Colombia's latest ally in the fight against cocaine: FARC guerrillas

Two planes fumigate coca fields in San Miguel, on the border with Ecuador, some 400 miles south of Bogota, Colombia, on Dec.11, 2006.
Two planes fumigate coca fields in San Miguel, on the border with Ecuador, some 400 miles south of Bogota, Colombia, on Dec.11, 2006. AP

The Colombian government and the country’s largest guerrilla group on Friday agreed to roll out a crop-substitution program aimed at weaning tens of thousands of farmers off of coca — the raw ingredient of cocaine.

The Andean nation has spent more than two decades and hundreds of millions of dollars on alternative development and crop substitution programs, but remains the world’s top cocaine producer.

This, however, is the first time that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, will be partners in the process.

The deal comes as government and guerrilla negotiators have been meeting in Havana for more than three years in hopes of hammering out a peace deal that would allow them to end Latin America’s longest-running and bloodiest civil conflict.

The guerrilla’s chief negotiator, Iván Márquez, called the pilot project, which will begin next month in 10 villages near the town of Briceño, Antioquia, “transcendental” and “new.”

“We can proclaim loudly from Havana,” Márquez said, reading from a communiqué, “that this project — the voluntary substitution program for illicit crops, which is beginning in Colombia — will be a spark that will expand to the four cardinal points.”

The pilot project will be taking place near El Orejón, a community where the army and guerrillas have been working together for months removing landmines.

Eduardo Díaz, Colombia’s anti-drug czar, said the mine-removal project had laid the groundwork for the government and the guerrillas to work together to tackle the thorny drug issue.

Asked what made this effort different from those that have failed in the past, Díaz said this time the pilot project was taking place in the heart of Colombia’s coca country.

Almost 70 percent of the areas that are most impacted by coca-growing have never had access to alternative-development projects, he said.

“This is the beginning of the end of this tragedy,” he said.

Colombia is the world’s largest cocaine producer, and some 60,000 families are thought to make their living off the trade. Díaz said that some 120,000 to 150,000 people depend economically on coca.

But the vast majority are subsistence farmers who are open to viable alternatives, he said.

“Introduce me to a farmer who has gotten rich growing coca and it will be the first one I’ve ever met,” he said.

The International Office for Migration, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be providing support and verification for the project.

The pilot program includes some promising elements, like economic assistance during the transition period, and the buy-in from a wide-array of actors, said Kyle Johnson, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a U.S. based nonprofit that has been, following the conflict.

“Coca growers have clamored for years for this kind of design, ‘I will get rid of coca on my own but you have to provide me with something until I have my first harvest,’” he said. “This will be the closest thing to piloting that kind of design.”

However, the voluntary nature of the program could also be a test for the guerrillas, who will have to convince farmers to abandon the trade.

“The challenge for the FARC will be to show how much influence they will have in these communities that they claim to represent,” Johnson said.

The FARC have long been accused of using the drug trade to finance their war. As part of the peace talks, the group agreed to be part of the solution in eradicating the trade, but details have been scarce.

Friday's news comes amid growing indications that the two parties are on the verge of inking a peace deal. Márquez said he expected there would be more announcements that “will place us very close to peace.”

But there are still difficult issues to tackle, including how the FARC — thought to number between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters — might turn over their weapons. And how the government will protect guerrillas-turned-civilians.

On Friday, Màrquez blamed past administrations for treating coca farmers like criminals. “Their solution was repression, jail and the criminal use” of aerial eradication.

“We ask the international community to help as much as possible,” he said. “That way they can add their valuable grain of sand in helping make this anti-drug policy a success.”