Oct 13, 2022 - World

Colombia's Petro wants to rip up old drug war playbook

Colombian President Gustavo Petro (L) meets Secretary of State Tony Blinken in Bogotá on Oct. 3. Photo: Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images

Colombian President Gustavo Petro is attempting a dramatic shift in how his country fights drug trafficking after calling for an end to the so-called war on drugs.

Why it matters: Counter-narcotics operations are a cornerstone of the U.S. relationship with Colombia, long one of its closest partners in Latin America.

  • Petro, Colombia's first leftist president, takes a much more critical view of that aspect of the partnership than his predecessors.
  • And while U.S. Secretary of State Blinken signaled openness to Petro's new approach during a visit to Bogotá last week, the transition won't be easy.

The big picture: In an effort to fight cocaine production, the U.S. and the Colombian military have historically coordinated to eradicate coca, the plant used to make the illicit drug, at the source while the Colombian army tried to capture or at times kill rebel leaders and members of criminal groups

  • But the strategy has been criticized as inefficient for years by politicians like Petro and analysts, who argue eradication does little to clamp down on the drug trade and ensuing violence.

Part of the problem is that the strategy is entrenched by the fact that U.S. funding is directly tied to coca eradication, leaving security forces effectively unable to do other work like fighting illegal logging or human trafficking, argues Elizabeth Dickinson, Colombia analyst at the International Crisis Group.

  • The coca fields are often quickly replanted, she notes, and the process punishes poor farmers who have struggled to turn a profit by planting alternative crops.
  • Eradication also does not deal with ongoing violence in mostly poor and agricultural areas from turf wars between armed groups, adds Dickinson, who is also the author of a recent report on the failures of the drug war policy in Colombia.
  • The amount of land being used to grow coca crops has remained high over the last few years, according to the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, showing eradication efforts are “not enough to bring a lasting solution.”

What's new: Petro, himself a former member of the defunct M-19 guerrillas, told the UN General Assembly last month that "the war on drugs has failed" and drenched his country in blood.

  • Petro wants to reduce illegal crops — targeting only "industrial" production, not small farmers — and to invest in agriculture to provide better alternatives to coca.
  • He also wants to focus resources in the country's anti-illicit drug efforts on investigating money laundering and increasing seizures at sea.
  • The "proletariat of drug trafficking" is "forced to grow illegal crops" and experiences "the bulk of violence," Petro said at a press conference alongside Blinken last week. He requested U.S. intelligence support to pursue "the true owners of drug trafficking."

State of play: Blinken said the U.S. supports Petro's "holistic approach," including his call for collaboration on tracking drug traffickers and drug shipments.

  • "On both the enforcement side but also on the comprehensive approach to the problem which is so necessary, I think that we’re largely in sync," Blinken said.

What to watch: Most changes proposed by Petro can be implemented directly, though the financial aid coming from the U.S. remains key to carrying them out.

  • A State Department spokesperson did not offer details on how the funding might change going forward, but said the U.S. would "continue cooperating closely with Colombia," including on Petro's priorities of intelligence sharing and development.
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