BOGOTA, Colombia—The continued flow of drugs from Colombia to the United States has become a point of contention between the two countries, as Washington loses patience with Bogota’s lack of progress in curbing drug production.
While leaving a political event on migration in Florida on March 29, President Donald Trump complimented Colombian President Iván Duque for being “a really good guy,” but went on to criticize him for not doing enough to stop the boom in cocaine production.
“He said how he was going to stop drugs. More drugs are coming out of Colombia right now than before he was president—so he has done nothing for us,” Trump said. Duque has since hit back, stating that “nobody tells Colombia what to do.”
Local media have reported that U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, had held secret meetings with Colombian congressmen ahead of a vote on the Colombian Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a tribunal created to investigate and try war crimes during the conflict.
Whitaker allegedly lobbied politicians to vote in favor of modifying the tribunal in order to facilitate the extradition of an ex-commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who Washington says is implicated in trafficking hundreds of millions of dollars of drugs into the United States, or risk losing $500 million in U.S. aid.
Cocaine Production At Record Levels
Duque, Colombia’s youngest-ever president, was elected on June 17, 2018, on a conservative platform and was the most U.S.-friendly candidate on the ballot. He was believed to hold strong affinities and personal relations with the U.S. administration. When he and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met in Cartagena in January, he thanked Pompeo for the Trump administration’s support of his government, noting the many years of friendship between the two countries. Colombia is one of the United States’s closest allies in Latin America.
Now, however, Trump’s patience appears to be running thin with Colombia’s failure to tackle cocaine production, which stands at record high levels.
It was hoped the historic 2016 peace accord with FARC, a Marxist guerilla group believed to have been a major player in the drug trade, would reduce cocaine production and its flow into foreign countries such as the United States, the largest global consumer of the drug.
But despite the peace agreement and around $400 million being pledged by the United States—and $300 million from the U.N.—to tackle the problem, cocaine production has surged.
In 2017, production of the drug rose 31 percent to around 1,543 tons cultivated on 660 square miles of coca plantation, a historic high according to a report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime released in September 2018.
In August 2018, Duque pledged “concrete results,” but his administration says they are limited by the suspension of aerial coca fumigation using the chemical glyphosate, a decision made in 2015 by then-President Juan Manuel Santos following warnings by the World Health Organization that the chemical could be linked to cancer.
Plans to use drones to spray coca crops, the base ingredient of cocaine, have since stalled following criticism.
Pompeo brought the issue back into the spotlight on April 14 during a visit to the city of Cúcuta on the Colombia–Venezuela border to discuss the spiraling economic, political, and social crisis next door which has caused more than a million Venezuelans to flee to Colombia.
Pompeo used a softer tone, stating the United States would “continue to work” with Colombia to stem drug flows and “do its part to reduce the demand for illegal drugs in our own country,” while saying the Colombian leader had “inherited” the issue.
On April 15, Colombian Defense Minister Guillermo Botero told reporters that the government is eager to start aerial spraying again, but a judicial ban on aerial fumigation, backed by the Constitutional Court, is standing in the way.
Meanwhile, other approaches are being considered, he said. “We are looking at other alternatives like a pest that can penetrate the coca [plant], but all that needs solid scientific support.”
Adam Isaacson, Andes Analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, said that to really quash cocaine production, the Colombian government needs to come up with a long-term strategy.
“I think the fact that demand has stayed constant is important, and the government has not given farmers alternatives that are viable in the short term,” he said, noting that 120,000 Colombian households currently survive off the crop, with no economic alternative.
“Also, the growth in illegal economies is due to the immense [money-making] opportunities that were taken advantage of by the groups looking to fill the vacuum left by the FARC.”
FARC disarmed itself in June 2017 and reformed as a legal political party, in accordance with the terms of a peace deal. However, thousands of FARC dissidents— rebels who refused to take part in the peace process, or who took part but later abandoned it—are still involved in drug trafficking.