Jan Smoleński, Political Critique: The possession of small amounts of drugs was not an offence in Colombia for some time until it was criminalized again a few months ago. It has even been written into the constitution. Why?
Daniel Mejia: The previous government thought that a policy allowing possession of small amounts of drugs and at the same time takes repressive steps in order to reduce production – I’m talking about destroying drug plantations– is inherently contradictory. It was one of the last decisions taken by the administration of Colombia’s former president Alvaro Uribe. The government decided to remove that contradiction by choosing a worse option.
The previous law was a part of bigger changes in drug policy on the South American continent. What was the source of this liberalization of law, adopted in many countries?
Evidence. I think an approach based on evidence, not on fancies, had finally won. When you look at who was introducing these changes you will notice that they were always the left-wing or liberal parties and the conservatives were against them. In Colombia the changes were proposed by the Left and the liberals have supported them. In its first term Uribe’s government didn’t touch this law, but in the second one it did.
Is the negative impact of this regressive step already evident?
Oh yes. First of all the police use racial and income profiling: it selects its victims on the grounds of their appearance: skin colour or the clothes they wear. In practice rich people are not the victims of repressions, the poor are. The police suspect that they will cause problems. They do not target white people but those with a darker tone of skin. Besides this law is not effective: people detained for possession usually stay in custody for 24 hours and are released because the justice system has no way of dealing with their cases. So in practice criminalization of possession only means that the police have a legal basis for detaining the poor and non-whites.
But such an approach pushes the poor into the criminals’ arms.
That’s true and that’s why this approach is stupid. I have no doubt about it. The problem is that many ordinary Colombians use this law when they ring the police to say young people are sitting under their windows smoking marijuana and will surely steal something soon. And the police explain that it only does what the citizens ask – it arrests those who allegedly cause problems. The society is very conservative.
And who do you mean by ‘ordinary Colombians’?
They are those with a secondary education who live in cities and have children. They are convinced that people taking drugs will cause social problems.
And that’s not true?
I don’t think so. It is true that the majority of those who cause problems – steal or mug – either take drugs or are connected to their production or trafficking. But it’s not true that everyone who is taking drugs causes problems. Unfortunately people confuse these two things.
What about people living in the countryside? Are they also conservative?
The whole of Colombian society is very conservative when it comes to social issues, farmers too. I would even say that mostly farmers.
But they’re mainly farmers who grow coca. They know that drugs are made of it.
Coca is grown in the south, near the border with Ecuador and Peru and in the east, near the border with Venezuela. Local farmers don’t have too many choices. Illegal armed groups tell them that if they want to live over there, they have to grow coca.
Do you mean guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary troops?
And won’t this penalizing law cause people to support these armed groups more willingly?
I don’t think that such a change would make people support drug producers.
I’m asking because when it was first used crop burning increased support for FARC .
Penalizing possession is a different matter and has nothing to do with poor farmers producing coca. It is true however, that the more aggressively the government destroys the crops, the more people support FARC and are suspicious of the police as an institution – because it’s the police that looks after destroying the crops, not the army. These not speculations – we have data to support it.
The farmers are the obvious victims of this war.
No armed group truly supports the farmers. They only defend places where cocaine paste or cocaine itself is produced. If the farmers don’t agree to produce, they lose their land. Initially ELN and FARC were providing basic social services in the land they controlled, they were building roads; but when in 2000 they got involved too much in the drug business, they stopped occupying themselves with that. The increase in production of coca in Colombia resulted in a higher number of homicides, higher number of attacks by illegal armed groups and a higher number of desplazados – displaced farmers whose land was taken by force.
And where does this increase in production come from?
Growth of coca rapidly increased after the air bridge (linking Colombian territory processing cocaine paste into cocaine with crops in Bolivia and Peru) was closed in 1994.
Meanwhile FARC lost its political face and became embroiled in the drug business. There are many reasons for that: firstly Plan Colombia and secondly the military policy of limiting kidnappings, which made the drug business the only source of funding of illegal activity. Unfortunately FARC does not have a left-wing political programme anymore.
Because they don’t have any political goals they could negotiate. During the negotiations between the government and FARC the south of Colombia was free from government troops for three and a half years. Unfortunately nothing has been agreed; FARC didn’t even write down the demands they wanted to negotiate. At the end of the 1980s the M-19 guerrilla group negotiated a peace agreement with the government and was taking part in writing a new constitution for Colombia. Now former members of M-19 are members of the left-wing political parties and one of them was a presidential candidate. FARC have not decided to do that. The free zone has only resulted in the deeper grounding of FARC in the drug business. Then – in my opinion – they lost their ideological spine.
How is Plan Colombia connected to the increase in production?
Plan Colombia was a huge military project which reduced the number of kidnappings, extortions and homicides providing safety to many towns where there was no police. As a result the armed groups, both right-wing and left-wing, lost their source of income: kidnappings and extortions; they were forced to fund their activity through the drug business.
Plan Colombia had two goals: initially the idea was to reduce cocaine production and the area of coca crops by half in six years. It was an ‘American’ goal.
Yes. Why should Colombia worry about cocaine production when almost all of it is exported? Then the idea was to release certain parts of the country from the grip of armed groups; initially by cutting off their source of income derived from the drug business and subsequently using the army’s help in fighting partisans. That was a Colombian goal. As a safety initiative it was a complete success but it was a complete failure in reducing drug production.
But the fierce destruction of FARC caused many violations of human rights, including the killing of innocent people by the army to improve statistics.
That’s true. Under pressure to show results a part of the army committed violations of human rights. Nobody can deny it. They were crimes which should be legally pursued. Colombia will be struggling with these issues for the next ten or twenty years. The last two years of Uribe’s administration was a terrible mess. I think that the authorities lost control over the incentives they were providing to achieve the results.
Then we’re going back to my question: will the further restriction of the law cause an increase in support for FARC or create a new rural guerrilla group?
Violations of human rights were committed by the army, the paramilitaries and the left-wing guerrillas. FARC have committed too many crimes in the last few years. They started using landmines: because of these mines innocent people die. And the society linked these monstrosities with FARC. Support for FARC has significantly decreased in the last fifteen or twenty years. At the beginning of the 1990s FARC were only collecting ‘taxes’ from the farmers who grew coca, but then they became directly involved. From the moment they joined the drug business support for FARC started to drop more quickly. If the guerrillas started to negotiate a peace agreement now they wouldn’t have any social support.
Why is the US supporting a militarized drug policy in Latin America when it does not bring about any desired effects?
There are two reasons. Firstly certain interest groups in the US insist on it. I mean the trade union of prison guards, the Monsanto corporation (a producer of herbicides used in spraying coca crops which earns a lot of money from it) and conservatives. But this lobby is losing its support. California is a good example.
But their referendum on legalizing marijuana failed. Many call it a defeat for the liberalization movement.
Yes, but when you look at the trends you can see that in the last thirty years support for legalization has been growing very slowly but steadily. And the referendum was nearly won. I think that in a few years marijuana will be legalized in California and then in many other states. People are beginning to think that the gun is not a solution to problems with drugs, putting young Afro-Americans in jail doesn’t work. A change of approach is a matter of time. Unfortunately this is a conservative society so we will wait a while for this.
In Latin America different models of dealing with the drug problem are being implemented. Some are repressive while others more liberal. Bolivia accepts coca but not cocaine while Argentina no longer punishes possession. Where do these differences come from?
In Bolivia and some parts of Peru coca is used by Indians in religious rituals. The Bolivian government has not been pursuing any campaigns for destroying coca crops in the last twenty years, saying that it can’t do anything against religious tradition. Argentina and Uruguay do not punish possession, because they have a more reasonable approach to drugs connected with the liberal-leftist governments in these countries. Where the governments are conservative – like in Colombia – we see something completely opposite. I think that the differences come from political beliefs regarding how the drug problem should be solved.
What about Venezuela? It is led by a left-wing president yet the drug policy…
…doesn’t exist. The Venezuelan government doesn’t deal with this problem at all. It doesn’t have a coherent standpoint on possession of small amounts.
But possession is punished.
Yes, in theory. In practice nobody cares. This topic doesn’t exist in the public debate. The government is occupied with other matters and doesn’t have any idea of what to do with drug trafficking, it doesn’t have any consumption policy, no ideas of preventive and therapeutic programs, no damage reduction. Apparently conservative societies – and it’s difficult to find a liberal one in Latin America – have to go through high indicators of drug consumption, AIDS infections, criminality and a period of violence to change policy. Every policy has its costs, none is perfect. Damage reduction too – but it solves many problems which ‘zero tolerance’ policy doesn’t solve but only creates. Medical heroin given to addicts by the state is surely not an ideal solution; it does however take control of drugs away from the criminals and gives relative control over their consumption.
FARC – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the oldest and biggest Colombian guerrilla group. It was established in 1964, originally as an armed wing of Colombian Communist Party.
ELN – National Liberation Army, a leftist political-military organization operating in Colombia since 1964.
*Daniel Mejia is professor of economics at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota. His work focuses on inequality issues and the political economics of armed conflicts, especially the connection between drug policy and the civil war in Colombia.
Translated by Agnieszka Ochman