education, etc., is commonplace in the country. It is not clear why some believed that it would be different this time. As part of commitments made with communities and its fulfilment of the Havana Accord, the government has put in place a programme of agreements on crop substitution such as the Immediate Attention Plan (PAI), a component of the National Comprehensive Illicit Crop Substitution Programme (PNIS). However, these plans are already experiencing the usual problems.

“It is curious that in Nariño, Putumayo and Catatumbo, the three areas with the most coca in the country, that there is so little in the way of institutional structures and targeting of resources for the crop substitution programme. The communities complain about the inefficient role played by the UNODC [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] and the Technical Aid agents, the over run in the costs of inputs for food security, the unjustified exclusion of families, but above all of the delays.

“In fact, a report by the Ideas for Peace Foundation, points out that at least 13,351 families have been suspended from the programme in 49 municipalities where the PNIS operates and just seven municipalities account for 62% of the cases: Tumaco in Nariño, (3,735 suspensions); Tarazá, in Antioquia (1,043); Orito (1,138), Puerto Asís (986), Puerto Guzmán (879) and San Miguel (539), in Putumayo and Cartagena del Chairá in Caquetá (721 suspensions).” (2)

In principle the PAI go further than just switching coca for a crop like rubber or cocoa and supposedly include the question of infrastructure. Reality, however, is different. To date the government has celebrated 54 PAI agreements, 44 of them in two border departments – Nariño and Putumayo. The agreements are not the same in each area of the country.

The agreement signed in Tibú in January 2017 limits itself to the standard sums of money for the families. Nothing more. This is partly what the FARC wanted from the agreements, that their social base, or that which the FARC believed was their social base would have a cash subsidy as part of the substitution programme. Then, they could claim in the election campaigns that the cash was due to them and hope that the communities would see it as a type of bribe or cash for votes, in the old style of the traditional parties. It didn’t go as well for them as they had hoped, but that was the general idea.

In Briceño, Antioquia one of the emblematic areas, the agreement signed in March 2017 is a little more elaborate, but banal. It mentions, without going into any detail, various commitments regarding infrastructure, old people etc. But at the end of the day, the agreement is about cash, of subsidies. It also explicitly includes the circumstances in which the government can forcibly eradicate coca i.e. it is voluntary substitution in the same way that you voluntarily give over your money in an armed robbery as the consequences of not doing so may be quite serious.

The agreement in Cumaribo, Vichada, repeats some of the banalities, but includes a commitment to the communities to hand over some public documents, such as the ordinance plan, the development plans etc. i.e. the public information which every citizen has a right to access, but which the authorities frequently refuse to furnish. At least, on the basis of the information, the organisations can see what the state aims to do in their region. But changing coca for rubber or cocoa is simply changing one cash crop for another, without improving the real situation for the peasants involved in the programmes. A new economic circuit has to be set up for the crop that includes everyone, from the women who prepare the food in the coca farms to those who transport and sell the chemicals used. The PAI do include the coca pickers, a novelty for state programmes, but they continue to be insufficient.

The Roads

Although the state talks about development and the plans supposedly deal with the question of the dismal infrastructure in the coca growing regions, little or nothing is actually done about it. If we look at the case of the department of the Norte de Santander, we can see a disastrous situation in terms of the condition of the roads. It has a road network made up of 736 Km. of primary roads, which the national government has responsibility for, 1,383 Km. of secondary roads, which the governorship of the department deals with, and 6,494 of tertiary roads whose maintenance normally dealt with by the municipality (74%). There are 8,613 Km. in all. It is surprising to find that 16% of the primary roads of the department are not paved.

Only 29% of the secondary roads are paved, 69% are consolidated [gravel, aggregate etc.] and the rest are unpaved. In the case of the tertiary roads, 74% are unpaved, and these are the ones that are most used by the peasants to move their products, to get to hospitals or for their children to get to school. These are the most important roads in their daily lives. But these roads shouldn’t be beholden to an agreement on coca substitution, as the communities have a right to these roads in a good state of repair, regardless of whether there is coca or not. The roads are education, the right to health, the rights all Colombians have but are systematically denied by the authorities who frequently rob the money earmarked for the improvement or construction of paved roads.

Free Trade

Missing from the Havana Accord and the current discussion around the problem of illicit crops is the issue of free trade. The Accord explicitly accepts the current economic model, agribusiness, economy of scale production, free trade and the FARC aim to work within that reality, in some cases, asking for measures to mitigate the impact of so called globalisation rather than measures against the said phenomenon. It is hardly surprising as it is an accord with a neoliberal government. The problem is not what the government thinks, but that the NGOs and many communities have accepted the conceptual framework of the State regarding the phenomenon.

When Clinton imposed Plan Colombia, an endless list of articles and expert analysis on the issue came forth, explaining how the changes in the economy caused by state policies created a crisis in the Colombian countryside that pushed the peasantry into coca. We have forgotten that in the 1980s Colombia was not self-sufficient in coca leaf and had to import it from elsewhere. We are faced with a situation that arises from very specific policies, all you have to do is read the documents produced by NGOs, the FARC, left groups and the academic community in the 1990s in order to know what those policies are, something that almost none of them want to do, not even the documents they produced themselves.

The legalisation of drugs wouldn’t solve the problems of the countryside either. It would resolve issues around the quality of the product consumed, the prison question, both in producer and consumer countries and of course it would change the power relations of the illegal mafias that control the chain of production. But it would not solve, one bit, the poverty of the countryside and although legalisation is a good idea, it would affect the price received by the peasant as part of the value added is connected to the clandestine nature of the business.


The PAI and other programmes to come, are half-measures, that cannot solve the problems of the coca producing peasants nor bring an end to the production of cocaine. Of course, part of the problem lies in consumption, but as far as production is concerned, if there are no deep structural changes, there is and will be coca for a long time.

Trying to solve the coca problem with specific agreements in particular areas that do not touch the current agricultural production model but rather openly support it is to repeat the failures of the past. As Bill Clinton, the architect of Plan Colombia, said, “it is the economy, stupid!” Of course Clinton never applied his phrase to the issue of illegal drugs, and nowadays neither do the NGOs or the Colombian state.

(1) González Posso, C. (02/10/2018) Los planes de sustitución necesitan 2,5 billones en 2019 y planes regionales de desarrollo humano.
(2) El Espectador (08/06/2019) Sustitución de coca: un incumplimiento riesgoso: