Gustavo Petro Wants to End the War on Drugs

Colombia’s leftist president, Gustavo Petro, has plainly declared the war on drugs a bloody failure.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 19: Colombian president Gustavo Petro addresses the United Nations General Assembly, September 19, 2023. (Adam Gray / Getty Images)

“The war on drugs has failed.” Colombian president Gustavo Petro made this statement in his inauguration speech on August 7, 2022, marking one of the priorities of the first leftist government in Colombia’s history. Petro aims to turn around the drug policy of his country, which leads cocaine production worldwide and was the closest ally of the United States in the relentlessly violent fight against drug trafficking. The military strategy, according to the former guerrillero turned president, has produced a “genocide” that has cost the lives of “a million Latin Americans.”

Under the title “Sowing life, we banish drug trafficking,” the government has presented a roadmap to guide Colombia’s drug policy until 2033. The new plan shares some goals with previous ones, such as eradicating ninety thousand hectares of illegal coca leaf cultivation and reducing cocaine production by 43 percent. However, its approach is very different, as the goal is for sixty-nine thousand hectares to be eradicated voluntarily, promoting alternatives for the farmers who grow the leaf.

For decades, Colombia’s fight against drug trafficking has primarily been an assault on farmers who produce coca, a leaf that is also used for licit purposes such as infusions or even fertilizers. In Bolivia, coca has constitutional protection as cultural heritage for its traditional use by indigenous peoples; in Colombia, it has been stigmatized, as in a famous campaign that called it “la mata que mata” (the plant that kills). The new policy distinguishes between the leaf and the cocaine made from it.

“Petro has said that he is not going to fight small crops; he is going to fight industrial crops. And the small crops are either voluntarily substituted or they stay there,” explains Sandra Borda, a political scientist at the Universidad de Los Andes. “Before, we fought all illicit crops, including those of small farmers, and that created serious problems, confrontation between communities and the army … and it has never had any results.”

Today an estimated 115,000 families in Colombia make their living from coca leaf cultivation, and the government wants fifty thousand to switch to licit activities, such as using the leaf for legal purposes or acting as forest rangers to prevent deforestation, as coca cultivation is one cause of the destruction of the Colombian Amazon.

The crop substitution strategy is not new; it was included in 2016 in the Peace Agreements between the State and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. But the cultivation areas for coca production have not stopped growing, according to UN estimates, suggesting the failure of both voluntary substitution and forced eradications. Seven years after the peace agreement, one of the leaders of a municipality where crop substitution was first tried claimed that “the commitments agreed over with the government have not been fulfilled — the productive projects never arrived.” In the absence of economic alternatives, some families have returned to coca cultivation, and illegal armed groups have reappeared in the village, explained the community leader, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.

The failure of the previous crop substitution program is due to the lack of “a territorial approach, taking into account the dynamics of the territories where coca is grown,” said Carolina Cepeda, a political scientist at Javeriana University. Petro’s plan, on the contrary, “tries to weave participation mechanisms to incorporate the knowledge of coca growers.”

An added challenge is that “the peasant communities will continue to be at the mercy of the social order imposed by the armed groups” that control the coca-growing areas, as Ana María Rueda of the Ideas for Peace Foundation explains in El Espectador. In fact, some participants in the crop substitution program have been murdered by paramilitaries or FARC dissident groups.

A Comprehensive Policy

The Petro government’s new drug policy does not focus on police and military repression but on industrial crops, with the aim of inflicting losses of between $55 and $86 billion on drug trafficking finances. At the same time, the government has shown its willingness to negotiate with drug traffickers, a strategy that Cepeda believes is wise: “The iron fist policy has been shown not to work; negotiating is surely a more efficient way to deal with the problem.”

Seeking disarmament agreements with criminal organizations is part of the “total peace” policy with which Petro wants to end decades of armed conflict in Colombia. “It is about offering a reduction in sentences and keeping part of their economic resources, as long as they dismantle the criminal structure, return assets, make reparations to victims, and assume criminal responsibility,” explained Justice Minister Néstor Osuna in Ctxt.

The repression against coca growers has resulted in numerous casualties and has also caused serious damage to the environment and health, especially through the spraying of crops with glyphosate, a substance classified as “probably carcinogenic” by the World Health Organization. Conservative president Iván Duque (2018–2022) purchased 263,000 liters of the herbicide less than two weeks before Petro, who has refused to use it, took office. “Previous policies saw these [environmental] issues as collateral damage,” notes political scientist Sandra Borda, while the new policy is “comprehensive.”

The Petro administration’s plan also changes the government’s approach to drug users. “Problematic consumption must be confronted with controlled supply centers, with therapeutic and sanitary support,” says Minister Osuna. The sociologist Estefanía Ciro, who directed the drug area of the truth commission on the Colombian armed conflict, said in a telephone conversation that the new policy “promotes destigmatization, user protection, and risk reduction,” although she specifies that “it is the same strategy that has been followed since [former president] Juan Manuel Santos, and so far there is no real [economic] investment.”

Drug Diplomacy and the Legalization Debate

For decades, Colombia has been a loyal ally of the United States in its war on drugs. “With Plan Colombia, [former presidents Andrés] Pastrana and [Álvaro] Uribe [managed] to receive money for the fight against drugs and use it in the anti-insurgency fight” against the guerrillas, explains Cepeda.

Joe Biden’s administration has not made any public statement on Colombia’s new approach to drugs, but Ciro believes that “the new drug policy has the full support of the US. It is based on the document of the Congressional Commission on Drug Policy in the Western Hemisphere, which coined the term ‘holistic policy’ that Gustavo Petro used from the beginning.”

The Colombian government has also sought support throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Last September, it brought together more than thirty countries from the region at a conference in Cali. The chief guest was Andrés Manuel López Obrador, president of Mexico, which shares with Colombia the tragic record of tens of thousands of war-on-drugs deaths. But the meeting was overshadowed by the differences between the two governments: López Obrador has shifted during his presidency from promising negotiations with the cartels under the slogan “Abrazos, no balazos” (hugs, not bullets) to a much more prohibitionist stance, similar to those of previous Mexican presidents.

International alliances will be one of the keys to the success or failure of Colombia’s new drug policy. The other is implementation. In the words of Cepeda, “The drug policy must be ‘given teeth’; it must be translated into concrete policies, so that it is not easy for anyone who comes along in three years to change it.”

A notable absence in the new Colombian drug policy is legalization. Last December, a proposal to regulate the marijuana trade, promoted by Senator María José Pizarro of the Historical Pact, was rejected for the fifth time in parliament, where the government does not have the majority. More controversial is the issue of cocaine: Petro affirmed that if it were legalized, “it would automatically end violence in Colombia,” although he emphasized that this “does not depend on [his] will.”

Estefanía Ciro believes that legalization “is the way to diminish the impacts of the cocaine and cannabis market in terms of human rights violations. There is not going to be a glimmer of peace until there is legal regulation under principles of social justice.”