War on Drugs Assures Peace-Talk Failure, Under Santos or Zuluaga


EspañolDuring this election campaign, President Juan Manuel Santos has repeated a particular slogan ad nauseam, one which he will surely intensify in the next two weeks with the help of the unabashedly pro-Santos mainstream media. (Until recently, his family owned El Tiempo, the country’s largest daily, and his nephew is the chief editor of Semana, Colombia’s most important weekly magazine.) Namely, that his peace negotiation with the FARC guerrilla will put an end to “a 50-year war.”

To cite just one example, Santos told the media in November that he will deliver “a peaceful Colombia, a country without the armed conflict that has spilled our blood for more than 50 years, that has blocked our development and social investment.”

With this argument, Santos has presented himself as the candidate of peace. His main opponent, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, is Attila the Hun, according to the Santos campaign, except that, unlike Attila, it’s not he but rather ex-President Álvaro Uribe who calls the shots.

Juan Manual Santos and Óscar Iván Zuluaga
Colombian President Juan Manual Santos and election rival Óscar Iván Zuluaga. Source: composite by PanAm Post staff.

The 50-Year Enigma

The problem is, if one accepts the theory of the 50-year war, one inevitably must accept the version of Colombian history which holds that the current war began around 1964, the year of the FARC’s foundation.

This, however, is not exactly the case, and you don’t have to take my word for it. According to a study published by economist Juan Carlos Echeverry, President Santos’s minister of finance from 2010 to 2012, the FARC’s beginnings coincide with a period of “relative peace.”

Echeverry notes that the era known as the National Front (1958-1974), as a result of a power-sharing peace agreement between Conservatives and Liberals, saw a steady decline in the violence witnessed from 1949 until 1962. During the earlier period — the so-called time of The Violence (La Violencia) — the two parties had fought each other to the death.

Although the National Front was deficient politically, since it prevented any outside force from gaining power, it drastically reduced the per capita homicide rate, which had reached the calamitous level of nearly 100 annual dead per 100,000 inhabitants at the end of the 1950s.

“It is possible to state,” Echeverry writes, “that the period between 1963 and 1983 was a time of relative peace characterized by a homicide rate of circa 28 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants.”

Now, a homicide rate of 28 per 100,000 is not something one would boast about in, say, a Swiss canton. Nevertheless, to keep things in context, it is useful to point to neighboring Brazil, where (sans the FARC) the homicide rate remained around 26 per 100,000 during the decade from 2000 to 2010, according to The Economist.

Echeverry further proves that violence in Colombia reached a level similar to that of the 1950s between 1982 and 1984, a period that coincides with the rise of the drug cartels and the significant growth of the country’s guerrilla forces. The FARC, for instance, passed the threshold of 20 fronts in the mid 1980s, and they continued their growth till they controlled more than 60 fronts in the late 1990s.

It’s clear, then, that, in referring to the actual conflict, it is more precise to speak of a full-scale insurgency war that began in the mid 1980s (the end of the “relative peace”), even if its political origins are to be found in the 1960s.

The War on Drugs, Not Idealism, Elevated the FARC

This distinction is important because the theory of the 50-year war is tied to the causes that the FARC themselves attribute to the conflict: poverty, inequality, and political control by an exclusive and self-serving elite.

This theory, which has been adopted by much of Colombia’s Marxists and progressives, is certainly plausible, but it doesn’t correspond to the facts illustrated by Echeverry’s study and to very serious publications by other scholars such as Camilo Echandía and Mauricio Rubio.

The evidence, in fact, suggests that the war’s escalation and the rise of guerrilla groups — both in terms of manpower and offensive ability, to the point where they could threaten the state itself — did not occur under conditions of poverty. On the contrary, the FARC reached their apogee amidst an economic boom caused not by policies encouraging free enterprise under the law, but rather and above all by the astronomical profits derived from the illegal drug trade in the decades after President Nixon’s declaration of a war on drugs in 1971.

In Colombia, the 1980s saw not only the surge of the Medellín Cartel and Pablo Escobar enter the ranks of the richest men on earth; according to Forbes magazine, he was the seventh richest person in the world in 1989. It was also the decade in which the FARC, in their Seventh Conference of 1982, took the conscious, deliberate, and strategic decision to participate fully in the drug trade to increase their economic and military capacity.

Aware of the power they would derive from controlling the windfall profits of cocaine trafficking, the FARC promptly filled the vacuum left by the collapse of the Medellín and Cali Cartels. They entered the 21st century with an army of some 20,000 men, financed mostly through narco funds. In other words, once bearded, Kalashnikov-carrying guerrilla fighters became chummy with the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, as was the case in 1999. The notion of a peasant army of impoverished Theocritean shepherds started to lose some credence.

It was in fact by becoming one of the world’s leading drug cartels — the largest according to some experts — that the FARC gained the capacity to corner the Colombian state in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Indeed, there was talk abroad of a failed state, although another myth to emerge was that the absence of the state caused the conflict. In reality, the guerrillas expelled the state from many strategic areas as soon as they gained the necessary strength to do so.

With its back against the wall, the Colombian government under President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) was forced to become one of the principal recipients of military aid from the United States, the country that was likewise financing the FARC indirectly by means of its cocaine consumption.

The fact that the violence during the last 30 years was not caused by poverty, but rather by the monumental amount of cash to be made under the conditions created by the war on drugs is confirmed by the lands disputed by the guerrillas and the similarly brutal paramilitary groups. The municipalities where guerrillas and paramilitaries have been present and where the homicide rates are the highest are not necessarily the poorest parts of the country; rather, they tend to be rural areas with good economic growth due to agriculture, to the presence of natural resources such as mines that the guerrillas can exploit in a predatory fashion and, above all, to the control of key exportation routes through which cocaine can be shipped abroad. In fact, some of the bloodiest episodes of recent Colombian history have been battles between guerrillas and paramilitaries over control of areas where cocaine can be either produced or exported.

The enormous potential for profits explains why the result of the Colombian state’s so-called success in the drug war has led, on the one hand, to fewer cultivated hectares of cocaine in Colombia but, in a reverse trend to that seen in previous decades, to significant increases in Peru and Bolivia.

On the other hand, many of the lands in which cocaine cultivation has been maintained have seen a much greater yield per hectare than in the past, as scholars Daniel Mejía and Carlos Esteban Posada have demonstrated. In other words, drug producers, persecuted by the state, have been able to increase their output in order to maintain their share of the global market. This stands in stark contrast to many of the state-subsidized industries of Colombia’s legal agricultural economy which, protected from competition, have become accustomed to subsist at the taxpayers’ expense regardless of performance (see the exemplary case of Colombian coffee growers).

The evident failure of the war on drugs is also manifested by the fact that, as recently as 2012, 19 of the FARC’s fronts were dedicated almost exclusively to drug trafficking. This brings us back to Santos’s peace process with the guerrillas.

Skirting the Irresistible Drug Trade

The drug trade was the third point out of five on the negotiations’ agenda, and so it is evident that Santos and his team acknowledge the problem. However, the agreement with the FARC which they pompously announced two weeks ago is simply spurious when it comes to addressing drug trafficking as the underlying cause of Colombia’s war during the last 30 years.

Santos’s “breakthrough” deal is built on the FARC’s hardly believable “compromise” to fully abandon the drug trade. Furthermore, it consists of manual eradication of coca crops, a method that has been a thunderous failure hitherto, and of the continued fumigation of cultivated territories. This latter strategy, by the way, has had the ruinous consequence of leading coca growers to transfer production to national parks which the state cannot deliberately destroy, thus causing great harm to the environment precisely where it is supposed to be protected.

As it is, Santos’s agreement with the FARC will leave the illegal drug trade’s titanic potential intact, even if the highly untrustworthy, Croesus-like guerrillas keep their promise and fully demobilize the 19 or more fronts dedicated exclusively to the cocaine business. A complete demobilization of the FARC’s forces — a best-case scenario — would simply create a new power vacuum which would be filled promptly and violently by different armed actors willing to take the risks necessary to keep the spoils. This scenario could even cause a greater degree of carnage than what has been the norm during the last few years.

Without legalization — ideally along with Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, and others, but unilaterally if need be — Santos’s deal with the FARC will almost certainly push Colombia toward a more statist direction. FARC leaders would be likely to hold seats in Parliament, without facing elections, and head ministries and other parts of the massive Colombian bureaucracy. But any agreement that maintains prohibition will be as sure to guarantee peace as Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich Agreement.

As for Zuluaga, he announced last Thursday that he plans to continue the peace talks with some alterations, thus u-turning on his earlier proposal to give the FARC a one-week ultimatum to disarm. Come what may, Zuluaga has never shown the slightest intention of changing Colombia’s prohibitionist drug policy, so even if he comes to lead the talks one can merely expect a case of plus ça change.

In sum, peace negotiations with the FARC might be a good idea if and only if the production, consumption, and sale of cocaine and other drugs were legalized as a preliminary step. As it is, the talk about the imminent end of a 50-year war is mere electioneering, which is why I am voting for neither Santos nor Zuluaga.

As the military historian and theoretician B.H. Liddell Hart wrote, a bad peace contains “the germ of another war.” In this case, the war against the Colombian state will simply continue until cocaine can be produced, marketed, and sold as a legal, packaged product.

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