The Embassy and the Members of Congress underscore that that is the most promising and most sustainable strategy in the long run.

By Sergio Gómez Maseri, EL TIEMPO, March 14, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

For the Joe Biden administration and a sector of the Democrats in the United States Congress, there is a close relationship between the full implementation of the Peace Process and the solution to the problem of drug trafficking in Colombia. That, at least, is what State Department officials and members of Congress made clear to this newspaper.

According to them, focusing solely on the eradication of illegal crops does not offer an outcome that puts a brake on drug trafficking or on the resulting violence in the long term.

“There has to be a close alignment between the implementation of the peace, the security, and the reduction of the coca. Essentially, our idea is that the territorial transformation that would result from the full implementation of the Agreements is the best strategy for security in the long run, and it’s the most promising and sustainable way out of the problem of the illegal crops,” said a high official in the United States Embassy in Bogotá who was authorized to speak on the subject.

According to another Embassy official, “our job is to look for ways to help Colombia to be effective in reducing the production and planting of coca. But it’s equally important that these advances be sustained. The clearest lesson of the period between 2012 and 2017, when the plantings passed from their lowest point to their highest point in just five years, is that Colombia was successful in reducing the plantings, but not in sustaining those advances,” stated the official.

And he added: “The best way to sustain them is to increase the government’s presence, and to offer economic opportunities in the rural areas. You can’t just eradicate the plants and attack the criminal groups. That’s an element of the solution, but at the same time, you have to fill that vacuum with the presence of the government, with citizen security and infrastructure that offers opportunities for the legal economy to take root.”

There can be no doubt that his statements announce a change from the four years of the Donald Trump Presidency, where the emphasis was placed on eradication and even on threats to President Iván Duque with decertification of the country if it did not achieve the mandate. Besides that, the Republican leader openly criticized the Peace Agreement signed with the FARC in 2016 and that was supported by Biden when he was Vice President.

Meanwhile, in the Congress, the voices that were pushing for a change of direction are also growing louder. A few days ago, Senator Patrick Leahy got in touch with this newspaper to express his annoyance with the decision of the State Department to certify Colombia for its performance in the war on drugs during 2020. In that report, the State Department emphasized the eradication of more than 130,000 hectares of coca during that period.

Leahy is the President pro tempore of the upper house and heads the Appropriations Committee, the very Committee that is in charge of allocating funds to Colombia. His complaint is that they keep on measuring the success in hectares eliminated and not in the reality of the countryside. “We want to help Colombia reduce the production of coca and of the traffic in cocaine, but as we have seen throughout the years, sustainable progress is not measured by the quantity of hectares eradicated. The presence of the government—in the territories most affected by this problem—is not measured simply by sending the Armed Forces. Neither do we see evidence of dismantling the illegal armed groups, especially when they are threatening and murdering so many social leaders,” said Leahy.

“The presence of the government—in the territories most affected by this problem—will not be achieved just by sending the Armed Forces.”

And for this Senator, as for the officials mentioned previously, the best bet is the implementation of the Agreements. In fact, a highly placed legislative aide told this newspaper that the arguments used to certify Colombia seemed “outdated” or the work of some holdover from the Trump administration. “We want to see progress in the reduction of the coca, but we don’t see anything that gives us any confidence that the Duque administration has a sustainable strategy to achieve that,” said the aide.

The reasoning of Leahy and others in the Democratic Party is that the United States and Colombia have been using the same model of forced eradication for decades, but without solid programs that would expand the presence of the government in those territories and offer a permanent solution.

“When Plan Colombia got under way in the year 2000, the objective was to reduce coca plantings by half in five years. And here we are, 20 years later and we have the same amount of drugs or even more than we had two decades ago with a ‘new plan’—agreed upon by Duque and Trump—that once more is trying to cut the coca plantings in half in another five years,” says another congressional aide who talked with this newspaper.

And on Friday, Representative Jim McGovern said something similar. McGovern, together with Leahy and Human Rights Watch, are pressuring the government to put an end to the violence against social leaders in this country. This is another subject that also has been made a priority for the Biden administration.

The same legislative sources mention that at the end of 2020, Congress published a report prepared by antidrug experts – “The commission’s report on antidrug policies in the western hemisphere”—in which it concluded that Plan Colombia, from the antinarcotic perspective, had been a failure, because it didn’t manage to reduce the size of the problem, in spite of its successes in the battle against the insurgency and on other fronts.

One of the authors of that report was Juan González, who now occupies the position of Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere in the National Security Council, reporting directly to the new President. And it’s very probable that his vision will influence the changes in current policy.

In Senator Leahy’s office, in addition, they told this newspaper that the Senator “would oppose the use of U.S. funds to finance aerial fumigation,” when that is renewed. That would put him in direct conflict with the State Department, as in the certification document, they insist that aspersion is necessary. Even though in the conversations that this newspaper had with United States officials, they see fumigation as an additional tool that could be used surgically, but not massively.

The Duque government, for its part, is confident that once aerial fumigation gets under way, the statistics will start to fall again. They consider that Plan Colombia has been successful and that the step backwards in the results owed specifically to the suspension of aerial fumigation in the Juan M. Santos administration. What is indeed clear in this debate is that the Democrats, now in power both in Congress and in the White House, want to see changes in this complicated struggle.

Sergio Gómez Maseri

El Tiempo Correspondent


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