U.S. must support Colombia’s war on drugs for the sake of regional peace and stability

A soldier stands guard in a Colombian coca field.
A soldier stands guard in a Colombian coca field. Getty Images

Colombian President Iván Duque this week will make his first official visit to Washington, D.C., since his inauguration last year. This trip offers the United States. and Colombia an opportunity to renew and strengthen our strategic alliance, which has become all-the-more important as both nations work with the international community to resolve the crisis in Venezuela.

For more than 50 years, Colombia endured a brutal and bloody internal armed conflict that almost rendered the country a failed state. Two decades ago, however, our two nations partnered together to create Plan Colombia, a bilateral initiative to strengthen the Colombian government’s institutions and military capabilities.

Out of the violence and insurgency that plagued Colombia rose an economic and security partnership unlike anything else in Latin America. Largely because of the total commitment of the Colombian government and society, Plan Colombia became a model for the strategic partnership that further seeks to consolidate the country’s gains in security, stability and prosperity.

The benefits of robust bipartisan support from Congress and successive presidential administrations over the past 20 years is clear. In addition to continuing to fight narcoterrorists and transnational criminal organizations inside their country, Colombian military and federal police are now capable of sharing their security expertise with other nations in the region.

Unfortunately, Colombia and the United States still face serious challenges. With the cessation of aerial eradication of coca crops as a concession to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a State Department designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, Colombia’s previous administration paid too high a price for a one sided peace deal stunt that has resulted in anything but peace.

Colombia’s coca growth and cocaine production are at record highs over the past two years, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. FARC dissidents, the terrorist National Liberation Army (ELN), the Clan del Golfo and other illicit insurgent traffickers have filled the void left by the FARC.

The increase in drug production is fueling the fire of violence and death in Central America and Mexico. In turn, this continues to destabilize the region and encourage thousands of Central Americans and Mexicans to risk their lives and attempt to enter the United States.

Colombia’s fight is our fight. The United States has an obligation to support President Duque’s new counterdrug strategy. During a bilateral High Level Dialogue, our two nations agreed to reduce the coca growth and cocaine production by half. Meeting this ambitious goal, while difficult, will be important.

The Duque administration has pledged to work the legal process in Colombia to restart aerial eradication. Resumption of spraying may cost upwards of $100 million. The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) should prepare to budget for that now to help support Colombian efforts.

The United States should provide additional support to the Colombian national police and the Colombian military who need training and equipment for increased intelligence support for enhanced operations targeting illegal armed groups, improved intelligence sharing between police and military and increased multilateral counternarcotics operations. We should also provide additional equipment, funding and training to riverine units key to denying the movement of cocaine.

The United States should help with new technology such as unmanned aircraft or drones that can spray coca crops, and should also assist the Colombian government in helping farmers switch from coca to alternative crops like coffee and bananas.

The drug trade has served as the fuel that supports terrorist groups that have worked to undermine Colombia’s peace process. In particular, the ELN has used drug money to bolster their attempts to disable the democratically elected government, including Jan. 17 suicide bombing that killed 22 police officers in Bogota. The United States has a strong national interest in supporting Colombia’s efforts to go after ELN terrorists, including in the border areas with Ecuador and Venezuela.

To complicate matters, the manmade humanitarian and political crises created by Nicolás Maduro and his crime family in Venezuela has led to record numbers of Venezuelans seeking refuge in Colombia and other neighboring nations. Nearly 1 million Venezuelans have fled to Colombia in recent years, overwhelming the latter’s basic services like healthcare, education and housing programs. The United States and international community must continue to support Colombia with humanitarian assistance to cope with this tragedy.

It is in the U.S. national security interests to work with Colombia to keep drugs off our streets that kill Americans and to reduce the illicit flows that lead to violence and instability in Central America and Mexico. President Duque and his administration are committed to dismantling the drug trade, and understand the dangers posed by the cartels not only to their country but also to the region. The United States must make clear we stand with the Colombian people as they reverse recent trends of the previous government and build a safer country under new leadership.

Marco Rubio represents Florida in the U.S. Senate.