BARRANQUILLA, Colombia — One of the most controversial topics in Colombia is aerial spraying of illegal crops.
The issue — part of Colombia’s anti-drug policy — is central to the next presidential election, which will be held on May 29, 2022.
Colombia is the No. 1 coca leaf producer in the world, the base of cocaine paste. The latest Colombian Anti-Narcotics Police report said 352 acres had illegal crops in 2020. Twenty out of Colombia’s 32 departments have illegal fields, with four holding 70 percent of the registered crops.
One tactic to combat the drug trade has been to fumigate fields, but it is both expensive and its effectiveness challenged.
President Juan Manuel Santos (2010–2018) suspended aerial spraying in May 2015, under Constitutional Court ruling T-080/17. “Glyphosate … could potentially affect human health as a carcinogenic agent and, also, in a hazardous way, the environment,” it states.
Con la campaña “Sonríele a la vida y aléjate de las Drogas” el #GrupoDePrevención Regional No. 2 realizó jornada de lectura y elaboración de manualidades para niños y padres de familia, incentivando la adopción de hábitos saludables #EducarParaPrevenir #Neiva #EsUnHonorSerPolicía pic.twitter.com/aIJiPgRffD
— Policía Antinarcóticos (@PoliciaAntiNar) October 10, 2021
The Andes University held the first significant issue debate between presidential candidates in Colombia on Sept. 21. Nine political leaders hoping to run in the May election participated.
Alejandro Gaviria, Rafael Nieto, Camilo Romero, Gustavo Petro, Paloma Valencia, Juan Manuel Galán, Roy Barrera, Jorge Echeverry and Juan Fernando Cristo presented their anti-drug platforms in the debate.
The candidates or pre-candidates see the issue as critical to their political agenda, Pedro Arenas, director of the VisoMutop Corporation, told Zenger.
Six of the nine candidates oppose aerial spraying and suggest looking for alternative projects. Three pointed out the importance of resuming the spraying in “illegal crop areas.”
Some connect “their programs more with the search for agrarian or agricultural opportunities for farmers to the detriment of forced eradication. Others plan their programs more from the perspective of the [affected] areas than from people at desks in Bogotá. Some argue for legalization, regulating the market, which obviously has its nuances,” said Arenas.
The ruling Democratic Center party’s pre-candidates, Paloma Valencia and Rafael Nieto, favor resuming aerial spraying. The United States supported this method under the Plan Colombia, the most important anti-drug and counterinsurgency strategy enforced in the country between 2000 and 2015.
“Criminal structures are very hard to control. We have to use everything available to fight them, including extradition, expropriation — to hit them financially — and destruction of crystallization sites and labs,” said Valencia.
No conseguiremos frenar la violencia ni tendremos una Colombia sin crimen si no le rompemos el espinazo al narcotráfico. Y no lo lograremos si nos olvidamos de los hechos. Porque mucho se dice, casi todo falso. Y no hay que basarse en los dichos sino en la evidencia, en los datos pic.twitter.com/yighdYGO2L
— Rafael Nieto Loaiza (@RafaNietoLoaiza) September 26, 2021
“Glyphosate should not be the core of a drug policy, but it should be kept as a potential deterrent tool,” said former Minister of Finance Juan Carlos Echeverry, who is seeking the Conservative Party’s endorsement for the 2022 election. He believes deploying the military should be “the last option.”
The other six candidates openly oppose aerial spraying and are committed to maintaining voluntary eradication, with a more significant presence of the State in the affected areas through social programs.
“Glyphosate is a failure. It is poisonous and was a part of the failed war on drugs. [Say] no to glyphosate,” said doctor and senator Roy Barrera, a pre-candidate for the Historical Pact movement.
The fumigation of “one hectare with glyphosate is worth about $92,936. With that, one could buy the best land in the country for those same farmers and solve the problem,” said Colombia Humana candidate Gustavo Petro Urrego.
The Colombian government, through the Ministry of Justice and Law, issued Decree 330 on April 12. It calls for “the destruction of illegal crops using the aerial spraying method” as part of the anti-drug strategy.
However, the government cannot fumigate without the Constitutional Court’s endorsement.
“We are working to comply with the court’s ruling and hoping it will provide us with all the tools [we need] to fight drug trafficking effectively,” said President Iván Duque in an interview.
Junto a nuestra #FuerzaPública, hoy le presentamos al país los resultados de la Campaña Naval Orión VII, un esfuerzo multilateral de 38 países de América y Europa en el que se desarrollaron operaciones conjuntas para seguir combatiendo el flagelo mundial de las drogas ilícitas. pic.twitter.com/TU5xIPj0DT
— Iván Duque (@IvanDuque) August 3, 2021
Arenas told Zenger that more than 230,000 peasant families inhabit the illegal crop areas and make a living working in them. Each family has between four and five members, representing 1 million people of all ages involved in this economy.
“[Drug] trafficking is not going to be solved through fumigation. Once we fumigate an area, the farmers [working in illegal crops there] move to another. That has happened in the past. They are logging the land and opening new production areas,” economist Jairo Parada told Zenger.
Parada said the government cannot solve the drug-trafficking problem through “quick and short-term solutions,” particularly fumigation. It is an issue that the administration must address with medium and long-term measures, since Colombia is the leading coca producer worldwide.
“It is not that Colombians are corrupt. It [planting illegal crops] happens mainly because of the Colombian government’s weakness throughout the country. There is no governmental presence, no education, no health. [The administration] must fight them through strategic social and productive development, which is not easy … but it has to be done,” he said.
The alternative, said Parada, is to carry out programs of “voluntary substitution of illegal crops and forced substitution when necessary, but without fumigation. These programs cost less than fumigation. Documents have proven it: Fumigation is a great business.”
The war on drugs has failed
Sociologist Fabio Villa, the School Against Drug Addiction’s director, told Zenger the strategies to fight drug trafficking had failed worldwide. It is a “lost war in the world, and Colombia is no exception.”
When processed with chemicals in the labs, the coca leaf produces pure cocaine, which has more value in the market. Crack is the residue of pure cocaine. Its cost is lower, but it is more deadly.
Villa said the production of cocaine and crack continues to increase. “The most concerning issue is that synthetic products are replacing it [the coca leaf]. We are no longer talking about plants. People around the world are producing synthetic cannabis and cocaine.”
“There is no question the human consequences of the fight against drugs are terrible, and more so for countries like Colombia and even for the United States. The war on drugs has brought deaths and more deaths, and corruption, too. It has resulted in narco politics that violate all ethical and moral values when handling public and citizen issues. The balance is completely negative.”
The consumption issue is also problematic, Villa said. The prevalence of psychoactive substance consumption at some point has risen within the Colombian population, according to the 2019 National Survey.
Colombia lacks a government policy to fight drug trafficking
Arenas said Colombia lacks a comprehensive state policy to fight drug trafficking. Each government holds its own strategy. To date, Colombia has implemented the National Rehabilitation Plan (1982), Social Solidarity Network (1994), National Alternative Development Plan (1996), Forest Ranger Families Program (1999), and each has been integrated into the Plan Colombia strategy.
The government of Juan Manuel Santos created the Comprehensive National Program to Replace Illegal Crops in 2017. It was part of the Final Peace Agreement signed with the FARC-EP guerrillas in November 2016.
“The Government commits to creating and launching a new Comprehensive National Program to Replace Illegal Crops, which would produce tangible and intangible conditions [to support the] well-being and quality of life of the populations affected by illegal crops, particularly, peasant communities living in poverty level, that currently survive from these crops,” stated Decree 896 of the president’s office.
The Duque administration (2018–2022) launched the Ruta Futuro Program. It focuses on reducing drug use through prevention and care, attacking the drug supply, dismantling criminal organizations and hitting organized crime’s economy and income, while helping the affected communities move toward legal economic activities.
A new government in Colombia must comply with the steps the Peace Agreement established in the chapter devoted to the war on drugs. “It is a guiding principle of alternative development adopted by the United Nations Assembly in December 2014,” said Arenas.
“An interesting step forward in terms of the rights of the [affected] communities would be seeing the next government respecting those steps the Constitutional Court has already declared executable,” he said.
Translated by Gabriela Alejandra Olmos; edited by Gabriela Alejandra Olmos, Melanie Slone and Fern Siegel
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