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Colombia truth panel calls for move toward ‘legal regulation’ of drugs

An aircraft sprays coca leaf crops with glyphosate in rural Tarazá, Colombia, in November 2020. (Reuters)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombia’s truth commission on Tuesday called on the government to stop focusing on prohibiting illicit drugs — a cause of violence, it said, in the country’s decades-long civil conflict — and instead become a global leader in “strict legal regulation.”

The panel, appointed as part of the 2016 peace accord between the government and rebel groups, also called for a transformation of the country’s armed forces and an overhaul of its failed approach to suppressing a flourishing cocaine trade that’s responsible for more than 90 percent of the drug’s supply in the United States.

The commission’s recommendations are part of a final report to serve as the most detailed account yet of the atrocities committed by all sides in the country’s 52-year civil conflict, the longest-running in the hemisphere.

The commission gives a scathing critique of Colombia’s war on drugs, a joint effort with the United States, the country’s most important ally. It recommends a new approach to combating the cultivation of illicit crops, centered more on sustainable development and less on the eradication of coca, the base plant of cocaine.

“The current drug policy is ineffective in preventing consumption,” the panel writes in a nearly 900-page report. “The policy of the war on drugs and narcotrafficking has been a factor in the persistence of conflict and violence in Colombia.”

It did not provide more details of which drugs should be decriminalized, or how they would be regulated. The recommendations are advisory, not binding. They would require government action to implement. But Colombia’s president-elect, Gustavo Petro, said he would comply with the report’s recommendations.

The commission envisions sweeping reforms to the country’s justice system, calling for greater independence for the attorney general’s office and more robust investigations into human rights violations. It urges the government to separate the national police from the Defense Ministry, an unusual structure that critics say has led to a militarization of law enforcement. It calls for a comprehensive review of military doctrine and more transparency and disciplinary oversight of security forces. It says the state must ensure compliance with international standards for the use of force, and should consider reforming or eliminating the country’s controversial riot police force.

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The recommendations follow four years of research and more than 27,000 interviews with victims, government officials, civil organizations and participants on all sides of the country’s complex history of armed violence. The commission plans to release the full report in installments in the coming weeks. It is expected to shed light on human rights violations committed by Colombia’s military and armed leftist rebels — as well as previously unreported details about the role of the United States, which provided training and billions of dollars of funding to the country’s armed forces.

Its report presents stunning new figures capturing the toll of Colombia’s conflict: More than 450,000 people died, more than 121,700 were “forcibly disappeared,” some 50,000 were kidnapped, about 8 million were displaced from their homes, and more than 16,200 children and teenagers were recruited to armed groups.

Some recommendations differ sharply from the approach taken by the administration of President Iván Duque, who has supported eradication of coca and a militarized response to drug trafficking. Critics say Duque, who opposed the peace deal, has failed to adequately implement the accords. As violence grows in rural Colombia, so has coca cultivation, which has tripled since 2012, according to U.S. figures.

The report comes at a critical juncture for Colombia, just over a week after voters elected the country’s first leftist president. Petro and Vice President-elect Francia Márquez, who will take office in August, attended the truth commission’s ceremony Tuesday.

“The approach to the truth cannot be one of revenge,” Petro said. “It must be seen … as the possibility of reconciliation.”

Duque, notably, did not attend; he was traveling out of the country.

Petro has been a fierce critic of the war on drugs, and has said he would support legalizing marijuana. If he manages to move the country in the direction of “legal regulation” of drugs, as the truth commission recommends, he could draw strong opposition from the United States, which has long hailed its relationship with Colombia in combating the drug trade.

The Biden administration has taken a more holistic, harm-reduction approach than its predecessors to counternarcotics strategy in Colombia. But it seems unlikely that the U.S. government would support legalization of a drug as addictive and harmful as cocaine, said Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“With a midterm election going up there’s not going to be a lot of courage in the Democratic Party to endorse this,” Isacson said. But a move toward legalization would be “almost entirely a win for Colombia.”

“If you could take the profit out of the drug trade you’d take so much of the money out of organized crime,” Isacson said.

Neither the U.S. State Department nor the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá immediately responded to requests for comment.

“The report of the [commission] symbolizes the end of a process of listening and the beginning of a stage of reflection on the past and the future,” the embassy tweeted. “We hope that the plurality of voices present in this story will make real the rights of victims and reconciliation.”

The civil conflict grew out of generations of armed violence and land disputes in rural parts of the country. Beginning in the 1960s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the leftist rebel group known as the FARC, took up arms, railed against inequality and sought to overthrow the government.

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For decades, FARC insurgents terrorized the country with kidnappings, bombings and other attacks. At its peak, the group, buoyed by cocaine profits, boasted nearly 20,000 fighters and controlled as much as a quarter of Colombia’s territory.

As the FARC gained power, paramilitary forces rose up across the country to fight the rebels — sometimes with the complicity of the country’s armed forces. The Colombian army, backed and trained by the U.S. military, responded with brutal force, often against innocent civilians.

In April, top military leaders accepted responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity in an infamous scandal known as Colombia’s “false positives” case. Between 2002 and 2008, an estimated 6,402 Colombians were killed by government forces in what the military labeled falsely as combat deaths, according to the country’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace. Top military leaders used the body counts to show they were winning the war.

The commission, in its final report Tuesday, says these were “not isolated cases.” It placed “institutional responsibility” on the armed forces.

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Through the 2016 peace deal, for which then-President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, more than 13,000 FARC combatants disarmed and committed to reintegrating into society. The government committed to comprehensive reforms to help prevent further violence.

But much of the country continues to suffer from armed conflict. FARC dissident groups, led by rebels who have rejected the peace deal, and paramilitary groups continue to terrorize and displace residents. The rate of killings of human rights defenders and environmental activists is among the highest in the world.

Tuesday’s ceremony was held in a Bogotá theater named after Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the presidential candidate whose assassination in 1948 helped set off decades of violence in the country.

Colombia’s peace process follows similar post-conflict transitions around the world, such as in South Africa and Uganda, and in Latin America, as in Peru, Uruguay and Argentina. But unlike the others, the commission’s report takes an intersectional approach, with separate chapters focused on the conflict’s impact on women, LGBTQ people, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.

“Why didn’t the country demand that the guerrillas and the state bring an end to the political war?” asked Francisco de Roux, president of the truth commission. “How did we dare let this happen? And how dare we allow it to continue?”