Transitions in Colombia

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For half a century in Colombia, an armed conflict of great complexity has opposed paramilitary groups (demobilized between 2003 and 2006 and recycled in criminal gangs, the BACRIM), guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and state forces. The Colombian government’s Official Victims Registry lists 267,297 direct deaths, 728,096 indirect deaths, 169,201 disappearances, 7,358,248 displaced persons, and 36,578 kidnappings. Drugs (mainly cocaine, but also heroin and cannabis) have fueled and sustained the violence and conflict. The Peace Agreement signed in November 2016 by the Colombian government and the FARC therefore included a program designed to combat illicit drug production. In January 2017, both parties presented the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (coca, poppy and cannabis) and, in November 2017, the UN and the government signed a 315-million-dollar aid agreement to eradicate these crops and strengthen rural development (redeployment of families and technical assistance).

Years of ineffective eradication policies

For the past 40 years, the Colombian government, with United States aid, has tried to combat drug production – 1978-1982, then 1982-1986 and, from 1999-2000, the Plan Colombia. The latter, which was widely condemned by the European Union, international organizations, and NGOs, did more to reinforce the Colombian state’s military capacity in its fight against guerrillas than it did to trouble drug traffickers. The massive aerial spraying of Monsanto glyphosate (begun in 1982-1986, suspended in 2005, and forbidden by the Constitutional Court in 2017) had serious consequences for the environment and public health, while its effects on reducing drug production were limited. State deficiencies, the very high concentration of land, poverty, permanent violence, and the low interest in substitution crops owing to lack of access to markets have contributed to a regular increase in drug production.

Colombia coca leaf production and profits, 2016

Source: UNODC, Colombia Cultivation Survey (SIMCI), 2017

Comment: The UNODC survey data show the sharp increase in price (and profits) throughout the cocaine production chain, which deploys many and varied actors, from the farmers who grow the coca to the different stages of transformation and commercialization, which is controlled by local and international traffickers. Prices vary from 1 dollar per kilo of leaves to 1,633 dollars per kilo of cocaine, which is cut and sold on to European consumers for between 50 and 80 euros per gram.

At each stage of the transformation of coca leaves harvested into cocaine sold to the consumer, there is a considerable rise in prices and profits. To reduce the dependency on drug production by very poor farmers, the peace agreements initially placed the emphasis on voluntary substitution plans. But after the “no” victory in the peace referendum, the government had to negotiate new agreements providing for forced eradication (and even aerial spraying) in the event of failure or refusal of voluntary substitution. The policy of voluntary substitution involves a whole range of social and economic conditions, using a method that is both inclusive (producers, communities, FARC, international organizations, and NGOs) and extends the combat to all actors (producers, transporters, importers of precursors, processors, exporters, profit launderers, corruptors, and so on.). It provides for sustainable agricultural improvement programs (production of coffee, cocoa, fruit), consultation and strengthening of communities, monthly aid, securing and preparing land, opening up territory and ensuring access to markets, as well as introducing a minimum of public services, stabilizing land, ensuring personal safety and respect for human rights, and strengthening the legal framework.

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" Transitions in Colombia " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2018, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:

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