Over the past four decades, the war on drugs has forced numerous Colombians to sacrifice their lives. As corruption has spread without limits, criminal organizations have become more powerful than ever, exporting from our territory ninety percent of the cocaine that is consumed around the world. This war is a lost cause, so instead of continuing the hopeless fight, Colombia needs to change the context by taking control of coca leaf production.
On July 20, 2018, more than three decades since my first election in 1986, I returned to the Colombian senate under very different circumstances. The most important difference was that I no longer had Luis Carlos Galán by my side. Galán, the leader of our promising political force back then, had been assassinated in August 1989 due to his work to stop the advance of drug trafficking in politics and in national life.
Five years earlier Rodrigo Lara, another colleague, was brought down by bullets while he was serving as Minister of Justice. We were young and dreamed of expanding democracy; modernizing the country; and bringing about progress, social justice, and peace. For these aspirations, we were targeted by hitmen hired by drug traffickers who hijacked public life while hiding behind the cover of traditional politicians.
Since then it has been clear to me that the circumstances under which the battle for the future of Colombia has been fought are absurd ones. On one side is an ideal of civilization, rooted in humanism and armed with reasons and words. On the other are criminal organizations with huge illegal fortunes armed with bombs and machine guns, willing to unscrupulously impose their empire. Their immeasurable cocaine business, born in the noses of millions of consumers in rich countries, extended to the furthest reaches of the Colombian jungles.
After four decades of this uneven battle, we know that they are winning. Today, Colombian drug cartels export 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States—around 1,040 metric tons of high-quality cocaine derived from coca leaves grown by more than 250 thousand peasant families on nearly 200 thousand hectares of land, nestled in the depths of our mountain ranges.
These criminal structures deploy their strength up and down territories with armies of hired assassins, armed to the teeth. Cartels have also usurped enormous political power across all state institutions by buying consciences on the left and the right. These criminal enterprises deploy candidates in every election: to the presidency, Congress, mayorships, and councils of municipalities large and small.
It is evident that the criminalization of narcotics and psychoactive substances that the United Nations has promoted for over fifty years does not affect the majority of signatories in the same way it affects Colombia. Consumer countries demand action and punishment, and Colombia pays dearly for the consequences of this asymmetry.
In the logic of this war, if cocaine is not produced in Colombia, there would be no drug trafficking nor cocaine consumers in other countries. Therefore, the issue is to confront crime in Colombian territory. Punishments of all kind then ensue: crops are irrigated with poison, plants are uprooted by force, bullets are fired against armed criminal bands, etc. It is war, and Colombia is the battlefield despite the fact that other countries also contributing to the problem.
This logic is too simple. Coca leaves are cultivated and processed throughout the country. This business moves trillions of dollars every year and is controlled by powerful criminal organizations that dominate through blood and fire. Drug trafficking dominates huge extensions of the Colombian geography and has corrupted, as I already mentioned, the country’s social and political tissue. It is in this infernal scenario that our country has been, and continues to be, destroyed.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic this precarious world of drug trafficking becomes even more dire. Not much is known about the conditions in areas of Colombia where cartels dominate because military intelligence and war operations are carried out in shadows of secrecy, and only reports of these events transmitted by unofficial sources reach the Congress. The news we do hear is about atrocious events: massacres; assassinations of social and indigenous leaders, human rights and environmental activists; forceful displacement of communities; and bombings in which dozens of children die.
Cartels have taken advantage of COVID-19 lockdowns to assume the role of local governments and place their own lockdown restrictions. However, these restrictions are excessively constricting and do not comply with human rights standards. The enforcement of these restrictions is even more horrifying: Colombians have been violently threatened, pushed out of their homes, and killed for violating cartel rules. Cartels have dominated life in regions where coca leaves grow by controlling supply chains into their territories, dictating food allocation, and limiting access to hospitals and banks. These ruthless organizations enslave populations—using the pandemic to establish rule and institutions in areas where coca leaves grow. There are no hospitals or doctors to attend to sources of contagion and provide necessary medical care. Under cartel rule, human beings are spare parts in the production chain, and those who don’t wish to be there must flee because if they protest, they die.
If the United Nations were to observe the situation from the perspective of the jungles of Colombia, the regulations they promote would be very different. It would be worth it if the situation were seen from the bottom up and not, as always, from the top down.
In Colombia, we are looking for ways out of the trap of the war on drugs that prioritize public health and human rights. I recently introduced a bill, currently being discussed by the Congress, which proposes to regulate the production of coca leaf and all its derivatives, including cocaine. I presented it with Feliciano Valencia, an indigenous leader of the Nasa community that inhabits a southern area of Andean mountains where the coca leaf grows. Other congressmen have signed the bill, which we hope will be voted on soon.
The bill requires the state to buy all the coca leaf produced by peasant farmers at market prices and then transform it into various sorts of goods. Cocaine would only constitute a minimal part of these products and would be distributed to Colombian consumers through health and safety protocols in personal doses for medical purposes, which are deemed legal by the Constitutional Court. The rest of the coca leaf inventories would be sold as raw material to traditional and artisanal industries that produce food, beverages, medicinal goods, and fertilizers derived from coca leaf, all of which do not pose any health risks. In short, the state would monopolize the coca leaf market and supply consumers with their necessary personal doses of cocaine. The cocaine market will be significantly reduced and controlled based on medical need. As a result, drug traffickers would be pushed out of the system.
If the Colombian state can remove from the market the production of the 200 thousand hectares of coca leaf that are cultivated in its territory, the supply chain that supplies 90 percent of the world cocaine markets would collapse. Cocaine manufacturers would have no raw material to process, and the supply of cocaine would dramatically decrease. Cocaine street prices would then skyrocket causing demand to fall.
We know that the bill we presented to Congress will not be approved overnight or even in the two years remaining in this legislative session. The political forces that make up the majority in government are averse to this idea. Moreover, because the war on drugs discourse has helped those in the majority come into power, they will not abandon it as long as it offers them electoral results.
The battle to change the idea of prohibition for that of regulation is in the minds of voters. That is where our proposal gains ground. Though we have lost in this discussion before, the novelty is that the proposal to regulate the production of the coca leaf and its derivatives, including cocaine, has opened up a social conversation based on objective conceptual options and concrete information in relation with personal freedom and the effectiveness of the war on drugs. For two or more generations, prohibition of cocaine was a dogma; it was taken for granted as an incontrovertible truth. Now Colombians are beginning to wonder if it is time to choose another alternative since what we have been doing all along has failed. In the next elections, for the first time, before casting their vote, citizens will ask the candidates: what will you to fix this issue?
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Iván Marulanda is a member of the Colombian Senate for the Green Party. He graduated from the Faculty of Economic Sciences of the University of Antioquia (1968). He was mayor of Pereira and a member of the City Council of Medellín. He worked for the National Planning Department (DNP), the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Economic Development. He was Senator from 1986 to 1990 and was a delegate in the National Constituent Assembly (1991). From 1992 to 1994, he was Ambassador of Colombia to the United Nations Agencies based in Rome (FAO, WFP, IFAD). He has been a consultant for the OAS and the UNDP for tasks in countries of the Andean Region and Central America. Social researcher. He wrote for decades for Colombian newspapers. He has been an executive and advisor to companies and private sector associations. He was the Vice-presidential candidate for the Liberal Party (2006).
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