Can Alternative Livelihoods Dismantle Colombia’s Narcotics Empire?

As the news about El Chapo’s recapture continues to make headlines, MO* explores Colombia’s narcotics empire to understand how the development of alternative livelihoods is trying to combat the illicit drug trade and production from the inside.

  • © Bibbi Abbruzini A young rapper (with a child on his arm) tries to make a living with his music in the red light district of Bogotá © Bibbi Abbruzini

Lit up buildings rise out of the evening darkness while music pumps and people cheer. It’s a typical Thursday night in La Candelaria in Bogota, with its narrow streets, tiled roofs and colorful houses. In a central public basketball court Juan, with his long hair black clothes and heavy metal look, smokes a joint a couple of meters away from a security guard.

‘I am not like one of those guys who resorts to violence’, says Juan, who asks to have his real name withheld for security reasons. Juan’s backpack contains a long knife, even so he does not have the demeanor of a hardened criminal. ‘One love hermana’, as he drags deeply on his spliff.

In 2014, Colombia’s coca and cocaine production outpaced Peru and Bolivia combined

Juan’s business depends on word of mouth. That’s how he remains a player in the dope game. From his wallet, he takes out a picture of his daughter who stays with his grandparents, while Juan walks his beat in the shadows of the drug tourist infested colonial neighborhood of La Candelaria. Of recreational drugs Juan sells the gamut, but cocaine is his best-seller. In-and-out discotecas, hostels, and pubs, cocaturismo thrives. Coke is cheap and plentiful; if you’re paying fifteen euros a gram, you’re paying too much.

Today, global surveys rank Colombians as happiest people on Earth, and the country is also experiencing a sort of Narco-renaissance. A decade ago, Colombia was seen as a terror rather than a tourism destination. No, Colombia is not like Netflix’s series Narcos anymore, but the real drug kingpins are still around. Over the last couple of years, Colombia replaced Peru as the world’s top exporter of cocaine. In 2014, the country’s coca and cocaine production outpaced Peru and Bolivia combined, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Alternative Livelihoods

The government is about to close a historic peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), the country’s largest guerrilla group. Parties set a target date of March 23 for a final peace accord, now it seems that it could take longer. FARC warned Wednesday that “substantial hurdles” in negotiations could prevent it signing the long-sought peace deal by the initially stipulated date, which comes after nearly 80 years of war.

Drug cultivation and trafficking are crucial aspects of the deal with the Andean nation still plagued by both a reputation and an affinity for cocaine. The main strategy is the promotion of policies aimed at developing alternative livelihoods for communities involved in illicit drugs. UNODC has been continuously supporting Colombia’s counter-narcotics and anti-organized crime strategies with its alternative development program.

‘This is a comprehensive package on intervention with farmers and farming communities to help them shift away from coca to other activities.’

Bo Mathiasen, UNODC Representative in Colombia, in an exclusive interview with MO*, explains how the UN agency has been working in different areas, but the main one directly linked with the problem of coca cultivation in Colombia, is what we call alternative development.

‘This is a comprehensive package on intervention with farmers and farming communities to help them shift away from coca to other activities. These can be farming, eco-tourism or handicraft production, depending on the conditions and the opportunities available in the different regions.’

Since 2007, Colombia’s alternative development projects have benefited nearly 180,000 families. Now, UNODC hopes that the peace deal between the FARC and the government will allow access to large areas where coca is being cultivated but where the UN is still not able to intervene.

‘The peace deal will make it possible to work with such communities in the transition away from illicit drugs to licit alternatives’, says Mathiasen.

Although the program has benefited about 600,000 Colombians the reasons why coca production has skyrocketed in 2014 are still subject to debate. According to UNODC, some insiders have suggested that the increase has to do with the shifting power vacuum created by peace negotiations. Others have argued that the FARC has been encouraging farmers to grow more coca in order to finance their future political life.

Households involved in coca cultivation increased by 6.4 per cent between 2013 and 2014

Regardless of the motivation, this surge in enthusiasm has resulted in the value of coca leaf production and coca derived farm products (coca paste and cocaine base) climbing by 40 per cent. It is now the equivalent of 0.3 per cent of Colombia’s GDP. Households involved in coca cultivation increased by 6.4 per cent between 2013 and 2014, from around 60,000, to almost 64,500. Their average annual income from this activity, which includes producing coca leaf, coca paste and cocaine base, also recorded a rise of 11.5 per cent from $1,040 to $1,160.

‘The good news is the number of families directly involved in coca cultivation has not greatly increased. However, the cultivation area and cocaine production both increased substantially. The hope is that once a transition program will be put in place, it will be easier to help the families involved to improve their quality of life and obtain a licit source of income’, says Mathiasen.

Peace First

Experts argue that ending the violent conflict is a precondition for eliminating the illicit economy, not the other way around.

‘As long as there is conflict, rural communities will also work in parallel with illegal armed troops or non-state actors. Our interventions are in competition with the illicit economy and organized crime, explains Mathiasen.

However, an agreement between the FARC and government, although a big step in the right direction, does not mean that drugs will suddenly disappear. Besides some FARC units, plenty of other ‘drug trafficking sponsors are available’.

Collateral Damage

Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings, told MO* that for Colombia to become a model for social transformation, alternative livelihood are not enough. The country must make sure to tackle exclusion, marginalization and promote social inclusiveness.

‘I think that there are a broad range of alternative livelihoods working. But none of this happens automatically. Expansion of the agricultural industry doesn’t necessarily enable access to coca growers. There are many options but a lot of obstacles to overcome’, says Felbab-Brown.

According to Felbab-Brown national achievements do not reflect the reality everywhere in Colombia. For instance, the southern province of Nariño bordering Ecuador, remains one of the most intense coca cultivation sites in Colombia today. Nariño’s cocaleros (small cocaine growers) are too poor and isolated in the jungles of the Pacific coast to have other alternatives and switch to licit livelihoods.

Felbab-Brown believes that the creation of social commitment to change, coupled with sustained efforts to improve rural livelihoods, might pull Colombians away from coca production in the long run.

Economic and social patterns must change first in order to relieve marginalization, poverty, and coca cultivation or other patterns of illegality and insecurity.

‘Peace is the enabling factor but it’s not the guarantee. Whether or not Colombians will move away from coca production and cultivation will depend on good security on the ground and on peace translating into the good distribution of resources from the rich to the poor and the excluded.’

According to Felbab-Brown’s reports from the field, the only alternative livelihoods effort that succeeded in eliminating illicit crop cultivation on a country-wide level – in Thailand — implemented gradual eradication of poppy as economic development was taking place and legal livelihoods were becoming available in a community.

A few cacao seeds won’t solve the problem. Many families broke the cycle of poverty, paradoxically thanks to the illegality of cocaine. Economic and social patterns must change first in order to relieve marginalization, poverty, and coca cultivation or other patterns of illegality and insecurity.

El Chapo, the wider context and the road ahead

Mexican cartels have extensive ties to the Colombian drug trades, particularly El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel. Following the recapturing of Joaquin Guzman Loera or El Chapo, Sean Penn in the now famous Rolling Stone article quotes the drug lord saying that the day he doesn’t exist, the drugs still will.

Popular culture has long been fascinated with men such as El Chapo and Colombia’s own Pablo Escobar before him; the anti-hero worship of el jefe or the rockstar drug lord is basis for shows such as Narcos.

However, the drab reality for the people living in nations such as Colombia and Mexico touched by such men is disillusionment at all levels in stark contrast with the Hollywood glitz. As Felbab-Brown says, the fondness for high-value-target (HVT) decapitation is a simplistic notion in the drug world.

Young rappers close to Bogotá red light district

Posted by Bibbi Abruzzini on Thursday, July 16, 2015

‘It’s good that El Chapo was captured, not because it will reduce drug trafficking or violence, but because he was a symbol of impunity in Mexico’, says Felbab-Brown.

‘This is not a mission accomplished as the Mexican President stated. The larger problem of the high levels of violence in Mexico, corruption and huge chances of alienation of the Mexican public from official authorities it is in no way addressed by the capture of El Chapo.

What’s a greater source of concern largely left out of the media at the time when El Chapo was captured, is that an appeals court ruling came out which could derail Mexico’s effort to find the parties culpable for the disappearance and presumed murder of 43 students in Iguala.

‘That is at least as significant as the capture of El Chapo. Both are equal symbols of either the improvement in rule of law, and the strength of the law enforcement and judicial system, or vice versa, of their weakness, persistent corruption and inadequacies.’

As Mexico continues to experience a security breakdown related to drug cartel activity and violence, the spotlight has often fallen on the role of the US in its neighbor’s drug war, and the region in general. The Mérida Initiative is one of those exported models inspired in part by Plan Colombia to fight Mexican drug cartels.

The controversial Plan Colombia keeps being labeled in Washington as a “success story”, yet there is an ugly side to its drug control policies.

The controversial Plan Colombia keeps being labeled in Washington as a “success story”, yet there is an ugly side to its drug control policies. Plan Colombia has made the country the biggest recipient of U.S. aid outside the Middle East, yet as Adam Isacson, director of the Washington Office for Latin America, wrote in 2010, ‘Colombia’s security gains are partial, possibly reversible, and weighed down by “collateral damage”.’

A decade and a half and over 10$ billion since the beginning of the program, Plan Colombia has had little impact on coca cultivation but a devastating impact on Colombia and its people. Critiques range from human rights violations and extrajudicial executions to poisonous chemicals in indigenous territories where the coca plant grows.

The aerial fumigation of coca crops funded by the Plan was formally suspended in May 2015, amid concerns that the glyphosate weed killer used in the eradication effort might be carcinogenic. Although a major component of Plan Colombia, the practice had not put a major dent on coca production anyways.

There is little doubt that for Colombia the road ahead is still uphill. Although the country has legalized the use of medical marijuana in 2015, the idea of regional decriminalization of growing and transiting drugs such as cocaine has not yet taken shape. Experts believe that the country needs to focus on restoring peace, investing in social reforms, and ensuring access to opportunities and resources to the most marginalized sections of society if it wants to tackle narcoculture. The answer is not chemical, it’s social and political.

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