Can ‘Peace Colombia’ Contain Booming Drug Trade?

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US President Barack Obama announced he will ask Congress for $450 million to assist Colombia’s transition from civil conflict to peace, but will it help avert the impending shakeup of criminal underworld and curb explosive growth in the drug trade? 

Obama said the significant boost in aid — Colombia currently receives roughly $300 million annually from the US — is intended to help the Andean nation consolidate any peace deal with Marxist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). The Colombian government and the FARC may be close to signing a final peace agreement after several years of negotiations and more than five decades of conflict.

“Just as the United States has been Colombia’s partner in a time of war… we will be your partner in waging peace,” Obama said

With this announcement the United States marks the next phase of Plan Colombia, the massive aid package which has provided $10 billion to the Colombian government over the past 15 years, with much of the funds going towards police and military assistance. Obama said the new aid package will be called “Peace Colombia.” 

According to a White House fact sheet, Peace Colombia will look to achieve three broad goals: 1) consolidate and expand progress on security and counter-narcotics while assisting with FARC reintegration; 2) increase state presence and rule of law in rural areas, especially former conflict zones; 3) promote justice and other “essential services” for victims. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The Obama administration has outlined a solid strategy that addresses some of the most pressing security challenges facing Colombia in a post-conflict environment. However, the country’s fluid criminal dynamics could make implementation difficult. 

With peace on the horizon after over 50 years of war, the Colombian underworld is at a crossroads. The FARC are in control of an enormous criminal empire thanks to their involvement in the illicit drug trade, and it is unclear what will happen to that empire once they sign a peace deal.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of FARC Peace

It is possible that some FARC elements will switch allegiance to their guerrilla cousins of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) instead of demobilizing, transferring decades of criminal expertise and criminal economies in the process. It’s also plausible that holdout FARC factions could criminalize completely, and begin working under the umbrella of narco-paramilitary groups known as BACRIM, or “bandas criminales.” 

Another obstacle is the explosive growth of coca cultivation in recent years. The number of coca hectares shot up nearly 40 percent in 2014 and 2015 is likely to have seen similar, if not even higher, expansion in drug crops. With as much as 70 percent of coca grown in FARC-controlled territory, this has provided a major influx of cash to the rebel group’s income.     

Following a peace deal, Colombia’s illegal armed actors will look to fill the criminal power vacuum left by a demobilized FARC. In order to prevent a recycling of criminal economies and violence, the US and Colombian governments will have to identify how the winds are shifting in the underworld — and adjust their strategy accordingly. 

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