As FARC signs cease-fire, will Colombia's cocaine trade decrease?

Colombia has hashed out a cease-fire with the FARC, a guerrilla group whose decades-long conflict with the government has cost more than 200,000 lives.

John Vizcaino/Reuters
A police officer stands guard near a coca plantation in Cano Lajas, Guaviare province, Colombia in May 2016.

In November 2013, the chief peace negotiator for the Colombian government, Humberto de la Calle, stood on the tarmac of a Bogota airport and spoke before members of the Columbian press. 

"We want a Colombia without coca," the plant used to make cocaine, he said, "and with that goal in mind, we want to reach an accord with the FARC," the rebel group with whom the government had been fighting for more than five decades.

US and Colombian officials say that the FARC has long funded its operations through the cocaine trade. The coca plant, Mr. de la Calle said, reported El Espectador was "the fuel that feeds the conflict and crime," which have cost more than 200,000 lives since the 1960s. 

On Thursday, the FARC's leader, Timoleón Jiménez, finally signed a cease-fire pact with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, seen as a final step before sealing a permanent peace and disarmament deal in coming months. The agreement includes a commitment from the FARC to combat the production and trafficking of illegal drugs, substitute other crops for former coca fields, and a government promise to devote massive spending toward a viable alternative for people in areas once controlled by the rebels.

But in a country where huge swaths of territory – and a sizable chunk of the population – exist outside the reach of much state administration, many feel trepidation about FARC's potential promises.  

Recent historical precedents lend them credence. In 2005, the state signed a demobilization agreement with the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and most of its 20,000 to 30,000 members put down their arms. 

But from the ranks of mid-level commanders, many of whom were already involved in drug trafficking before the disarmament, sprang a new generation of traffickers with well-established networks and control over terrain. They devolved into what the Colombian government calls the BACRIM (for the Spanish "bandas criminales" – crime groups), and they play a central role in the country's drug trade.

"Everybody went through the motions," Adam Isacson, a security-policy expert at the Washington Office for Latin America, a think tank and human rights group, says in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "They all got their pictures taken handing over their weapons in a ceremony. But 15 or 20 percent of them went back into the business."

The FARC, on the other hand, is reportedly more worried about another precedent: The last time they put down their weapons, in 1980s, thousands of members of their affiliated political party were murdered in retribution.

Under the terms of the eventually-hoped-for peace accord, the FARC is supposed to help the government eradicate coca crops. In return, the government has to effectively build a modern state in remote areas, committing to development projects such as building roads, and creating more equitable land ownership for farmers. 

Colombia's annual coca production has fallen drastically over the past decade. But it has risen again within the past few years, much to the dismay of US law enforcement authorities. The Colombian government halted aerial eradication of the crop in 2015 after the World Health Organization declared that the herbicide used put nearby residents at a higher risk of cancer.

Very little, Mr. Isacson says, will constrain demobilized FARC members who already have a hand in the drug trade, except perhaps the power of other trafficking groups.

"I do see mid-level commanders maybe going through the motions of demobilization, but if they've got control over a particular corridor for trafficking, they may not leave it just because their leaders in Havana [for peace negotiations] tell them to," he says.

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