Drugs and Armed Conflict

01 June 2003

In 2003, the Uribe administration launched a massive military operation in the southern part of the country, in areas traditionally occupied by guerrilla forces. The so-called Plan Patriot is now the largest military component of Plan Colombia, as reflected in the combined action of various state security forces with support, guidance and monitoring from the U.S. government.

Plan Patriot, which involves more than 14,000 troops, is a military response to the drug problem, which in the current international climate has become associated with terrorism and been reduced to a security issue. In the name of "defeating terrorism and its source of funding," Plan Patriot has contributed significantly to the exacerbation of the humanitarian crisis and the cornering and impoverishment of the population in the southern part of the country.

Drugs/Terrorism - Since the first years after the Cold War, drugs have been seen as a security problem. This view has evolved into the current connection with the fight against terrorism. The militaristic approach to terrorism has given new impetus to the remilitarisation of the war on drugs. It is impossible to deny that armed groups depend greatly on the illegal economy. In the case of Colombia, however, it is worth asking whether it is relevant to extend the concept of fighting international terrorist groups to local insurgent groups that are engaged in an internal war and that lack a transnational ideology and global scope of action.

President Uribe Vélez's Democratic Security Policy is clearly aimed at striking a blow at the guerrillas on the grounds of the common acceptance of the symbiosis between drugs and terrorist funds.

Green light for drug trafficking

Focusing anti-drug actions on insurgents has made it possible to leave new and unknown organised drug-trafficking groups out of the picture. Colombian drug traffickers have benefited from the state's concentration of military might on attacking the insurgents. While it is true that those actions have helped push guerrillas out of strategic areas or contained their military influence, the actions are often carried out to the detriment of civilians living in those areas.

In addition, the Colombian state, unable to fill the vacuum left by the retreat of the insurgents, has left the doors open to drug traffickers, who have occupied those spaces using violent mechanisms involving the accumulation and laundering of resources through landholding or land purchases, in an effort to legalise their economic interests so as to consolidate themselves as regional forces in the spheres of politics and security.

The concentration of military action in the south, and the specific focus on the guerrillas, has facilitated the empowerment of drug traffickers. Meanwhile, the sluggishness of the process of confiscating drug traffickers' property, and the lack of clarity about the use of such confiscated property, is not conducive to the creation of conditions that would make Colombia an unfavourable place for drug traffickers to continue to do business. There are currently no mechanisms for transparently establishing the responsibility of drug traffickers - and of the armed groups that have participated in this process - in the gradual, violent seizure of lands from indigenous, Afro-Colombian and peasant communities in Colombia.

Drugs/Insurgent groups - The relationship between insurgent groups and drugs has a long history, but until just a few years ago it was limited to imposing "taxes" on producers, middlemen, local service sectors and capital flowing into their territories for the purchase of merchandise. After reaching agreement with the insurgent groups controlling an area on the amount to be paid, the buyers moved in to make contact with middlemen and work out the deal. In their role as "tax" collectors, and in accordance with the illegal infrastructure in each locality, the insurgent groups imposed fees on operators of airstrips for each kilogram loaded, as well as on local cocaine-crystallization laboratories.

Beginning in 1996, the insurgents' relatively modest in the drug business changed because of several factors:

  1. The paramilitary push into southern Colombia, which began around 1998 in the Lower Putumayo region on the border with Ecuador and in areas adjacent to the Guaviare River, as a result of marches by coca-growing peasants (1996), which were seen as a danger because of their social connection with the fight against the insurgency.
  2. The insurgent offensive against the armed forces between 1996 and 1998, mainly in the departments of Caquetá, Guaviare and Nariño, which has been recognised as the moment of the guerrillas' greatest capacity for the use of force.
  3. The escalation of the confrontation, which began to demand significant amounts of money to sustain a military response.

As a result of these factors, both the illicit crops and the entire complementary economy underwent significant change, becoming incorporated directly, rather than tangentially, into the dynamic of the war.

Paramilitaries/Drug trafficking/Armed conflict - Drug-trafficking capital has financed private armies that have developed in various regions, with efforts at national co-ordination, such as the so-called United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC).

The initial involvement of drug trafficking in the counterinsurgency war has been presented as a reaction by private investors to threats of kidnapping and extortion and the general social and economic instability created by the guerrillas, given the state's inability to guarantee personal safety.

This process has been linked to the dynamic of the privatisation of the use of force, whose historical roots predate the drug phenomenon in Colombia. But it is the drug economy that has made possible the consolidation of the fight against the insurgency. Drug-trafficking money has helped provide the funds needed to expand the force of the so-called self-defence groups.

The war has served not only to provide privatised margins of security and the guarantee of significant political space, but it is also an optimal tool for accumulation within the illegal drug economy. In addition, the war has facilitated a process of violent accumulation of resources that has taken root with the modification of the agrarian landholding structure.

To establish an image as part of the counterinsurgency efforts, the self-defence forces had to change their political approach, because they ultimately needed to enter into some type of transaction with the state. This political shift, along with the violent process of accumulation of land and territory and the stealthy gaining of public ground and legitimacy in society, is what the self-defence groups are trying to legalise now through a "peace process."

Ideas taken from: Ricardo Vargas Meza Drogas y conflicto armado en Colombia. Drogas, conflicto armado y desarrollo alternativo. Una perspectiva desde el Sur de Colombia Acción Andina Colombia, Santafé de Bogotá, Junio de 2003