Stop Fixating on Drugs, Colombian President Tells U.S.

Colombian President Juan Santos, who met President Trump at the White House yesterday, says the U.S. needs to change its hardline drug policy to focus on harm-reduction and the wider illicit activities conducted by transnational crime cartels.

Washington needs to widen its anti-drug efforts to focus on international crime, says Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos.

Speaking to the Atlantic Council, a Washington, DC think tank,  Santos said the U.S. needed to recognize that transnational drug cartels were deeply involved in many other illegal activities that threatened international security.

“These criminal structures also benefit from human trafficking, as well as illegal mining and illegal deforestation,” said Santos, who was in Washington to meet with President Donald Trump, whom he called a “pragmatic leader.”

[Trump returned the praise during their White House meeting yesterday, citing Santos’ successful effort to end the half-century conflict between left-wing guerrillas and the state that has cost thousands of Colombian lives. “I really congratulate you,” Trump told Santos during a joint news conference, reported USA Today. “There’s nothing tougher than peace,” .]

[During their meeting, Santos pressed Trump to continue his predecessor’s commitment to support the peace agreement worked out between the militant group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC) and the government earlier this year.  Congress approved President Barack Obama’s request of $450 million in aid for Colombia in 2017, but that may get slashed in the upcoming battle over the 2018 budget, says USA Today.]

The talks between the two leaders appeared to leave open whether U.S. support for “Plan Colombia,”  a linchpin in efforts to eradicate Colombia’s cocaine trafficking, would continue.  The 1999 plan, developed under then-President Bill Clinton’s administration and supported  by then-Colombian President Andres Pastrana, has achieved little, according to many observers.  Seventeen years after the plan came into force, Colombia’s cocaine production has reached record heights.

At the same time, the groups involved in drug trafficking have assumed a multitude of other criminal activity, like illegal gold mining and human trafficking.

Few countries in the region now support a hard-line approach to drug use and drug trafficking,  in stark contrast to the strategy announced by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions this month to toughen prosecution and punishment for drug offenses.

With Santos leading the way, many Latin American countries are urging the U.S. to rethink the military-dominated approach to drug cartels.

Santos has effectively dumped Plan Colombia and — following a peace deal with Marxist FARC rebels last year — has followed Peru’s example to prioritize crop substitution and rural development to curb the cultivation of coca, the plant used for the production of cocaine.

“Colombia is at the point of inflection and will not go backwards.” Santos told the Atlantic Council.

This strategy has been explicitly endorsed by the United Nations and is currently being implemented without much U.S. intervention.

With or without Trump’s support, Colombia plans to tackle crime with a policy that transcends drug trafficking, and includes money laundering, tax evasion, extortion and illegal mining.

Most importantly, the country has begun the problem of drugs as a public health, rather than a criminal issue.

In contrast to Sessions’  counter-narcotics strategy,  Santos has done the exact opposite. His administration has decriminalized the carrying and consumption of drugs and has made drug use a public health rather than a public security issue.

This is an edited version of a story which appeared earlier in Colombia Reports, reprinted with permission. The full version is available here.  Readers comments are welcome.