Colombia: A successful case for the war on drugs?

17 January 2011

Is Colombia's narcotrafficking situation comparable to that of Mexico, including the strategies needed to combat it?

Within a diverse range of media accounts from journalists, academics and government sources in Colombia, the United States and elsewhere, Colombia has been proclaimed as a success story in terms of the implementation and results of the War on Drugs.  In addition, the current situation in Mexico, resulting from an increase in narcotrafficking associated violence, has led to pronunciations and recommendations that that country should adopt the Colombian anti-drug strategy.  Is it valid to proclaim that Colombia has become a paradigm for that battle?  Is our narcotrafficking situation comparable to that of Mexico, including the strategies needed to combat it?

Arguments in favor of a triumph

In the first place, on November 6th, 2009, according to a communiqué issued by the US Embassy in Bogotá, “the government of the United States finalized its annual study in 2008 on the quantity of coca cultivation and cocaine production potential in Colombia.  The results show that cultivated areas were reduced by 29 percent in just one year, falling from 167,000 hectares in 2007 to 119,000 in 2008.  New information on productivity indicates that in 2008 the maximum production potential in Colombia fell significantly, from 485 metric tons of pure cocaine to 295, which represents a 39 percent reduction” (1).  The information was ratified by a 2010 report from the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report within the United States Department of State(2).

This balance is reaffirmed also by General Oscar Naranjo, director of the Colombian National Police. The success is so striking that it has repercussions on the organizational structure of Colombian narcotrafficking. The General was cited saying, “from 2002 to the present date (August 2009), the Government has authorized a thousand extraditions, of which nearly 900 have been carried out.  This means that we have left the old cartels without command and control, the useful lifespan of leaders is increasingly less… In the past, the nucleus of the narcotraffickers was represented by large volumes overseas.  Interdiction capacity has improved, and what narcotrafficking does to adapt and survive is to promote the consumption of cocaine in Colombia, subsidizing it, installing sellers of vice, drug vendors, and promoting small scale drug pushers.  This microtrafficking is creating violence in the cities, that is the priority of the Police.”(3)

Behind these authorized, high-level declarations, a wide array of media and observers on drug issues time and again reproduce these proclamations of supposed success.  The Washington Post, for example, echoed last September 8th the declarations of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who signaled that Mexico “was seeming increasingly like Colombia 20 years ago” in relation to narcotrafficking, a  declaration which the article's authors asses as being “shared by warriors against crime who dismantled the murderous cartels of Colombia and have been offering advice and training to Mexican officials, to Police and to Attorneys for more than two years.” (4)

At the same time, observers with academic vision indicate, for example, that “Venezuela receives the narcotrafficking displaced by Colombia’s democratic security policy, because it does not dissuade it (the Government of Venezuela) through a border control regime” (5).

Finally, and as a result of these descriptions, it has become a recurring argument that “the successes that Colombia has obtained over the past years in the battle against narcotrafficking has obliged the displacement of criminal groups… especially towards Mexico, which today suffers scenes of violence as cruel as those which Colombia faced in the 80s or still worse, and to the degree that Mexico has dealt major blows against them, these bands have moved into Central America.” (6)

Contrasting the arguments of the Colombian ‘success’

The first thing that should be noted is the characteristic lack of statistics with which some agencies in Washington back up their affirmations of Colombian success.  It is enough to contrast the supposed annual production levels of 295 tons of cocaine, together with information reporting an increase in interdictions by the Anti-narcotic Police and Colombian security organizations, which is calculated at 200 tons each year (2008), in order to realize the erratic and entirely incoherent arguments being used to proclaim a Colombian success (see graph).

Cocaine Production and Seizures in Colombia 2003 – 2008 (ton.) according to US Department of State


If you observe the contrast between the two figures, the remains of cocaine that evades controls in Colombian jurisdiction -and which could leave to places where there are additional seizures such as Central America, Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, the Southern Cone and then finally reach the United States and Europe, where Colombian cocaine has a significant chunk of the market- is only 95 tons, which leaves the arguments by Washington and Bogotá without foundation.

It is enough to note that Ecuador has seized, for two consecutive years (2009-2010), an average of 50 tons of Colombian cocaine to establish the erratic character of the arguments.  At that point we reach a remnant of 45 tons of Colombian cocaine.  In addition, the General Accounting Office (GAO) of the United States indicated in a document that via Venezuela a total of 270 tons of Colombian cocaine was being shipped, which leaves a disastrous balance in terms of the rigor of the statistics being used in the argument. (7)

That is to say, the topic of drugs in the case of Colombia lacks trustworthy information and statistical rigor, a situation which is substituted with an ethic of conviction in the management of the figures, more than any analytical responsibility in the proclamations of success in the War on Drugs.

“Exporting” the Colombian model of the “War on Drugs”

Within the supply reduction policy objectives of President Obama's Drug Control Strategy for 2010 is the notion of “consolidating gains obtained in Colombia”.  The point is not explicit as to whether reference is being made to gains in the counter-insurgency war or the War on Drugs.  As has been argumented, if reference is being made to the latter case, there are problems due to a lack of serious statistical support to establish “gains”, and under these circumstances, it’s not clear what the Colombian success is.  If, on the contrary, allusion is made to the counter-insurgency war, the point is more coherent.  Nonetheless, there are other major problems that are significant in terms of policy and security.  In effect, Washington has decided that its “anti-drug” aid continues to advance along a counter-insurgency path, within a post-conflict framework.   Towards that end, it has modified, for example, in a 180 degree turn, its entire alternative development model, which is now inscribed within the priorities of its counter-insurgency war, in a complex and permanent feedback process of the Colombian case, together with the case of Afghanistan, to form a critical mass. The scope of the redefinition is the link between development and security.

For the case of  Colombia, the specific weight of Southern Command in defining the orientation of ‘social and economical aid’ leads to an articulation with the Strategy for Consolidation of Territory and implementation under its advice, during the Uribe Vélez administration. This leads to the focalization of areas where programs are established with the presence, or not, of crops used for illicit purposes, with prioritization according to the military actions of the State to control territories, usually rich in mineral resources, strategic for movement by land or optimal for agro-exports.

This orientation ratifies the political decision taken since 2002, explained earlier in 1999, when the orientation of “Plan Colombia” was debated in Washington, in the sense that, more so than drugs, the problem in Colombia was the level of control of insurgent groups throughout most of the territory.  The decision is advanced today in the redefinition of the focus of economic and social aid, which occupies and will have in the coming years a prominent role compared to the military aid characterized in the first phase of “Plan Colombia”.

The problem is that the military advancement in the resolution of the Colombian conflict was not carried out solely through the re-engineering of the Colombian Armed Forces, including an increase in their troop levels, but also through major support from narco-paramilitaries, which catapulted the historical model of the privatization of counter-insurgency wars to the fore.

As has been discussed, this strategy contributed to a commitment with little responsibility for the Colombian elite to financing a scheme of militarized social controls and counter-insurgency wars: “Plan Colombia” and narcotrafficking resources were complementary pivots for the winning military strategy, which was combined with major spending on defense in the country’s budget.  The implications of this model, which had a very high social cost for the country – especially in rural areas – through the loss of lands, forced displacement and a major increase in poverty levels, has also led the elite to defend, due to this illegality, its accumulated booty in the midst of continuing war.

This is the heart of the problem which the Santos administration’s intentions face in paying its social debt to those who paid the highest costs in the strategy that was implemented: the territories of rural, indigenous and Afro communities.  But there also persists the power of those who assumed these costs (economic, the successful use of privatized violence) in many regions of the country.  The offering of their services in the common counter-insurgent front demands the defense of obtained benefits, extended to the lands accumulated with these persons, and also the capture of royalties and local budgets through which they seek to extend the model of privatized security, and local and regional political controls.

The Strategy of Consolidation of Territory is reduced to a process of reunification and cleansing for the two main sources of financing and development by the counter-insurgent strategy (“Plan Colombia”) and the privatization of security (creation of narco-paramilitary bands), creating conditions that favor investment to finance security.  But the array of interests that play a role in these scenarios for consolidation is extremely complex, so that it may be that the problem is only today reduced to legislation for the restitution of victims.  The greatest challenge for the Government is the political management of the intricate networks in which this unusual array of powers, moving by legal and illegal means, principally at the regional level, are expressed.

Included at this level are: the great narcotrafficking networks, favored today by the kind of discourse used in Washington on the success of the Colombian case; the great financial powers in electoral processes at the local, regional and national level; groups of landowners who manage the Colombian rural model (traditionally with extensive cattle ranching and now with crops for ethanol production); the poorly named “emerging bands”, instrumentalized by sectors which defend the status quo, violently reordering territory; elite mafias at the regional level which make up the cement of nuclei of power at this level; the interest of major investors in lands, mining and infrastructure.

This is one of the central nuclei of the current underlying conflict related to the problem of lands, which goes much beyond physical redistribution.  What are the scenarios and with what instruments will they seek to resolve the play of these interests, which have even delegated representation within the State?  As you can observe, in the midst of this complex trauma is the “vanished” Colombian narcotrafficking, which, only mentioning individual personalities, includes around 15 major leaders at the regional level who continue to operate throughout the country.  The presence of Colombian ‘narcos’ in Central America, the southern cone or Mexico is not because they are fleeing, as is desingenuously argued in the media and by some journalists.  Their presence there is explained by the same reasons: there are legal businessmen who invest in these regions.  Their political and business behavior is far from being as it was during the Cartel period.  Today they inter-relate with a nuclei of legal powers, including parts of the State, without resulting in confrontation.  In the case of Colombia, the role of the State in this dynamic can be established, in the most recent period, in its play as a violent service protecting narcotrafficking, just when it admits that illegal business and private security services working for the illegal economy had been a central part of the private counter-insurgency strategy. (8).

For these same reasons, the case of Colombia has little to do with Mexico, and it's a disservice by those who at some high levels of government, principally in security, offer to export an experience that is not yet resolved – contrary to what Washington and General Naranjo affirm – nor is it yet clear what their perspective on the resolution towards a peaceful scenario in Colombia would be.  The narcotrafficking of the country is characterized by its strategic use of violent, private counter-insurgency services, thanks to tacit arrangements with the State, which through multiple avenues conceded protection mechanisms and, more recently, co-opted decision-making entities in the management of the resources seized from narcotrafficking, legal management of land resources and one of the main centers of security research for the country.  Could Mexico possibly want to reproduce this model in order to reduce its levels of violence?


1 See:
2 United States Department of State Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ”International Narcotics Control Strategy Report”, March 2010, Washington, DC.
3 See, El Tiempo,  “Microtráfico al que se dedican ahora narcos genera la violencia en ciudades: general Óscar Naranjo”, August 24th, 2009.
4 The Washington Post, Critics say Mexico needs to learn from Colombia, Associated Press, September 9, 2010, Washington & Bogotá.
5 See, “El control de la oferta en l lucha antidrogas ¿Aquién le sirve?, Daniel Brombacher FESCOL Programa de Cooperación en Seguridad Regional, June 2010.
6 Statement by Laura Chinchilla, President of Costa Rica, El Espectador, Oct. 29, 2010.
7 United States Government Accountability Office, Report to the Ranking Member, Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate DRUG CONTROL U.S. Counternarcotics Cooperation with Venezuela Has Declined, July 2009, GAO-09-806.
8 The concept of ‘Violence and Stated-Sponsored Protection’ is by Richard Snyder and Angélica Durán, “Drug, Violence and State-Sponsored Protection Rackets in Mexico and Colombia”, Revista Colombia Internacional No. 70, July-Dec 2009, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá.

this was published in Le Monde Diplomatique - Edición Colombia