The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Illicit Drug Trade

7 June 1999

While escalating civil conflict in Colombia is attracting increasing international interest and concern, the complex relationships between drug trafficking, political violence, and the many actors involved in the social conflict in Colombia are often absent from the debate.

While escalating civil conflict in Colombia is attracting increasing international interest and concern, the complex relationships between drug trafficking, political violence, and the many actors involved in the social conflict in Colombia are often absent from the debate. This background brief provides a general overview of the relationship between the largest guerrilla group in Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia ("Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia", FARC) and illicit drug production and trafficking. In policy debates in Washington, the "narcoguerrilla" theory has been employed to suggest that the guerrillas are major drug traffickers and that counterinsurgency and counternarcotics operations are one and the same. In fact, the role of the guerrillas in illicit drug production and drug trafficking has evolved over time and remains primarily focused on taxation of illicit crops.

This brief begins with a history of the development of the FARC, starting with its origin in the partisan violence of the 1950s and tracing the trends within the rural sector which have led to continuing support of the FARC among the peasant population. The changing nature of the Colombian conflict in the 1990s, including the growing military strength of the FARC and its declining political clarity, are also addressed. The next section describes the relationship between the FARC and the drug trade: The growth in peasant participation in coca and poppy cultivation, and FARC taxation of such crops, has financed the increase in size and military capacity of the FARC. Next, the increasing role of the Colombian armed forces in counternarcotics operations is described, including the development of the "narcoguerrilla" theory to justify this role.

Understanding the history of the FARC and the changing nature of illicit crop production is a vital element in understanding the evolution of the Colombian conflict and necessary for the development of policies addressing the roots of the conflict. An analysis of this relationship is also crucial for developing effective counternarcotics policies. Any such policy should include providing economic alternatives to coca and poppy production and must address the lack of economic and political options, which pushes peasants into involvement in the drug trade. The Colombian judicial system should distinguish between peasant farmers involved in illicit crop production and individuals involved in the transport and commercialization of illicit drugs. Non-combatant peasant farmers, including those involved in illicit crop production in areas controlled by the guerrillas, must be respected as civilians in the armed conflict. US policy must monitor and address abuses of the civilian population by the Colombian security forces, particularly in the context of counternarcotics operations and those committed by paramilitary forces operating with the support of the Colombian security forces.

A Short History of the FARC

Over a period of many decades, the FARC has grown from a small peasant organization to its present unprecedented military strength. In part, this growth has been facilitated by profit from the FARC's taxation of illicit drug production. Support for the FARC, however, is also a product of the lack of government response to the severe hardships faced by peasant farmers in the region.

The history of regional guerrilla movements in Colombia began with the peasant struggles of the 1920s and 1930s. Peasant and indigenous groups organized in response to harsh working conditions imposed on day-workers by coffee plantation owners and conflicts over land tenure. These groups coalesced in the rural area of southern Tolima - with its nucleus in Chaparral, Viotá - the hub of Cundinamarca's coffee zone, and in other parts of the department such as Tequendama and Sumapaz. The authorities' use of force in response to these conflicts set the stage for the peasant resistance of the mid-1930s to evolve into an armed self-defense movement by the close of the following decade.

The politics and strategies of many of these peasant organizations were based on socialism and communism. The period known as "La Violencia" - which began fifty years ago with the murder of populist leader Jorge E. Gaitán and led to pervasive rural violence - was characterized by a peasantry influenced by leftist ideas. "The peasant self-defense groups and guerrilla nuclei became the Communist Party's predominant mode of action during "La Violencia", particularly due to the dismantling of the labor movement and the "de facto" outlawing of communism. At that time, the peasantry revealed itself to be a more active revolutionary force than the working class.&quote; (1)

From then on, peasant resistance combined the self-defense model - conceived as a way to defend the interests of the peasant communities - with guerrilla warfare. Peasant groups used these two approaches until 1964, when the FARC declared its intention to use the armed struggle as part of a political strategy to seize national power.

During the period between "La Violencia" and the 1964 formation of the FARC, colonization was fueled by government aggression toward peasants. In response, peasants organized themselves in self-defense groups. The violent expulsion of peasants from their farms also led to structural changes in rural land tenure. The peasants, forcibly displaced and under attack from government forces, sought out inhospitable areas such as the foothills region of the Amazonic departments of Caquetá, Guaviare, Putumayo, and Meta, or in Sumapaz, Cundinamarca. Armed peasants, who would later form the FARC, began a process known as "armed colonization." The insurgents developed their most important base of support through this process and were able to consolidate control over several strategic geographic areas.

Armed opposition in Colombia was also bolstered by the exclusionary nature of the Colombian political system. Grassroots groups, popular movements and any demonstration of disagreement or opposition were criminalized. The widespread violence of the 1950s was formally ended with the creation of the National Front, a power-sharing agreement between the two traditional parties. The agreement, in fact, concentrated control of the state apparatus and bureaucracies in the hands of elites, and prevented the expression of alternative political projects. Political expression was further limited through the nearly permanent decree of "states of emergency." According to Colombian analyst Eduardo Pizarro:

"The impact [of states of emergency] would be profound: by thwarting the potential emergence of a democratic left, the stage was set for the development of an extra-parliamentary and conspiratorial leftist majority. Similar to the rest of Latin America, the Cuban revolution and its showcase effect would not be the only cause of this new violence." (2)

During the first years of the FARC, a very small number of guerrilla founders concentrated on expanding their base of support. Although originally largely Liberal, the peasant founders of the FARC followed the political lead of the Colombian Communist Party. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the FARC was one of a number of new, small guerrilla groups, including the National Liberation Army (ELN), founded in 1964, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), founded in 1967, and the M-19, founded in 1970.

In the late 1970s, the FARC was a relatively marginal guerrilla force, with barely nine fronts and with enormous internal divisions. Five fronts operated in southern Colombia (Caquetá, Putumayo, Huila, Cauca, and Tolima), two in the central region (Magdalena Medio and Santander), and one in the north (along the Antioquia-Córdoba border). (3)

Social and political support for the guerrillas peaked during the 1980s, nourished by the lack of space for political participation and legal opposition. According to Daniel Pecaut, "A chronic but marginal phenomenon rooted in traditional violence and land conflicts is recast as a component of a process that, for the first time, views the struggle for power as the objective." (4) By 1983, in fact, the FARC had more than eighteen fronts and added the title of "the people's army" to their name during its Seventh Conference (the FARC-EP, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - Army of the People).

During this growth process, the guerrillas experienced chronic tension between whether to develop the political or the military aspects of their operations. In the FARC's case, and despite the now-discredited theory of "combining various forms of struggle" (legal versus illegal or electoral politics versus armed struggle), space for electoral political action was preserved first through the Communist Party structure and subsequently by the Patriotic Union ("Union Patriótica", UP), a coalition of left-wing forces attempting to consolidate a third major party. Throughout the 1980s, UP party members and candidates were targeted for political violence, including threats and assassinations, to such an extent that the party was inoperative by the early 1990s. The extermination of the UP brought the guerrillas' - and particularly the FARC's - military argument to the fore.

By the 1990s, however, the dynamic of the internal conflict underwent significant changes. This was the result of a number of factors. One major factor was the political impact of the drug trade, as paramilitary forces financed by drug traffickers attacked leftist organizations throughout the country, drug money corrupted politicians in all parties, and drug traffickers attacked state agents charged with investigating the narcotics trade. A new level of international intervention was led by politicians in Washington in the name of the "war on drugs." New guerrilla tactics at the local level were developed to secure economic revenues for the war, while the political project of the guerrillas become increasingly less clear. Most troubling, the civilian population was increasingly targeted for attack by paramilitary groups and for kidnapping and extortion by the guerrillas.

During the Samper administration (1994-1998) the level of armed conflict in Colombia intensified. The FARC demonstrated increasing military prowess and territorial control between 1995 and 1997. These displays of military capacity have led some to characterize the current guerrilla forces as:

"armed groups with an enormous capacity to leverage economic resources, to control some territory, and to maintain a superficial presence in others. Their national banners are invisible or not credible, but their local, armed patronage and their ability to take advantage of rural youth unemployment keeps them afloat and even enables them to establish pockets of legitimacy and support in many regions of the country." (5)

These conclusions remain very controversial, however. Other analysts situate the heart of the conflict in the shifts resulting from the international upheaval caused by the end of the Cold War, the profound crisis tearing at the country's social fabric, and, finally, the emergence of numerous violent actors who have overstepped the bounds of Colombia's historic war.

The two positions seem to concur in assigning most of the ethical responsibility for the conflict to the guerrillas. But they fail to address several important issues. The first is the government security forces' responsibility for the degenerating war and the cost in terms of legitimacy of flagrant human rights violations mainly targeting the non-combatant civilian population. The second issue is the growing erosion of the government monopoly on arms due to an institutionalized strategy of privatization of force through the support and sponsorship of paramilitary groups, justified by the need to combat the insurgents. (6) Third, the government is largely responsible for the tremendous loss of human lives, possessions, security and the integrity of the community's social fabric caused by the "dirty war," the targeting of civilians for threats, assassinations and forced displacement. Fourth, despite changes in the international arena and severe social breakdown, little is said about the relationship between the conflict and the current agrarian crisis in the context of an internationalizing economy.

The agricultural sector has undergone a recession in the 1990s. Except for 1995, when the sector's GDP grew 4.4 percent, the rest of the decade has shown a downward trend that reached a negative growth of 2.6 percent in 1996. (7) This has affected rural employment: the 1996 figure (2,127,462 jobs) is lower in real numbers than the figure for 1990 (2,285,800). The poverty level grew from 26 to 31 percent in the two-year period from 1990 to 1992.

In sum, the guerrillas' military growth is not limited to their increased ability to generate revenues through extortion, kidnapping or threats to local authorities and sectors of the civilian population. Their armed capability has grown because of their ability to take military - more than political - advantage of cracks in a highly decayed regime that requires reforms of the existing socio-economic and institutional framework.

One of the most significant changes in the guerrilla forces in the 1990s has been their increased control over local economic resources and increased economic reserves to fuel their war machine. Guerrillas have become involved in the armed oversight of municipal budget administration, which has involved kidnapping and threatening mayors. They have also been active in gathering intelligence on resource administration at the departmental level. Kidnapping and extortion have become a major source of resources, targeting individuals such as politicians and executives from the petroleum, banana, commercial agriculture, and cattle industries. Finally, the FARC has profited tremendously from its multi-dimensional relationship with segments of the illegal drug circuit.

The FARC-Drug Trafficking Nexus

As described above, peasants began colonizing the Colombian Amazon in the 1950s following the violent displacement of peasants by large landholders. Completely neglected by the government, peasant settlers attempted to establish agricultural production in inhospitable jungle ecosystems. However, they soon found coca to be the only product that was both profitable and easy to market. The potential profit of coca cultivation, the relative ease of transport and marketing, and its comparative advantages relative to legal crops fueled a wave of immigration to the region. From then on, the Amazon was faced with unsustainable population growth, leading to environmental degradation.

In addition, large-scale, or industrial, cultivation directly linked to organized crime emerged in different areas interspersed with poor settlements. The authorities use the existence of industrial cultivation to justify criminalizing all coca and poppy production. Current counternarcotics policy does not distinguish between coca cultivation by peasant farmers as a result of the agricultural crisis and industrial coca cultivation administered by powerful drug traffickers.

Since the 1990s, Colombian coca plantations have covered an expanse that, according to residents of the affected areas, could be as large as 150,000 hectares. An estimated 300,000 people are directly dependent on the coca economy. These zones are, at the same time, controlled by guerrillas who derive significant revenues by levying taxes on medium- and large-scale farmers, intermediate coca products (base, further refined into cocaine), merchants, and, most importantly, processing laboratories and clandestine air strips for cocaine shipments. These funds are employed to strengthen the guerrillas' logistical and communications capacity for the war effort.

The army, therefore, perceives the settler-coca farmer as a direct guerrilla collaborator. The army's decision to engage in counternarcotics operations targeting illicit crop cultivation, justified by the "narcoguerrilla" theory, has led to the repression of peasants in those areas. This policy has serious human rights implications. For example, many instances of the army burning residents' homes to the ground and forcibly expelling them from lands have been reported in Guaviare since mid-1996. The insurgents themselves have provided justification for the army's allegations of links between the guerrillas and the small coca farmers by publicly declaring that the guerrilla attack on the army base of Las Delicias in Putumayo was an act of solidarity with peasant protesters. (8)

This region was particularly affected by decrees 0900 and 0717 establishing Special Zones in which the civilian authorities were stripped of their constitutional powers and control was transferred to government security forces. This set the stage for massive protests, beginning in 1996, of over 200,000 settlers and peasant farmers. These protests were organized in response to the mistreatment of rural workers and the lack of economically viable alternatives to coca. The Department of State itself acknowledged in its 1996 human rights report that "In the resulting confrontations, government forces generally abided by standing orders not to employ deadly force. However, soldiers did kill some protesters, and some abuses were alleged. Investigators sent to the region by a consortium of NGOs attributed 13 killings to the army, 1 to the police, and 4 to guerrillas. They cautioned, however, that the death toll may have been higher." (9)

In 1997, the Amazon region where the protests took place witnessed increases in massacres, violent deaths of agrarian leaders, and the formation of private paramilitary groups. As armed groups struggled for control, conflict escalated at a tremendous cost in terms of human life and the basic rights of the population.

This region also became a military target for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia ("Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia", AUC), an organization that unites the largest paramilitary groups in the country. Following a paramilitary summit in mid-1997, the AUC declared a priority area for action to be "the country that the guerrillas colonized," namely, Amazon and Orinoco regions, including Arauca, Casanare, Vichada, Meta, Caquetá, Guaviare, Putumayo, Guainía, Vaupés and Amazonas. "It is time that we reconquer these zones," paramilitary spokesmen wrote in their minutes, "because it is there that the subversion has succeeded in creating a parallel government that imperils the Nation." (10)

This threat was carried out in the massacre of Mapiripán (Department of Meta) from July 14-20, 1997. Paramilitary gunmen, including some from Urabá, murdered more than 30 people. Three months later, similar events in Miraflores left six people dead, according to the witnesses among the civilian population. Twenty-three people were reportedly murdered in Puerto Alvira (Mapiripán) on May 4, 1998. This massacre is a clear case of the failure of civilian and military authorities to prevent paramilitary activity. Community leaders had alerted authorities in the area of impending paramilitary operations, but nothing was done to prevent the massacre. These incidents have provoked a peasant exodus of unprecedented proportions in the region, further exacerbating conflict and economic insecurity in the communities.

Paramilitary attacks are a terrifying result of combining illicit crop cultivation, and the financial benefits it generates, with a degenerated civil war. Members of the civilian population are considered military targets because they are forced to pay taxes demanded by the insurgency. Not only have government authorities failed to provide resources or infrastructure that would allow peasant settlers to profit from cultivating legal crops - or encourage civil society's role in such efforts - but they have also failed to defend the interests of this vulnerable population. Instead, the government treats the peasant settler who farms coca, poppy or marijuana as a criminal who must be punished through repression and the eradication of his illegal crops.

The government's failure to adequately address illicit crop cultivation contributes to civilian support of the guerrillas. Settlers in the area view the guerrillas as the only response to the attack on their lives and livelihood through aerial fumigation of coca and poppy fields and judicial proceedings. The government's perception of illicit cultivation as solely a source of funding for the guerrillas, and not also as the only means of support for large sectors of the peasant population, contributes to social conflict and polarization.

However, the FARC's response to coca and poppy cultivation has been very limited as well. The FARC lacks concrete proposals for development alternatives in the affected regions. Its presence in much of the region is restricted to specific actions including extortion and firing on fumigation aircraft. Given the lack of legal employment opportunities in rural colonization areas, coca eradication ultimately provides the guerrillas with an army of unemployed youth who have no prospects of future employment. This is partly responsible for the increasing numbers of recruits to the FARC since its founding in 1964.

Table 1: The FARC's Growth from 1986 to 1995
Year Number of fronts Number of members
1986 32 3,600
1995 60 7,000

In fact, the FARC has developed a plan to double the size of its military force by the year 2000 by targeting unemployed youth in colonization areas and other poor rural areas. The FARC wants recognition as a regular army, particularly in light of the development of a peace process in which territorial control will be determinant at the negotiating table.

Overall, the FARC's present military standing contrasts with its glaring lack of a global political strategy. The FARC boycott of the October 1997 local elections only served to accelerate its political decline. Paramilitary expansion into the so-called "red zones" has crushed any attempt by community organizations to exercise direct power. Paramilitary groups have used the guerrillas' military strength in southern Colombia to justify the characterization of the entire area as a war zone, and to target the civilian population, many of whom are dependent on coca crops, as military targets.

The Armed Forces and Counternarcotics Operations

Interdiction efforts in Colombia are largely carried out by the anti-narcotics police; only recently have the Colombian armed forces opted to become protagonists in the drug war. In the early 1990s, a US General Accounting Office (GAO) report noted the Colombian armed forces' negligible role in combating drug traffickers despite the fact that they were, at the time, the main recipients of US government aid. (11) The GAO report charged, among other things, that funds were being diverted to fight the guerrillas. High-level army commanders countered this assertion by pointing out the relationship between the guerrilla movement and drug trafficking.

The argument that fighting drug trafficking and fighting the guerrillas is one and the same was not widely accepted at that time, however. First, drug kingpins, because of their attacks against the government, were the principal targets of counternarcotics operations. As a result, the drug war was primarily fought in urban cities such as Medellín, Bogotá, and Cali, where the homes and businesses of the leading drug traffickers were located. These operations were primarily carried out by the police, until the Joint Special Command, or search bloc, was founded in 1992 with the involvement of the armed forces. Second, because Colombia was not yet a major producer of coca or poppy, eradication was not yet a significant point on the bilateral anti-drug agenda with Washington.

Finally, the relationship between drug traffickers and guerrillas changed. While insurgents initially provided protection for cocaine laboratories, drug traffickers developed virulently anti-communist positions. Drug traffickers such as Rodríguez Gacha and Fidel Castaño created paramilitary armies that attacked both armed insurgents and their peasant base. The fact that Colombian security forces were accused of tolerating the creation and operations of paramilitary groups funded by drug trafficking helped neutralize the "narcoguerrilla" argument that was taking shape in the wake of then-US Ambassador in Bogotá Lewis Tambs' statements charging collusion between guerrillas and drug traffickers.

The Colombian military's recent decision to engage fully in the anti-drug war resuscitates the old concept of the relationship between drug trafficking and the insurgency. The position of the Colombian military in the words of one officer is that:

"The narcoguerrilla phenomenon is the result of the relationship between guerrilla organizations and drug traffickers in an alliance that, in practice, has become a strategy to subvert order and pursue specific illicit interests while mutually guaranteeing their survival.... [T]he FARC devotes thirty-seven fronts, some 2,800 men (50 percent of its force) to drug trafficking activities, and the ELN seven fronts, some 500 men (20 percent of its force)." (12)

This military analysis focuses on illegal crop cultivation. Rather than claim that the FARC is connected to the international illicit drug trade, military officers now suggest that that the FARC has developed financial strength through the control of coca-growing regions. For military officials, "the revenues the FARC bring in from this activity are far superior to those obtained through kidnapping, extortion, or the 'cattle tax.'" (13)

According to the military, drug trafficking's influence on the guerrillas places the Colombian army at a disadvantage and causes it to lose ground militarily. This situation is aggravated by the government's loss of legitimacy stemming from the lack of government presence in isolated regions, which prevents the development of the legal economy and establishes in its stead a propitious infrastructure for illicit crops. Through the taxation of illicit crops, the guerrillas have grown in number and financial power.

The army argues that guerrilla control over part of the illegal economic trade strengthens their logistical power. In effect, "the combination of armed struggle with drug trafficking makes [guerrilla] squads more stable to a certain extent; in the end, being involved in illicit drug activity allows them greater freedom and access to money, and makes the time spent at different fronts less rigorous. This can be confirmed by observing that squads located in coca and poppy growing areas are the 'strongest qualitatively and quantitatively.'" (14)

Former General (ret.) Harold Bedoya emphasizes the organized criminal nature of insurgent groups and promotes the image of an international threat. In his view, "We have forgotten that for the past two decades a vast and complex network of organized crime has operated in our countryside. We have successively called it subversion, guerrilla, insurgency. In fact, they are gangsters disguised as peasants. They have based their dealings on the systematic development of drug trafficking in all its forms and have enriched themselves in the process. They survived the war between drug cartels, the government war against the cartels, and the world war against the cartels, and now they are virtually the only and most powerful cartel of them all." (15)

The Colombian military's presentation of the "narcoguerrilla" threat appears to reiterate Ambassador Tambs' old argument. There are, however, several significant differences. The US ambassador used guerrilla protection of laboratories in northern Caquetá as evidence of their links to drug traffickers. The military's current position is based on the evolution of Colombia's role in the international illicit drug trade: from cocaine processor and exporter to also a substantial producer of illicit crops in an area where the FARC has traditionally had significant influence.

The increasing militarization of the drug war, however, works to the guerrillas' advantage. Current counternarcotics operations consist primarily of the use of force against settlers and peasant farmers growing coca. This gives the guerrillas the opportunity to increase their territorial control and political legitimacy by attacking both fumigation aircraft and the soldiers providing ground support in defense of peasant coca growers. Another effect of this policy is that peasant farmers are pushed further into outlying areas under insurgent control.

The armed forces' participation in counternarcotics operations is aimed at penetrating one of the areas of both coca cultivation and greatest guerrilla influence: the southern states of Caquetá, Guaviare, and Putumayo, and the Macarena Mountain in Meta. The military claims that the FARC's strength in the area is explained in part by its strategic location of control over coca and poppy production. Through this approach, the Colombian military has convinced much of official Washington of its commitment to the drug war and has benefited economically as a result. US economic assistance to the Colombian military has increased substantially since 1996, and following suspension of aid due to human rights concerns, the US government resumed aid to the Colombian army. However, for the Colombian military, direct intervention in key coca growing and processing areas has more to do with the need to sabotage guerrilla finances than with any credible commitment in reducing the availability of raw materials for the manufacture of illicit drugs.

Increasing US military support may, in fact, not have much impact. As military spending increased over the last decade, Colombian military effectiveness decreased. For example, between 1991 and 1996, expenditures on security and defense in Colombia grew 14 percent in real terms, rising from 1.79 percent to 3.17 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). The armed forces maintain that this budget barely covers their needs, despite the fact that the amount allocated for defense exceeds the Latin American average. (16) Yet as the military budget has increased, the number of guerrillas killed has in fact decreased (taking into account increased ranks within the guerrillas).

Table 2: Military Spending and Numbers of Military and Guerrillas Killed
Year Military spending % of GDP Military killed Guerrillas killed
1991 $ 285,436 1.09 552 639
1992 $ 422,355 1.26 539 936
1993 $ 701,676 1.60 367 934
1994 $ 763,230 1.34 469 774
1995 $ 1,378,200 1.90 409 669
1996 $ 1,849,000 2.16 363 764
Source for military spending: Confis, Comptroller General of the Republic
Source for numbers killed: Consejería de Paz

As can be observed, military spending in 1995 was triple the 1992 level, but this increase in military spending was accompanied by a relative decrease in the number of guerrilla casualties. Even more indicative of the lack of military effectiveness was the string of military defeats, especially in 1996 and 1997, in the coca-growing areas of Putumayo, Guaviare, Caquetá and Meta. The armed forces suffered their largest military defeats at the hands of the guerrillas during this period.

Table3: Military Battles Resulting in Heavy Losses for the Armed Forces
Type of Action Army deaths Captures Date
Ambush in Puerres (Nariño) 35 - 4/15/96
Attack in Las Delicias (Putumayo) 29 60 8/31/96
Attack in La Carpa (Guaviare) 18 - 9/4/96
Attack on patrol in Juradó (Chocó) 8 10 1/16/97
Assault on the Mobile Brigade in San Juanito (Meta) 18 - 2/1/97
Attack on helicopter transporting troops in Arauca 24 - 7/6/76
Attack on Patascoy Base (Nariño) 11 - 12/21/97
Attack on Mobile Brigade No. 3 in El Billar (Caquetá) 80 43 3/2-3/98
Total 223 131  
Sources: Information compiled by author

Conclusions and Recommendations

To date, US counternarcotics policy towards Colombia has been developed with a focus on aerial eradication of coca crops and an increasing involvement of the Colombian military in counternarcotics operations. The growing role of the Colombian military has been justified by the "narcoguerrilla" theory, which sustains that the guerrillas, particularly the FARC, are engaged in substantial drug trafficking. As shown in the above history, this policy is misdirected.

By directing the majority of counternarcotics resources towards aerial eradication of coca crops without offering economic alternatives, US counternarcotics policy is exacerbating the social tensions which have swelled the ranks of the FARC in recent years. While the US has recently begun providing resources for alternative development programs, these resources are a tiny fraction of the amount provided for militarized counternarcotics operations and aerial eradiction, and none are provided for the areas in which the majority of coca is grown, the southern region of the country. Peasant farmers, pushed into colonizing this region because of political violence and land pressure in other areas of the country, have turned to coca production as a means of economic support for themselves and their families. Lack of regional development programs and the failure of the Colombian government to provide basic services have further worsened social tensions. This climate of discontent has provided fertile ground for FARC recruitment in the region.

As the DEA itself has repeatedly acknowledged in testimony before Congress, the FARC is not involved in international drug trafficking - bringing cocaine and heroin into the United States. "To date, there is little to indicate the insurgent groups are trafficking in cocaine themselves, either by producing cocaine HCL and selling it to Mexican syndicates, or by establishing their own distribution networks in the United States." (17) While the FARC clearly profits from its taxation of drug production, it is just one element in an extensive industry. As this brief shows, increased involvement of the Colombian military in counternarcotics operations - and increasing levels of support for the Colombian military - have not resulted in improved performance on the battlefield or in counternarcotics operations.

The myopic focus of US counternarcotics policy has, in fact, led to inefficient and even counterproductive policies. Rather than succeeding in reducing coca production, US counternarcotics policies have merely displaced cultivation to other areas of the country, spurred human rights abuses against the civilian population in coca-growing regions, and fueled social unrest that has led to increased support for the guerrillas.

Understanding the history of the FARC and the changing nature of illicit crop production is a vital element in understanding the evolution of the Colombian conflict and necessary for developing policies to address the roots of the conflict. An analysis of this relationship is also crucial for developing effective counternarcotics policies. Any such policy should include providing economic alternatives to coca and poppy production and must address the lack of economic and political options, which pushes peasants into involvement in the drug trade. The Colombian judicial system should distinguish between peasant farmers involved in illicit crop production and individuals involved in the transport and commercialization of illicit drugs. Non-combatant peasant farmers, including those involved in illicit crop production in areas controlled by the guerrillas, must be respected as civilians in the armed conflict. US policy must monitor and address abuses of the civilian population by the Colombian security forces, particularly in the context of counternarcotics operations and those committed by paramilitary forces operating with the support of the Colombian security forces.


1. For an historical perspective, see Pizarro, Eduardo, "Los orígenes del movimiento armado comunista en Colombia" in Análisis Político, No. 7, May -August 1989.
2.Pizarro, Eduardo, Ibid. p. 24.
3. See Pizarro, Eduardo, "La insurgencia armada: raíces y perspectives" in Sánchez, Gonzalo y Peñaranda, Ricardo, Pasado y Presente de Violencia en Colombia, Cerec, Bogotá, 1991.
4. This assertion is from Pecaut, Daniel, "Crise, guerre et paix en Colombie" in Problémes de L'Amerique Latine, No. 84, París, April-June 1987, p. 8 (as cited in Pizarro, op cit. p. 399).
5. Rangel, Alfredo, "Colombia: la guerra irregular de fin de siglo" in Análisis Político," No. 28, Bogotá, May-August 1996.
6. Extensive evidence of links between paramilitary organizations and the Colombian security forces, as well as their participation in the drug trade, has been collected by human rights organizations, Colombian judicial authorities,
and journalists, among others.
7. Coyuntura Colombiana, Vol. 4, No. 1, Bogotá, 1997.
8. The FARC representative stated this publicly during an event in Cartagena, Chairá department, to turn over soldiers who had been captured during the operation.
9. US Department of State, "Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Colombia, 1996," January 1997. See also, Teófilo Vásquez, "Caminos Tortuosos" in Acción Andina, Vol. 1, No. 1,
Jan-June 1997.
10. See "Los paras quieren medio país" in Cambio 16, No. 215, July 28, 1997.
11. See "Observations on Counternarcotics Aid to Colombia," General Accounting Office (GAO), Washington, D.C., September 1991. GAO/NSIAD-91-296.
12. Major Javier Enríque Rey Navas "La Narcoguerrilla una grave amenaza para Colombia y el Mundo," Revista de las Fuerzas Armadas, Vol. LI, No. 160, July-Sept. 1996.
13. Ibid.
14. Col. Fernando Millán Pérez and Col. Eduardo Santos Quiñones, "La Guerrilla en Colombia, una Negación a la Ideología y la Política," in Revista Fuerzas Armadas, Vol. LI,
No. 160, July-Sept. 1996.
15. Prologue to the book by Major Luis Alberto Villamarín, El Cartel de las Farc, El Faraón Publishers, June, 1996.
16. See Semana, Sept. 24, 1996.
17. DEA Congressional Testimony by Donnie Marshall, Chief of Operations, DEA before the Subommittee on National Security, International Affairs and Criminal Justice regarding the "Cooperative Efforts of the Colombian National Police and Military in Anti-narcotics Efforts, and Current DEA Initiatives in Colombia" on July 9, 1997. Page 6.
The Colombian Drug Situation is Ultimately a Law Enforcement Problem, William Ledwith, Drug Enforcement Administration, Statement before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, August 6, 1999.


The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) wishes to express deep appreciation to Ricardo Vargas for the hours of work and dedication he put into researching and writing this brief, as well as for his patience with our publication process. We would also like to express our gratitude to the Transnational Institute (TNI) in the Netherlands, especially Martin Jelsma, and Acción Andina in Bolivia, particularly Theo Roncken, for their work making this publication possible. This brief is part of ongoing work by WOLA, TNI, and Acción Andina to analyze the impact of drug trafficking and anti-drug policies on democratization, demilitarization and human rights trends in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The original version of this brief appeared as a chapter in Democracias bajo fuego: drogas y poder en América Latina, edited by Martin Jelsma and Theo Roncken. This book is available from TNI and will be published in English as 'Democracies Under Fire' by the Latin America Bureau (LAB).

This brief was edited by WOLA Fellow Winifred Tate and Senior Associate Coletta Youngers; Program Assistant Laurie Freeman also provided input into the brief. Ms. Freeman coordinated the production and distribution of the brief.

Through our ongoing work, we hope to further a dialogue between the international policy community and numerous Colombian researchers who have provided invaluable insights into the nature of the Colombian conflict, often at great personal risk. In that spirit, this brief is dedicated to the memory of Colombian anthropologist Hernan Henao, who was killed May 4 in an apparent paramilitary attack in his office at the Institute of Regional Studies of the University of Antioquia, in Medellín.

June 1999

About the authors

Ricardo Vargas

Ricardo Vargas Meza is a Sociologist with a Masters in Social Philosophy from the National University of Colombia. He is an author, among other texts of Fumigation and Conflict: Anti-drugs policies and the delegitimisation of the Colombian state (Tercer Mundo, TNI and Acción Andina, December 1999); Drugs, Armed Conflict and Alternative Development (Acción Andina Colombia, June 2003, Bogotá); Narcotrafficking, war and anti-drug policies (Acción Andina Colombia, Novib - Oxfam The Netherlands, June 2005); Alternative Development in Colombia and Social Participation: Proposals for a change of strategy (DIAL, September 2010, Bogotá).

Vargas writes frequently for various publications and journals, both in Colombia and internationally. He also does international consultancy on issues of development, illegality and security.

Recent publications from Drugs and Democracy

The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition

Cannabis was condemned by the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs as a psychoactive drug with “particularly dangerous properties” and hardly any therapeutic value. Ever since, an increasing number of countries have shown discomfort with the treaty regime’s strictures through soft defections, stretching its legal flexibility to sometimes questionable limits.

Cocaine: towards a self-regulation model

By taking cues from users’ self-regulation strategies, it is possible to design innovative operational models for drug services as well as drug policies, strengthening Harm Reduction as an alternative approach to the disease model.


Eyes Wide Shut: Corruption and Drug-Related Violence in Rosario

In Rosario, Argentina, the presence of criminal organisations involved in drug trafficking was a low priority for the government until New Year’s day 2012, when the killing of three innocent civilians by members of a gang sparked press attention.

First Southeast Asia Opium Farmers Forum Yangon 2013

In July the First Southeast Asia Opium Farmers Forum was held, bringing together some 30 representatives of local communities involved in opium cultivation and local community workers from the major opium growing regions in Southeast Asia.