Washington's war on drugs is failing. Does this former guerrilla have the answer?

Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, center, is promising dramatic changes to the nation's drug policies. Petro is in 2nd place behind Ivan Duque in many polls. If no candidate wins half the vote in the May 27 race, the two leaders will face each other in a June 17 runoff.
Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, center, is promising dramatic changes to the nation's drug policies. Petro is in 2nd place behind Ivan Duque in many polls. If no candidate wins half the vote in the May 27 race, the two leaders will face each other in a June 17 runoff. Gustavo Petro campaign

Gustavo Petro wants to wage war on Washington’s war on drugs.

Running in second place in Colombia’s May 27 presidential race, Petro — a one-time mayor, senator and leftist guerrilla — says he’s prepared to lock horns with President Donald Trump over drug policy, saying the hemisphere needs to prioritize saving lives over demonizing narcotics.

The United States has spent more than $10 billion dollars on fighting Colombian cocaine by fumigating crops and trying to force farmers to plant substitutes for coca. But both have failed, and this South American nation remains the world’s top producer of coca.

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Meanwhile, the hemisphere is hemorrhaging with deaths that can be traced back to the drug trade that keeps the streets of Miami and New York awash in coke, weed and pills. Ten of the world’s top 11 most murderous countries are in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the World Bank.

“Drugs are so demonized that it’s politically correct to say ‘let’s ban them and start a war,’ but we never consider the consequences,” Petro told a group of reporters Tuesday. “Trump is building his regressive [counter-narcotics] strategy on top of these failures.”

Petro wants to roll out a series of economic and social programs that will give Colombia’s poor coca farmers true alternatives and undermine the power of drug cartels. His most controversial idea is “land substitution” — letting farmers swap their substandard plots of land for others in more fertile areas.

It’s the type of idea that has allowed his political rivals to caricature him a “Castro-Chavista” — a socialist willing to expropriate land as he turns Colombia into a new Venezuela or Cuba.

Petro, 58, rejects those who label his ideas as “leftist.” He prefers to call himself a “progressive.” And while he was a member of the now defunct M-19 guerrillas — a leftist group that seized the Palace of Justice in 1985 — he maintains that he worked as a community organizer for them and never resorted to violence. Petro says his main focus, if he wins a four-year term, will be fighting the effects of climate change and promoting equality and social justice.

But he acknowledges that Colombia’s cocaine crisis is unavoidable — and one that keeps the country in the world’s spotlight.

Drugs have played a central role in Petro’s political ascent. During his time as a crusading senator, from 2006 to 2010, he rattled the country by helping prove that drug cartels and paramilitary groups had deep ties in congress. As a result of the “para-politics” scandal, more than 35 percent of Colombia’s senate ended up in jail.

As mayor of Colombia’s capital from 2012-2015, he treated the city’s narcotics problem as a healthcare crisis, once again raising hackles when he proposed using medical marijuana to wean users off hardcore drugs.

A widely cited poll by Invamer gives Petro 31 percent of the vote — putting him 10 points behind Iván Duque, who’s running as the ideological successor of former president Alvaro Uribe and his Centro Democrático party. Sergio Fajardo, the former mayor of Medellin and governor of Antioquia, is in third place with 13 percent.

If no candidate wins at least half the vote, the top two contenders will meet for a June 17 runoff. And that’s giving Petro hopes that he may hold the keys to the Casa de Nariño presidential palace.

Wearing a red zip-up sweat shirt, jeans and black loafers, Petro is often accused of being aloof and pedantic. And his views on drugs are often dismissed as being too liberal and “soft” to be feasible. But it’s also clear that he sees narcotics as an existential threat to the region.

As Mexican drug cartels have punched into South America and joined forces with local operators, they’re creating powerful mafias that “are killing us, they’re destabilizing us and they’re not allowing us to build democracy in this country because they aren’t allowing us to live in peace,” he said.

“Today, the battle lines aren’t being drawn by the Cold War of the 20th century — it’s not revolutionary guerrillas versus an oligarchic state, it’s a mafia war,” he said. “And it could be much more difficult to resolve."

President Juan Manuel Santos, who will step down this year, built his administration on the back of a peace deal with the hemisphere’s oldest and largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. But since that deal was signed in 2016, other armed groups have stepped in to fill the void and cocaine trafficking remains bloody and unabated.

Petro said that without deep reforms to education, healthcare and the farming sector, there will always be the threat of armed actors.

“Ending a war in Colombia is not the same as building peace,” he said. “And we have two centuries of experience in that.”

In some ways Colombia remains Washington’s hostage. Petro said that until America and Europe legalize drugs, Latin American countries will have to suffer the consequences.

But that dynamic may be changing as the rate of opioid-related deaths spikes in the United States.

“North Americans are quitting cocaine and starting to use different types of opioid that are killing them,” he said. And that might make Washington realize that their approach to drugs isn't working.

Petro said that, if he wins the presidency, he’ll call for a drug summit to analyze the region's mistakes and find ways to reduce the number of "dead that have been left across the American continent.”

Eventually, he predicts, drugs will be legal. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen while I’m in power.”

*This article initially misstated the duration of Colombia's presidential term.