President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia

Colombia has paid a heavy price in battling the cocaine trade which at one stage threatened to destroy the country. President Santos, the most outspoken of Latin American leaders on drugs policy, tells Alan Philps that now the consuming nations must share the burden

The World Today
Published 1 August 2012 Updated 31 March 2021 3 minute READ

The war on drugs has failed to curb supply or reduce violence. What do you propose?

Sometimes we all feel that we have been pedalling on a stationary bicycle. We look to our right and our left and we still see the same landscape. There has been an important decrease in the world’s coca crops, mainly due to the great efforts we have made in Colombia, but the market is still huge and the business is highly profitable. My proposal is very simple: we need to start an in-depth discussion, led by scientists and experts, about the ‘war’ against drugs. We have to determine whether we are doing the best we can, or whether there are better options.

What response has there been from the US and Europe to your call for a dialogue?

In April I put this proposal to the heads of state, including President Obama, gathered at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. They agreed to undertake an analysis of the record and prospects of the war on drugs, and to evaluate alternatives. This analysis should be based on scientific evidence, within the framework of shared responsibility. This is a first step, but a very important one.

The burden has fallen mainly on the producing countries such as your own. How can it be shared more equally?

Colombia has paid an enormous cost in economic terms and in human lives. A commitment from the entire international community is required to address the problem as a transnational issue. The responsibility has to be shared among producing, transit and consuming countries, as well as those where drug trafficking money is laundered or which sell weapons that end up in the hands of criminal organizations and guerrillas who profit from the illicit drug trade and spread violence in our countries. This means looking at the drug chain as a whole, including the trade and smuggling of chemical precursors, drug production and consumption, asset and money laundering.

Who profits from the drug trade?

According to the UNODC, the illicit drug market amounts to around $400 billion per year, representing 8 per cent of world trade. Out of this total, the gross profits of the cocaine market amount to $35 billion, of which just $900 million – 2.5 per cent – end up in the hands of the Andean countries’ producers and traffickers, including Colombia. More than 97 per cent of the profits end up in the hands of international traffickers and dealers in the US.

We now know that billions of dollars in drug money ends up in banks in the US and Europe. What should be done?

Teamwork and close cooperation among countries and the private sector is of the essence. During the past decades Colombia has decisively moved forward in order to prevent money laundering and protect the financial system. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has 40 recommendations to prevent money and asset laundering. Implementing these recommendations must be a goal for all nations.

What term should we use to replace the ‘war on drugs’?

It’s true that the world’s drug problems involve a direct engagement against criminal organizations, but this ‘war’ is not the sole component. A comprehensive anti-drug policy should also consider the farmers who grow the coca leaves, who require more social than repressive policies; it should promote a law-abiding society, which is absolutely necessary to overcome the mafia culture of violence; it should include a drug consumption prevention strategy, healthcare for drug users, social reintegration and policies to sever the links between drugs and crime.

If some drugs were legalized or decriminalized what would be the effect?

That is part of the discussions and the issues to be studied and determined by scientists and experts. For the time being, it is crystal clear that Colombia cannot and will not act unilaterally. We are well aware of the fact that the drug problem is a global problem, and therefore a global consensus is needed to confront it.

What are the possibilities of joint action among Latin American countries on drug policy?

The Americas took a first step at the last Summit of the Americas when we gave a mandate to the Organization of American States to conduct an evaluation of different scenarios regarding anti-drug policy. Some initiatives are underway for the de-criminalization of certain drugs in countries in the region. In some states in the US the citizens have been asked whether they want to legalize (or de-criminalize) marijuana. A proposal in that same line is gaining strength in Uruguay.

What is the connection between your success curbing the drug-related activity in Colombia and the terrible rise in violence in Mexico?

The region has seen a rearrangement of these illegal forces which profit from drug trade. Colombia has offered its cooperation and expertise to confront drug trafficking in other countries. Illegal organizations have no boundaries. In addition to drug trafficking, they may also engage in human trafficking, arms trafficking and kidnapping. We urgently need to strengthen cooperation among all countries to fight these organizations.

As defence minister under President Uribe you significantly reduced the FARC threat, but at the cost of some well publicized human rights abuses.

These questionable events were the subject of criminal investigations, and we have taken steps to prevent their recurrence. Our military success in the confrontation with the FARC guerillas has forced them to leave zones where they had been entrenched. This has led the guerrillas to reorganize themselves in smaller groups, wearing civilian clothing and living among the community. In response, our strategy is now less military and more police-like. We have implemented strict zero-tolerance guidelines to any kind of abuse, and we can state that each and every one of our men and women in law enforcement has received training in human rights and international humanitarian law. Likewise, coordination with our judicial authorities has been essential for ensuring the prompt and appropriate prosecution of alleged cases involving members of our law enforcement authorities.

Last year Colombia was the 7th most unequal country in the world. What have you done to address this?

We have guaranteed free education for all our children in public schools, we levelled and up-scaled healthcare plans for all Colombians and launched a housing programme, which will provide 100,000 free housing solutions for the poorest families. Between 2010 and 2011, 1.2 million Colombians were lifted out of poverty. There’s still a long way to go, but we are moving in the right direction.