The meeting between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and President Donald Trump on Thursday focused heavily on the drug trade, something both leaders have targeted during their time in office.
Colombia — the world’s biggest producer of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine — has struggled to crack down on drugs, and the recent peace deal with the left-wing FARC rebels has been viewed as an opportunity to remove a major producer and trafficking group from action.
As a part of that deal, Santos’ government and the FARC have agreed to implement a crop-substitution program, giving the poor Colombians who rely on coca crops for their livelihoods an alternative to the drug business.
When asked about Trump’s emphasis on a border wall to halt the flow of drugs into the US, Santos outlined his government’s anti-drug efforts.
“We are doing a very big effort, because of the peace process, to have a new strategy: carrot and stick.”
“Stick, by forced eradication: We have already eradicated this year only 15,000 hectares, which is the whole volume that we eradicated last year, and we’re starting … to substitute voluntarily through a program where the peasants — and we have 80,000 families already in the program — that they are going to substitute for legal crops, and this is the first time that this could be done, because of the peace.”
“Before, the conflict did not allow us to build roads and to give these peasants an alternative.”
Farmers responsible for nearly 34% of the coca produced in Colombia have signed on to the plan, which would see them replace more than 63,000 hectares of coca with legitimate crops.
In that part of Antioquia, officials were optimistic about the effort, especially because alternative crops like coffee would be viable there. But such alternative crops are not an option everywhere in Colombia, and even in places where they are, logistical issues — like having proper roads to get crops to market before they spoil — and commercial challenges have made farmers resistant to substitution programs.
“It’s the only plant that makes it here,” Jesus Oscuro, who has fields in northeastern Colombia, said of coca earlier this year. “We don’t have anything else.” Many growers are wary of the government, skeptical that it will follow through on the eal. Some have even violently blocked government coca-eradication teams from reaching fields.
Adding to that resistance are criminal groups — including dissident FARC groups — who have moved into the areas the FARC has vacated and, in some places, threatened farmers who would otherwise stop growing coca.
This month in the town of La Uribe in central department of Meta (formerly a FARC stronghold), Santos formally eradicated the first of the coca plants to be destroyed under the deal. But a group thought to be dissident FARC rebels made its objections to the plan known, distributing a pamphlet stating its intention “to desist from the so-called peace process and continue fighting.”
Several days later, a UN Office on Drugs and Crime worker was kidnapped in the department south of Meta, allegedly by the same group.
A few days after Santos’ visit to La Uribe, the country’s post-conflict minister appeared in a town in Putumayo department, a major coca producing area on Colombia’s southern border, to speak about development projects.
The next morning, local coca growers found pamphlets outside their homes cautioning them against accepting the substitution program.
“We will be active along the entire border region where ever there are guerrilla community leaders, no matter where they are,” read the pamphlets, left by an unidentified group, according to Colombia Reports. “We will be there where ever necessary. Better think about it.”
Criminal groups are not the only ones trying to slow or reverse the move away from coca.
Recordings leaked a few weeks ago allegedly caught members of the military stationed near La Uribe trying to bribe FARC rebels to abandon the peace process and, in effect, the crop-substitution plan.
The threats these groups have made are not idle ones.
Since the peace deal went into effect at the beginning of December, two community leaders in the Putumayo region have been assassinated.
In Guaviare, the department where the UNODC worker was kidnapped, 33 community leaders have been killed since the peace deal was signed — many of them slain in what was FARC territory.
Earlier this month, the UN reported that 41 social activists had been slain in apparent politically motivated killings through the end of April. The Colombian government disputed the figure, saying 14 had been killed and 1o more deaths were being investigated. More than 60% of the killings happened in places were the FARC had a military presence.