Rethinking the War on Drugs in Colombia

Author: Bo Carlson, Research Intern (Summer 2020), Center for Strategic and International Studies

2016 was a turning point in the two wars that have ravaged the Colombian countryside for over 60 years. The first was a civil war waged between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, for their Spanish initials), a leftist guerrilla group. After a decades-long insurgency, the FARC finally agreed to lay down their arms in exchange for lenient sentencing, reintegration for ex-combatants, and other reforms.[1] The second, which continues to this day in Colombia, is the War on Drugs. Although the government has reduced its use of controversial forced eradication programs in the last few years, its new voluntary crop substitution program appears to be equally ineffective, resulting in more cocaine exports, not less. Colombia should instead embrace an alternative approach that focuses on long-term development goals and a gradual decrease in cocaine production.

Three Approaches to the War on Drugs

Since the 1980s, Colombia has been a major exporter of cocaine.[2] Coca plants, from which drug traffickers derive the key ingredient for cocaine, grow in the periphery of the country.[3] Most coca plants are located on small plots and grown by smallholder farmers, or campesinos, who have few alternative economic opportunities.[4] Drug cartels, left-wing rebels like FARC, and right-wing paramilitary groups often employ these campesinos, with the implicit threat of violence if they fail to comply.

Violence and insecurity peaked in the 1990s, with the city of Medellín gaining the dubious distinction of “murder capital of the world” in 1995.[5] Since then, Medellín and other urban centers have made remarkable improvements and are now far safer than many U.S. cities thanks to private sector investment, public development projects, and high-profile arrests of drug traffickers.[6] However, the periphery of the country continues to suffer from economic underdevelopment, state neglect, and extortion from criminal groups.

To combat drug trafficking, the Colombian government has at least three strategies at its disposal.

  1. Forced Eradication: Military and civilian personnel can destroy crops by plane, drone, or manual fumigation.
  2. Voluntary Eradication: The government can incentivize campesinos to rapidly substitute their coca plants for legal crops as a prerequisite to receiving government benefits.
  3. Alternative Livelihoods: In this approach, inspired by Thailand’s success in combatting illicit crops, the state could invest in human capital, job creation, and security provision in rural communities.[7] Only after at least five years would farmers be expected to eliminate crops.

After choosing one of these three broad approaches, the Colombian government can tailor the strategy to local conditions. Policymakers can also choose to complement any of these strategies with interdiction—arresting traffickers, destroying labs, and stopping shipments en route to transit and destination markets.

The rest of the blog evaluates whether forced eradication has worked in the past and interrogates the consequences of the current voluntary substitution program.  It then turns toward a program of alternative livelihoods, explaining why this is likely to be the most successful of the three strategies. The blog draws upon Vanda Felbab Brown’s January 2020 report, Detoxifying Colombia’s Drug Policy, for the bulk of the analysis, but it also integrates research from the Bogotá-based Fundación Ideas para la Paz and findings from economists Daniel Mejía, Mounu Prem, and Juan F. Vargas.

Has Forced Eradication Worked?

Prior to 2013, forced eradication was the main component of Colombia’s counternarcotics strategy. On the positive side, forced eradication produces visible, rapid reductions in the number of hectares with coca crops. Between 2007 and 2013, during a sustained aerial eradication campaign, both the U.S. government and the United Nations estimate that coca cultivation in Colombia fell by about 50 percent.[8]

However, forced eradication also comes with problems. In many cases criminal groups simply move from drugs into illegal logging, mining, wildlife trafficking, and extortion. Coca is relatively easy to grow, so they may also plant the crop in a new area.[9] Given criminal groups’ adaptability, most of the harm from forced eradication falls on the individual campesino. Aerial spraying of herbicides can also harm neighboring legal plots and radicalize poor farmers. In 2013, then-President Juan Manuel Santos began to decrease the use of aerial eradication, and in 2015, his government ended it completely after a World Health Organization body identified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic.”[10] Manual eradication can prevent harm to bystanders, but it too carries major risks. Colombian police report that between 2001 and 2016, 153 manual eradicators have been killed and 500 injured, mostly by land mines and traps planted by criminal groups.[11]

            The Trump administration has pressured Colombian policymakers to resume aerial spraying using both carrots and sticks. In September 2017, President Trump told his Colombian counterparts that he reserved the right to decertify the country as a cooperating partner in the War on Drugs, unless they agreed to return to eradication.[12] After the Colombian government moved toward resuming fumigation, Trump nearly doubled his request for funding from Congress to go toward counternarcotics in Colombia.[13] Russell Crandall, a former NSC Director for Latin America, has warned of narcotization in the U.S.-Colombia relationship, in which U.S. policymakers allow the War on Drugs to outweigh all other concerns.[14] Under Trump, U.S. policy toward Colombia has taken several steps in that direction.

            In the few examples outside of Colombia where forced eradication has worked to sustainably eliminate illicit crop cultivation, governments have had to first reduce conflict in the area, then establish a strong state presence, and finally be willing to use violent repression against civilians. Vanda Felbab-Brown notes that China in the 1950s, Myanmar in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Vietnam and Laos in the 1980s and 1990s are the only potential success stories, but each has its own limitations. The human rights violations that accompanied these cases make them an undesirable model for Colombia today.[15]

Has Voluntary Substitution Worked?

            During peace negotiations in 2014, the government and FARC delegations publicly agreed to a crop substitution program that would provide material incentives to coca farmers who switched to legal crops.[16] The Comprehensive National Program for the Substitution of Crops for Illicit Use (PNIS, for its initials in Spanish) began operating in 2016, and since then, about 100,000 families have registered. 94 percent of enrollees have complied with their part of the agreement, but nearly 90 percent of them have yet to receive full payment from the government.[17]

            While the government’s crop substitution program was well-intentioned, the design and implementation have led to negative outcomes. After coca cultivation fell between 2007 and 2013, the number of hectares planted has steadily increased, reaching an all-time high in 2019.[18] In addition to the usual bureaucratic obstacles—poor funding, lack of coordination with other development agencies, and inadequate evaluation—the very idea of a crop substitution program created perverse incentives for campesinos.[19] When farmers realized in 2014 that they would be rewarded for eradicating a certain number of hectares, they naturally began to plant more coca crops. When three economists at Colombian universities measured the magnitude of this effect, they found that coca-suitable regions doubled their area devoted to coca plants after the announcement.[20] And even when coca farmers cooperate, they must give up all their income at once and then wait for an inefficient government apparatus to provide them with benefits.[21]

What Are the Prospects for an Alternative Livelihoods Approach in Colombia?

            Given the collateral damage of the forced eradication model and the perverse incentives of the voluntary substitution program, Colombia urgently needs another approach. Fortunately, they can learn from Thailand, which took nearly 30 years to combat illicit crops but now stands out as the most durable case of poppy eradication in the world.[22] In Thailand, government officials started by developing education and healthcare access in rural communities, as well as investing in infrastructure and offering land titles and microcredit.[23] After several years of involvement in these development efforts, farmers would be required to reduce their crops in stages.

            By switching from a substitution-first model to an alternative livelihoods approach, Colombia will not only see a long-term reduction in coca cultivation, but also a more general improvement in the security and wellbeing of rural communities.


            The main obstacle to reform may not be a shortage of technical knowledge, but rather the disconnect between politicians’ short-term interests and the long-term requirements of an alternative livelihoods approach. For that reason, I’ll end the blog with three recommendations to advocacy groups, Colombian politicians, and U.S. diplomats who recognize the need for reform.

  1. Advocacy groups should consider embracing an alternative livelihoods model, rather than defending the current voluntary substitution program. Given the dramatic increase in coca cultivation under PNIS and the perverse incentives at the heart of the program, it is increasingly difficult to argue that the current system is the right one. Instead, advocates should press for more dramatic, long-term change and wait for Colombian leaders who are willing to endorse it.
  2. Colombian reformers should expand the conversation around narcotics to include development and security. By drawing urban voters’ attention to the endemic issues in rural areas, they can increase sympathy for campesinos and forge a consensus in favor of development. They should also highlight the ways in which rural development can benefit urban centers through increased tourism and investor confidence.

Officials in the State Department Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs and the Embassy in Bogotá should resist pressure to narcotize the U.S.-Colombia relationship. When Colombia attracts attention from the White House, Congress, Drug Enforcement Agency, and State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, too often it is because of a sudden increase in cocaine exports. Diplomats who know the region best should push back on demands to immediately halt cocaine production, recognizing that a sustainable counternarcotics approach takes time and there are more issues involved in the U.S.-Colombia partnership than coca production.

[1] Claire Felter and Danielle Renwick, “Backgrounder: Colombia’s Civil Conflict,” Council on Foreign Relations, Jan. 11, 2017,

[2] June S. Beitel and Liana W. Rosen, “Colombia’s Changing Approach to Drug Policy,” Congressional Research Service, Nov. 30, 2017, 1,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nicholas Casey, “After Decades of War, Colombian Farmers Face a New Test: Peace,” New York Times, July 18, 2017,

[5] Stanley Stewart, “How Medellín Went from Murder Capital to Hipster Holiday Destination,” The Telegraph, Jan. 4, 2018,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Vanda Felbab-Brown, Detoxifying Colombia’s Drug Policy: Colombia’s Counternarcotics Options and Their Impact on Peace and State Building (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, Jan. 2020), 2,

[8] Beitel and Rosen, 2017, 11,

[9] Sophia Sadinsky and Ramón Campos Iriarte, “Broken Promises in Colombia’s Coca Fields,” Open Society Foundations, October 23, 2019,

[10] Since the 2015 WHO report, there have been a number of conflicting studies. For more details, see Ibid., 7; and World Health Organization, IARC Monographs Volume 112: Evaluation of Five Organophosphate Insecticides and Herbicides, March 20, 2015,

[11] Joshua Goodman, “Coca’s Comeback Forces Colombia to Rethink Drug War,” Associated Press, July 18, 2016,’s-comeback-forces-Colombia-to-rethink-drug-war#:~:text=That’s%20an%20area%20twice%20the,largest%20supplier%20of%20the%20drug.

[12] June S. Beitel and Liana W. Rosen, “Colombia’s Changing Approach to Drug Policy,” Congressional Research Service, Nov. 30, 2017, Summary,

[13] “Trump pidió más dinero para Colombia si retoma fumigaciones,” El Especatador, March 12, 2019,

[14] Russell Crandall, “Explicit Narcotization: U.S. Policy Toward Colombia During the Samper Administration,” Latin American Politics and Society vol. 43, no. 3 (Autumn 2001), 95,

[15] Felbab-Brown, 2020, 7,

[16] Daniel Mejía, Mounu Prem, and Juan F. Vargas, “The Rise and Persistence of Illegal Crops: Evidence from a Naïve Policy Announcement,” Social Science Research Network, Oct. 7, 2019,

[17] Felipe Puerta and María Paula Chaparro, “A Death Foretold: Colombia’s Crop Substitution Program,” InSight Crime, April 1, 2019,

[18] Christine Armario, “US report: Colombia coca production still at record high,” Associated Press, March 5, 2020,

[19] Juan Carlos Garzón, Juan David Gélvez, and José Luis Bernal, “En qué va la sustitución de cultivos ilícitos? Desafíos, dilemas actuales y la urgencia de un consenso: Informe 6” Fundación Ideas para la Paz, April 2019, 11-12,

[20] Mejía, Prem, and Vargas, 2019, 3,

[21] Felbab-Brown, 2020, 10,

[22] Ibid., 11.

[23] Ibid., 12.

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