Carlos vilalon Coca leaf children

The Colombian Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition (the Truth Commission) published its final report in June 2022. In a pioneering move it urged the new government to legally regulate drugs in order to end violence.

Transform staff member Mary Ryder has worked closely with the Truth Commission throughout its operation, as part of her PhD which explores the impact of prohibitionist drug policy on people who use drugs within the context of Colombia’s armed conflict. Here she reflects upon the importance and accomplishments of the drugs working group, to which she contributed.

Drugs trafficking as a protagonist in Colombia’s armed conflict

The Truth Commission’s final report was the culmination of three and half years of work investigating the causes and consequences of decades of armed conflict in Colombia. Its mandate explicitly called for an investigation into the highly intertwined relationship between Colombia’s armed conflict and the cultivation of illegal crops, the production and commercialisation of illegal drugs, and the laundering of assets derived from drug trafficking.

There have been many truth commissions across the globe, seeking to investigate historic human rights abuses as part of a conflict resolution process. But Colombia's was the first truth commission in the world to meaningfully investigate the role of drug policy in an armed conflict, and to dispute the continuation of the global drug control regime, in recognition of its damaging and counter-productive impact on Colombia’s transition from war to peace.

A team was tasked to explore these linkages between drugs policy, drugs-trafficking and armed conflict, and to develop a wide-ranging set of recommendations to support the transition to peace. We sought to expand upon existing research that has tended to reduce illegal drugs-trafficking to a means of funding armed groups and financing the war. This critiques the entrenched political discourse that simplistically blames illegal drugs-markets as the source of all problems in Colombia - a narrative that has been used for decades to delegitimise the political struggle of non-state actors and marginalised social movements.

Tumaco, Colombia

Over three years of listening to interviews with victims and perpetrators of violence, we explored the following key themes:

  • The ways in which different armed groups in Colombia interacted with and controlled drug production, trafficking and consumption in the regions under their control;

  • The conflation of counter-insurgency efforts with drug policy and the militarisation of state-citizen relations in these regions;

  • The transformation of the armed forces diverted from citizen protection to drug eradication and enforcement;

  • The impact of forced eradication on the socio-economic well-being of marginalised communities;

  • Campaign financing and the corruption of politics and public institutions from illegal drug market profits.

  • The exploitation of women in drugs-trafficking networks and the gendered impacts of counter-drugs efforts.

In doing so, the symbolic power of the ‘war on drugs’ narrative and its underlying prohibitionist paradigm was laid bare and disputed. In particular, we explored how the securitisation of drugs issues in Colombia constructed the ‘narco’ drugs-trafficker as ‘public enemy number one’ and the overriding national security priority.

The Commission’s findings show a complex web of entangled networks, composed of political, armed and civilian actors involved in the production, supply or use of illegal drugs, which have had a significant influence on the security, politics and economy in the country. This is presented in chapter 6 of the final report ‘There is future if there is truth: findings and recommendations’, the book ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and three additional case studies which expose the repression and stigmatisation of coca-growing farmers in the armed conflict; the militarisation of Colombia’s Macarena region under the logic of the ‘war on drugs’; and the victimisation of people using drugs (all available online in Spanish).

The last of these, “From the war on drugs to the drug war” is a case study that I researched, and was published by the Truth Commission as part of a series of publications to complement the key findings of its final report in greater depth. It explores the stigma, exploitation and persecution of people who use drugs, particularly young people, in Colombia’s armed conflict. It concludes that the constant victimisation of people who use drugs has perpetuated and degraded Colombia’s armed conflict. See our related Anyone’s Child blog for more on this.

Based on 14,000 interviews with over 27,000 people in Colombia and in exile abroad, including victims, military and political leaders and former combatants, as well as official political documents, the Truth Commission's final report concludes that Colombia's political conflict has not been helped, but rather has been exacerbated and degraded by the vast resources poured into fighting the ‘war on drugs’ over past decades. It demands that Colombian leaders now recognise how drug trafficking has penetrated the country's culture, economy and politics and how the global drug war is continuing to drive its armed conflict today.

Crucially, it does not just make a critique of the counterproductive nature of punitive drug war enforcement and then stop, like so many other reports, without proposing a way forward. Based on the key findings presented in the report, it recommends that the new Colombian government leads and promotes an international debate to reform drug policy in cooperation with the United States, specifically including a move toward legal regulation. Such changes are necessary in order to eliminate one of the key structural drivers of violence in the country, and put an end to armed conflict once and for all.

The recommendations fundamentally challenge the conceptualisation of the drug problem as a matter of national security, broadly outlining how to address the violence related to illegal drug production, supply and consumption through a strictly regulated legal market. It calls for an immediate end to the militarised, forceful eradication of coca crops, in order to help reduce rural violence and improve state-citizen relations. It is important to note, however, that this destructive policy remains in full-force in Colombia, and continues to harm the socio-economic lives of coca farmers and their communities, despite the evidence presented in the report.

The groundbreaking Truth Commission report does not go into specific detail on the possible regulatory models but it calls on Colombia to lead this paradigm shift “with the legitimacy and strength that comes from being one of the countries that has suffered the most from the violent consequences of the war on drugs”.

The recommendations also identify the urgent need to revise short-sighted drug policy indicators which have tended to focus on repression, eradication and punishment. Going forwards, factors such as human rights, public health and sustainable development should be considered in order to truly measure the long-term impacts.

Gustavo Petro speaking at the UN

The release of the Truth Commission’s final report and its acceptance by Colombia’s new President, Gustavo Petro, renew prospects for peace in the country and mark the possibility of one of the most significant drug policy reforms in the world. It remains to be seen how much political capital Petro will be willing to expend on implementing his very publicly stated commitments to both domestic policy and the global drug control system (you can read his UN General Assembly speech), a theme that we will be exploring in future Transform blogs.

Photo credits: Carlos Villaron, Steve Rolles, Nathalia Angaritia