Colombian election could mark shift in US-led war on cocaine

Left-wing Petro likely to come out on top in Sunday’s presidential poll

Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday could herald a major shift in the South American country’s role in the US-led war on drugs.

After two decades as Washington’s closest ally in its campaign to stamp out cocaine production, several candidates are questioning the effort which, despite billions of dollars in US aid, has failed to dent soaring production. They have called for a discussion on decriminalisation of drug use with some even suggesting cocaine should be legalised.

Left-wing front-runner Gustavo Petro is among those denouncing the drugs war as counterproductive. “In the last 40 years drug trafficking has only been strengthened. It has more power than before, more capacity than before,” he said in a recent interview.

Last year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated production of cocaine in Colombia in 2020 was at a record high. Since launching its war on drugs in 1971, the US has failed to stop the flow of cocaine into the country, while drug-related violent crime has spread right across Latin America and the Caribbean as traffickers expand their reach from producer countries Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.


Petro, who is favourite to top the poll, has not advocated legalisation of cocaine but rather is calling for programmes to entice farmers away from cultivating coca, the plant whose leaf is cocaine’s main ingredient. He opposes the controversial US-backed campaign of aerially spraying the plants with chemicals and has blamed what he sees as a disadvantageous free-trade deal with the US that he says he will renegotiate for pushing farmers into coca production.

Should he win, another possible source of tension between Washington and its closest South American ally could be his opposition to extraditing drug kingpins to face justice in the US. He has accused Colombia’s authorities of using extradition to prevent traffickers revealing to Colombia’s justice system their links with high-ranking politicians and military officers.

Among the other leading candidates, the populist Rodolfo Hernández, whose late momentum might push him into a run-off against Petro next month, is another critic of the war on drugs. “Even in the US it has already been proven that the most dangerous thing about drugs is prohibition,” he argued in one of his campaign posts when calling for the legalisation of marijuana, adding “if we go that way, one day cocaine will be the same”.

Of the three leading candidates only right-wing establishment figure Federico Gutiérrez, who is second in polls behind Petro, is vowing to continue with the country’s current prohibitionist policies and backs the controversial aerial fumigation campaign.

The area devoted to growing coca in Colombia has fallen by 17 per cent since 2017 according to last year’s report from the UN. This though is still higher than two decades ago when records started and due to new coca varieties and better cultivation techniques the country’s potential output of cocaine in 2020 was up 8 per cent on the previous year to a record 1,228 tonnes. This boom in production is in spite of the US funnelling about $10 billion (€9.3bn) in aid to Colombia since 2000, much of which was spent on the military.

The US has faced criticism that its war on drugs is a pretext for advancing other strategic goals in the western hemisphere. Its commitment to winning it was again called into question by critics when the US justice department failed to press charges against Juan Orlando Hernández when he was president of Honduras, despite overwhelming evidence he was using control over the Central American state to facilitate a major cocaine trafficking operation. But Hernández offered to help the administration of former US president Donald Trump, signing a 2019 agreement that allowed the US to deport asylum seekers to Honduras at a time when the migrant crisis on the US-Mexico border was dominating the agenda in Washington. Only after he left office in January was he charged in the US with trafficking over 500,000kg of cocaine to the country since 2004. He was extradited to face trial in New York last month. He maintains his innocence.