Issue 45 - Article 8

Drug-trafficking, anti-narcotics policy and security: another humanitarian cost of the Colombian conflict

December 14, 2009
Ricardo Vargas Meza, Transnational Institute

In the two decades prior to President Alvaro Uribe’s election in 2001, illicit crop production in Colombia grew from 3,500 to 144,000 hectares, representing an annual increase of 25.6%, with Colombia producing more than 70% of the world’s cocaine. This trend was coupled with a worsening of the armed conflict, which according to Uribe was due to guerrillas’ involvement in the drug trade. Drug-trafficking was deemed to constitute one of the main sources of funding for Colombia’s guerrilla groups; according to government figures, between 1991 and 1996 $470 million was raised from the illegal sale of narcotics, representing 41% of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)’s income.[1] To tackle the problem, the government’s National Development Plan 2002–2006 proposed that ‘the battle against terrorist groups, drug traffickers, and transnational organised crime will focus on their financial structures’, that is to say on the illegal drugs industry.

Strategies being used to eradicate illicit crops, such as aerial spraying, forced manual eradication and alternative development programmes have become tools to support the government’s security objectives. Yet the government does not distinguish between those that grow illicit crops for large-scale processing and poor rural communities that have small plots as a means of livelihood. Furthermore, there is an absence of viable development alternatives for these communities, with government programmes just offering subsidies for eradicating crops. There is also a lack of consultation on these programmes, with the government determining their scope and objectives unilaterally, eroding levels of trust between these communities and the state. This has occurred despite the goals expressed in the government’s Alternative Development Programme, which include ‘strengthening social capital and stimulating organisation, participation, and ownership of the community in order to consolidate democratic security and establish the basis for sustainable development in areas free of illicit [crops]’.[2] Despite this discourse of sustainable development, this eradication framework is based on the use of force as a deterrent, which is not an effective approach in areas suffering from problems of severe exclusion and marginalisation. The government’s policy of solely viewing coca cultivation as a financial resource for the guerrillas has led to neglect of the social, economic and political problems affecting coca-growing communities and their humanitarian implications.

An example of the problem with the government’s policy can be seen in the way forced manual eradication programmes have been implemented in practice. They have been used as a weapon in Colombia’s armed conflict, with the first incursions carried out in response to attacks by the FARC, notably on a military unit on 27 December 2005 in the Sierra de La Macarena, which left 29 people dead. The strategy has also been pursued in Nariño and Putumayo departments bordering Ecuador. They have led to protests by rural communities that oppose the violence and forced displacement that accompanies these programmes and their impact on livelihoods.[3] Crop fumigation operations will often affect livestock, crops, pastureland and forest areas; in response to an incursion in Tarazá, Nechí and Valdivia municipalities in Antioqueño region in January 2008, more than 1,500 farmers staged protests, demanding talks with the government over a series of issues, including the suspension of crop spraying, economic assistance for farming families and infrastructure development.[4]

In response to these protests, the government has generally sought to appease rural communities in the short term, rather than resolving the underlying structural problems that prompt them. Meanwhile, eradication strategies continue, often in the form of aerial spraying. For example, on 3 April 2009 a plane escorted by the Colombian army flew over several population settlements in Santa María, Coteje, Cheté, Velásquez and La Fragua, spraying glyphosate over water sources, forests, houses and crops, seriously affecting communities’ health and sources of food and water.[5]

By linking coca producers with the FARC’s financial and support structure, the government has rejected dialogue with the communities involved, prioritising security objectives at the expense of efforts to address complex problems such as the marginalisation of many coca-producing areas. In effect, the government’s overarching ’democratic security’ and ‘territorial consolidation policy’ (CTS) further reinforces and deepens this erroneous policy. Development has become part of the war against drug-trafficking and terrorism, neglecting issues related to serious social exclusion and humanitarian needs. As a result, rural demonstrations and protests will continue, sending a clear message that force is not the answer to Colombia’s drug problem.

Security and development strategy

The CTS is implemented according to the progress achieved in the government’s military offensive in particular areas. Targeted areas are:

Areas where guerrillas have retreated.

  1. Zones where paramilitaries have demobilised.
  2. Border areas, where the influence of the guerrillas is generally contained.
  3. Areas where insurgent groups have retreated but continue to be concentrated.

In the first two categories, a combination of military force and aid is designed to increase the legitimacy of the armed forces by addressing the basic needs of communities where military offensives have occurred, including health and infrastructure work. This is carried out through the government’s Centre for the Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI), which brings together various government ministries. Interventions in the last two categories, border zones and areas where insurgent groups have retreated, consist of military offences and vast aerial spraying, aimed at preventing the insurgents from profiting from the illegal drug industry.

Additionally, in categories one and two, interventions seek to further establish the agrarian model that is currently being pursued in Colombia. This consists of strengthening large-scale cattle ranching and agro-industrial plantations with the aim of increasing the export of products such as African palm and bio-fuels. Controversially, the land used has often been acquired through the violent expropriation of rural, indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. Their livelihoods are further disrupted by the activities of extractive industries, including mining, petroleum and timber, often forcing communities to relocate and polluting local water and food sources. These areas are also targeted for infrastructure projects that connect points of production or resource extraction with international transport outlets in order to facilitate their export. The result is a development model characterised by increasing inequality that exacerbates social exclusion through mass displacement and the erosion of livelihoods and ultimately priorities security objectives.

These structural problems are at the root of the continued production of coca in the rural areas to which the poorest sections of Colombian society are banished. As such, the government’s anti-narcotics policy addresses the effects, rather than the causes, of what is a complex problem. Recurrent social unrest, high levels of crime in cities such as Medellín and other departmental capitals, the persistence of forced displacement, increasing criminal violence and burgeoning illegal activities, including coca cultivation – all are symptoms of a socio-economic model that continues to exclude a large segment of Colombian society.


With the integration of illicit crops and armed conflict and the criminalisation of coca growers, the government has also blurred the distinction between civilians and combatants, further exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Colombia. The war on drugs has in fact concentrated on coca-producing areas (mainly under guerrilla control), with far less radical action being taken against other elements in the production chain. As a result, the power of drug-traffickers is growing in terms of their control of territory, the privatisation of security and the reconfiguration and cooption of the state. In the face of these facets of the problem, current policies are deficient or non-existent. Meanwhile, in the rural, indigenous and Afro-descendent population, humanitarian needs have been aggravated. When these populations resort to coca as a way out, they are attacked not so much for engaging in illicit activities, but rather because the production of coca provides resources to the principal enemy of the state. On the other hand, these communities also face pressure from other armed actors and the private sector as they seek to take control of natural resources in the territories that they occupy. In light of this increasing humanitarian crisis, there needs to be a serious rethinking of government counter-narcotic strategies, differentiating between security objectives and the underlying problems that drive communities to engage in cultivating illicit crops.

Ricardo Vargas Meza is a Social Research Associate with the Transnational Institute (TNI), a think-tank that combines research and advocacy on issues related to global security, the environment and social movements.

[1] National Planning Department, National Development Plan, ‘Towards a Communitarian State’, 2002–2006.

[2] National Planning Department, Conpes 2318, Alternative Development Programme, 2003–2006, 3 March 2003.

[3] See ‘Choques entre cocaleros y policías’, El Tiempo, 1 September 2007.

[4] Antioquia Farmers’ Association, ‘La legitimidad de la protesta social en el marco de la erradicación de la coca en el Bajo Cauca Antioqueño: Consecuencias y proyecciones’,  January–March 2008.

[5] See Diakonia, ‘Fumigaciones en Timbiquí afectan proyectos de seguridad alimentaria’, Field Report, Popayán, 12 May 2009.


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