By Alejo Vargas Velásquez, El Colombiano, September 6, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

We heard high government officials say that drug trafficking is responsible for the murders of social leaders in the countryside. This statement has to be taken with a grain of salt, because it’s true that drug trafficking groups could have something to do with some of the murders of social leaders, but it could be an exaggeration to say that all of the murders of leaders are the fault of those groups.

It’s true that Colombia’s armed conflict in recent times has looked like a dispute for control of the places where coca is planted, and that organized crime groups have a part in this—groups that in the recent past were referred to as Bacrim. They have even been actors in the conflict, because there is no doubt that the income from this productive but illegal activity continues to be relevant in financing the actors in the conflict, and is even hoarded by groups in private businesses. But furthermore, no need to leave them out, some very important demographic groups are taking part in coca activity; like the producers—the majority are small farmers that get their fundamental subsistence income from that—the pickers of coca leaves or “raspachines” that also get their income from coca; frequently it’s their survival. But this activity also needs primary processing, as well as marketing. There is where the trafficking organizations start to enter in, almost always made up of groups from organized crime, more or less related to the big international criminal organizations.

Now then, the foregoing describes what goes on in the activities of planting, picking, and processing the coca. Consequently, the government is looking at two main lines of action. One is to design a strategy for permanent presence and control of these areas where coca is planted—starting, as we have repeated, with building a government in the countryside. And that has to be accompanied by a solid strategy of voluntary substitution for the coca plantings. This has demonstrated very high levels of effectiveness and very low levels of re-planting.

On this subject, I’m distancing myself from a certain tendency in the government to suppose that forcible eradication by fumigation is the only way; that requires an action that is arranged and articulated by the Armed Forces and civilian rural development specialists. The other way is an intense intelligence activity to identify the members of trafficking organizations, and to use teams of Special Forces to work in the framework of a joint strategy of capturing and neutralizing the activities of these organized criminal gangs.  This last would have to be accompanied by strategies for protecting the lives of the local residents, with emphasis on the leaders. And that would be a middle range strategy; these actions couldn’t show results in the short term.

This involves obtaining the necessary resources to finance the process of voluntary substitution, which is expensive, no doubt of that. But it would also involve commitment by the growers to take it seriously and commit to the substitution process and stabilize the alternative crops, including getting the product to market—at that point no excuses are acceptable. The growers are right not to trust the government and its programs because of the repeated failed attempts in the past, but this is about taking a voluntary substitution strategy seriously.

If they only try to get very short term results to satisfy the pressure from the North American government to reduce the planting area, we can be sure that the result will be repetition of a failure foretold, just as there was on more than one occasion in the recent past.

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