Culture Politics

Colombia: A Battleground for the Ages

By Nikhil Bandlish

A relic of an age once the envy of the entire world: The Amazon. Stretching from Suriname to Bolivia, the vast ecoregion covers over 2.1 million square miles – the majority of which falls within Brazil – and is home to over three million species of animals and plants. Yet, beneath the canopy of this natural behemoth lies more sinister and lethal elements than Piranhas and Anacondas: humans. Or, in this particular case, narco-traffickers.

While much has been made of Jair Bolsonaro’s indifference to the survival of the species within the region in Brazil, Colombia faces a unique enemy in the jungles. The rise and fall of drug lord Pablo Escobar was followed by much fanfare, and as a result his very existence (or lack thereof) continues to fascinate the world and torment his opposition in Colombia. His legacy has failed to pass with him, and consequently the country risks devolving into a battle for supremacy between rival cartels, government forces, and various other paramilitary and splinter groups. These ‘factions’ are all informally connected via cocaine production, which has soared in recent years despite the efforts of the U.S. and Colombian governments. So how has it come to this? How has a nation so determined to rid itself of drug-related activity seen consistent year-on-year increases in Coca cultivation?

Plan Colombia

As part of a global initiative to wage ‘war on drugs’, the U.S. federal government pumped funds into Latin America with the express intent of combating the production and distribution of narcotics, namely cocaine. Although the policy itself was popularised by Nixon in 1971, it was not until over 25 years later that they gained any sort of foothold in their fight. After 20 years of dogged skirmishes between the government and Pablo Escobar, he was killed in a shootout in 1993, paving the way for Colombia to rebuild itself.

In 2000, the U.S. officially backed “Plan Colombia”, which promoted itself as a diplomatic, economic and military support package for Colombia to continue the fight against drug manufacturing. A hallmark of this plan was the use of aerial coca eradication chemicals; glyphosate herbicide, to be spread via planes and helicopters throughout eastern and southern areas of Colombia that had seen mass cultivation over the years. For 12 years, it was considered a success by proponents of the policy; coca cultivation dropped 72% between 2001 and 2012. All was not, however, as it seemed.

Although the process of eradication was effective, its inaccuracies were what caused the most problems. For one, coca plantations were invariably close to agricultural villages and land; the chemicals would on many occasions destroy the crops of nearby farmers. Naturally, there were no GPS systems to guide them, so this inexact science would eventually lead to innocent farmers bearing the brunt of government aggression. In reality, if a plantation was eradicated by the government, the cartels would just move further into the jungle anyway, as well as recultivate destroyed plantations once the government had finished their sweeps.

Respiratory illnesses, diarrhoea, skin rashes, fever, dizziness, burning eyes and various skin infections. It is thought that during the years of the mass coca-poppy eradication initiative, these ailments were present in some form in approximately 80% of children. The U.S. officially described the chemicals as soap-like substances, yet few believe these chemicals were not responsible for endangering the lives of people, and nature. The plan was abandoned in 2012 due to these very concerns, and thus the cartels were able to rebuild their production apparatus with little to no resistance.

The premise of this article was a recent U-turn by the Colombian government as they plot a comeback for aerial crop eradication. In 2017, the total area of coca cultivation was approximately 171,000 hectares, an increase of 17% from 2016. For perspective, a FIFA approved football pitch is no more than 0.82 hectares. The city of Venice totals approximately 41,000 hectares. So it is safe to say that there is a growing problem emanating from the cartel strongholds in the south of Colombia, as their efforts since 2012 have failed to bear fruits.

Standard military tactics include formulating a grid search, and sending teams of two to individually destroy these plantations, an endeavour that takes time to complete, and risks an already dwindling supply of soldiers. So in the face of stern scientific opposition and human rights concerns, the U.S. backed Colombian government is prepared to take this seemingly drastic action. But regardless of its outcome, the current state of affairs represents a major foreign policy failure from the U.S; an estimated USD 1 trillion has been spent in the last 40 years, albeit throughout Central America as well as Colombia – but to no avail. To compound these failures, drug production and indeed demand, have shown no signs of slowing down. How then does the country progress from here?

Scorched Earth

While there are several methods, none have been successful as of yet. Rumours of the U.S. decertifying Colombia as an ally in the “War on Drugs” were validated by the Trump administration. Clearly frustrated with a lack of support from Duque in Colombia, a decertification would result in a total loss of economic and military aid, putting further pressure on an already stretched Colombian military. Although it may be a valid policy argument, it seems unlikely that this would happen. By 2016, Just over 90% of cocaine that was consumed in the U.S. originated in Colombia: Pulling out of the region completely would almost certainly shift the balance of power further toward the cartels. At this critical juncture, where both supply and demand are sky-rocketing, it seems implausible that an industry so heavily motivated by money, of which there is plenty going round, will seriously consider laying down their arms. 

Neither are they starved of manpower. In much of the low-income areas, children face a choice between a life of poverty, minimal education and prospects, or the safety and security provided by the cartels. A brotherhood, bound by circumstance and desire for perseverance. A personification of an ultimate rags-to-riches story, embodied and embraced by a generation who have been brought up with a tribal instinct and a moral obligation to loyalty.

The scorched earth approach may be the only way for the government to regain a foothold in this fight. There will undoubtedly be fierce opposition from the agricultural industry, but one would assume (and hope) that with technological and medical advances, the mistakes of the 2000’s can be avoided this time around but with no guarantees, it will remain a controversial and divisive move.

In the face of such a formidable adversary, how the U.S. and Colombia approach the next stages of their war will be watched and analysed with much intrigue. It does, however, look likelier than ever that it is a war they cannot win.

Nikhil Bandlish is The International’s Latin America correspondent.