Small Wars Journal

Coke Zero: FARC’s End and the Future of Colombian Cocaine

Sun, 08/07/2016 - 3:02pm

Coke Zero: FARC’s End and the Future of Colombian Cocaine

Paul Rexton Kan

The title of J. Weston Phippen’s excellent article in The Atlantic raised a significant question about the durability of Colombia’s post-conflict environment: “Who Will Control Colombia’s Cocaine without FARC?”[1]  Cocaine has become part of the FARC’s DNA, turning the guerrilla organization into a hybrid group that espoused Marxist revolution while controlling over 60 percent of the world’s most productive coca crops.  Phippen’s article hits upon the mutually reinforcing dynamic of the decades-long conflict and drug trafficking; Colombia’s insurgency has aided drug trafficking as much as drug trafficking has aided the insurgency.  History shows that disaggregating the two will be exceptionally difficult for Colombia.

Only a few examples exist where drug crops, to one degree or another, have played role in a war and where the conflict was resolved or appeared to be heading towards resolution:  The Chinese Communist Revolution, Vietnamese reunification, Peru’s victory of Sendero Luminoso and the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Context matters and each of these examples is as unique as the situation in Colombia.  However, these drug-bound conflicts of the past may still offer potential glimpses into Colombia’s future and how the country can better prepare itself to meet the challenges to come.

The Chinese Communist Revolution and Opium

Opium has been part of China’s history of conflict, dating back to the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century.  During China’s Communist Revolution and war against Japanese occupation in the 20th century, the Chinese Nationalists permitted opium cultivation and sales to bolster its treasury while the Japanese coerced Chinese farmers to grow opium to distribute in China as a way to subdue an occupied population.[2]  The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), however, viewed these activities as a challenge to building an anti-imperialist and anti-bourgeoisie movement.  As a result, it prohibited the growth and use of opium in the areas that it controlled.

Shortly after its victory in 1949, the CCP began an opium suppression campaign that was tightly bound to its efforts at state-building.  The Party banned cultivation, trafficking and use of opium.  Public trials were held, traffickers were executed and opium users were forced into rehabilitation programs.  However, the Party lacked the resources needed to push the suppression campaign nationwide as it attempted to extend its new found authority across such a vast territory.  This changed in 1952 when the CCP began to focus its resources on thwarting corruption, bourgeois ideology and foreign interference.  Opium came to be viewed as the source of many of these issues.[3]  In the view of the CCP, the profitability of opium corrupted Party officials, smoking opium was a vice of the bourgeois class and foreign powers were responsible for using opium to subjugate the Chinese people.  In light of these views, the CCP intensified its earlier efforts by doling out more penalties—mass arrests and forced labor—in more parts of the country but also linked opium eradication to land reform, collectivizing privately held agrarian land that was being used to grow opium.  One of the most powerful elements of the suppression campaign was the propaganda operation that tied patriotism to anti-drug activities.  Mass rallies were conducted, emphasizing how individuals participating in government anti-drug campaigns were concrete ways to demonstrate their devotion to their new country and loyalty to the CCP.

The CCP’s anti-opium focus was a way for the new leadership to create a new identity for the Chinese citizens and to expand their social control.  Through a combination of force, surveillance, propaganda and persuasion, the CCP was able to bring the opium problem under control by the 1960s in ways that had eluded previous rulers of China.  While opium cultivation still occurs along the country’s southern borders, it does not threaten the durability of the CCP or the Chinese state.

Vietnamese Reunification and Opium

Prior to French colonization, Vietnam’s opium cultivation was limited to the northern highlands near the border of China.  Even with the French creation of a state monopoly on opium, inadequate controls on highland farmers led to the spread of opium cultivation to the lowlands.  By the time of the Vietnam conflict, French, American, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were all involved in the opium economy of Indochina.  Although all parties were ideologically opposed to drug production and trafficking, each side used opium to finance their operations against their adversaries while permitting, and enabling, their allies to cultivate opium and traffic heroin for strategic advantage.

When Vietnam was reunified in 1975, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) was still permitting highland farmers to grow opium for local consumption and had allowed cultivation for medical and scientific procurement. Unlike the CCP, the CPV did not immediately seize upon the opium economy as a way to build its power by linking it to other political and ideological priorities. In fact, the CPV permitted opium cultivation to procure it for medical and scientific purposes.  However, both the US and Chinese governments claimed that the Vietnamese government was selling opium on the black market as a way to pay off its national debt.[4]  Other accounts of Vietnam’s opium industry suggested that illicit opium production began to skyrocket only after the government ended its procurement programs in 1985. 

The CPV had many other competing priorities as it reunified the country, including establishing its authority over the south, rebuilding after years of war, dealing with regional rivals and improving its relations with other nations.  Poppy cultivation was only one of many issues that plagued efforts to integrate the country.   

However, by 1990, opium production became such a significant concern to the Vietnamese government.  In the same period, Vietnam sought to more fully integrate itself in the global economy.  Domestically, the increasing use of opiates beyond the highlands and the growing number of addicts in urban areas was of deep concern to the CPV.  As a result of these twin forces, the CPV launched a suppression campaign.  In contrast to the CCP which linked opium suppression to anti-foreign intervention, the CPV sought to improve the country’s international image by comporting itself to international drug prohibition regimes as a way to place Vietnam in a more favorable light. Calling drugs a “social evil,” the Party launched an opium suppression campaign aimed at opium cultivators, drug traffickers and drug users.  For opium farmers, the government used development programs such as crop substitution as a small part of the mix of tools to suppress opium farming.  Similar to the CCP’s approach, the main tool was the employment of the military to conduct coercive negotiations that could lead to tough legal punishments such as increased surveillance, forced removal and imprisonment in labor camps if farmers did not comply; opiate addicts were also forced into rehabilitation centers.[5]

The suppression campaign brought the amount of arable land used for poppy cultivation in Vietnam to near zero by the year 2000.  Although opium production in Vietnam is now nearly non-existent, the country has become an important transit country for heroin and amphetamine type stimulants (ATS) bound for other countries in the region.  Its borders still remain porous as much of them exist in remote territory.  HIV/AIDS rates have also risen due to intravenous heroin usage.  However, the low use of land for drug cultivation has not generated a threat to Party power or the longevity of the state. 

Peru’s Victory over Sendero Luminoso and Cocaine

In contrast to China and Vietnam, Peru’s government was victorious over a Communist guerrilla movement.  Sendero Luminoso (SL) was effectively defeated in 1995, three years after Peruvian authorities captured the group’s leader.  During the insurgency, SL and the Peruvian government altered their approaches to the coca economy.  Much like the CCP during the Revolution, SL was anti-drug and enforced its ban in the territories it held.  However, the group’s leadership reversed its stance to prevent it from alienating farmers and the poor who were vital to the ideological struggle.  SL also saw financial value for the group in coca cultivation.  The Peruvian government viewed the coca economy as inherently antithetical to its authority and initially attempted forced eradication of drug crops but evolved to tacitly accepting coca farming in order to avoid pushing farmers into the hands of SL.

Unlike the cases of China and Vietnam, Peru was under considerable US pressure to conduct more aggressive counternarcotics operations to eliminate coca cultivation.  The government of President Alberto Fujimori resisted eradication efforts if they did not include alternative livelihood programs.  After the demise of SL, eradication programs did become tied to alternatively livelihood programs, but the funding was inconsistent and the resources were difficult for coca farmers to access.  Frustration among the cocaleros grew.  As a result, the Peruvian government generated resistance among a key segment needed to complete the process of territorial reintegration following the insurgency.[6]  In the meantime, remnants of SL took advantage of the cleavage between coca farmers and the government by providing protection against Peruvian authorities and tying themselves ideologically to coca farming organizations. 

The remnants of SL have transformed into a hybrid group that maintains the ideological trappings of communism, conducting small-scale attacks against Peruvian government targets while participating in and gaining financially from drug trafficking activities.  Numbering perhaps as low as 350 members, the current SL group no longer poses an existential threat to the Peruvian state.  Nonetheless, the presence of SL and drug trafficking organizations in remote regions still vexes the ability of the Peruvian state to fully extend its authority.  In addition, Peru’s cocaine economy remains robust; it was the largest producer of cocaine in 2013, only to be overtaken by Colombia last year. 

The Taliban’s Takeover of Afghanistan and Opium

The Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan added fuel to the opium economy of the country.  As the Red Army and the communist government in Kabul struck at the agrarian economy of the mujahedin resistance, many Afghan farmers turned to opium cultivation because it was less dependent upon irrigation, not labor intensive, more easily transportable to market and consistently profitable.  After the Soviet withdrawal and the subsequent Taliban takeover of the last major city held by the Mujahedin in 1997, Afghanistan supplied nearly seventy-five percent of the world’s opium. 

The Taliban initially did not tackle the opium economy and even benefited from it through taxation of farmers and traffickers.  Much like the CCP and CPV, the Taliban had multiple and competing priorities as it assumed power.  Extending its authority over a diverse population and throughout rugged geography while continuing to fight with remnants of an armed resistance movement were chief concerns.  In a short span of time, these concerns coalesced into international and domestic pressures that led the Taliban to institute an opium suppression campaign in 2000.  The increasing isolation of the country, due to economic sanctions and moral opprobrium, pressured the Taliban to seek some limited contacts with the world.  The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) had made initial inroads with the Taliban government on the issue of poppy reduction.  Hoping to gain more development and financial assistance from the UN, the Taliban negotiated crop reduction targets in exchange for access to programs and resources.  Domestically, opium farming was in contravention of the Taliban’s strict Islamic interpretation of Afghan law and challenged the nascent authority of the group’s supreme leader, Mullah Omar.

In 2000, the supreme leader issued a fatwa, or religious decree, which stated that opium cultivation was a violation of Islamic law.  The Taliban created local shura councils to oversee the implementation of the fatwa within the regions they were located.  Taliban district administrators would ensure that members of the shuras would suffer the same punishments as the violators of the fatwa, including public humiliation, beatings and whippings, imprisonment, amputation or execution.[7]

By May 2001, the US Drug Enforcement Administration supported the UNODC findings that the Taliban eradicated Afghanistan’s opium crops in less than a year.[8]  However, some US and UN officials argued that the Taliban’s suppression campaign was in reality an attempt to fill its coffers by selling hoarded opium paste from previous harvests.[9]

The Taliban lifted the ban on growing opium in response to the US decision to invade the country after 9/11. With the toppling of the Taliban in October 2001, the durability of the suppression campaign cannot be known.  It is unknowable if disaffected opium farmers would have created enough pressure on the Taliban to negotiate with farmers and amend the ban much as the Peruvian government had after the defeat of SL.  Additionally, in the months before its toppling, the Taliban was growing resentful that the international community did not appropriately reward the country for eradicating opium.  The Taliban's foreign affairs spokesman complained in early 2001 that “the response to this tremendous achievement was unexpected. [The international community] imposed more and more sanctions on us.”[10]  The Taliban may have eventually come to the conclusion that working with the international community on opium suppression was not worth the loss of legitimacy among some of its people or the cost to its treasury, despite the “unIslamic nature” of opium cultivation and trafficking.  This may be a logical conclusion—after its removal from power, the Taliban became deeply involved in opium cultivation and heroin trafficking as ways to keep itself a viable insurgent force against the current Afghan government and its international partners.

The Significance for Colombia

A brief examination of these cases yields a few insights for the situation in Colombia.   Certainly, no case is a perfect fit for the Colombian context.  Indeed, there are more differences than similarities.  Yet these differences can still inform debates, policies and strategies in ways that can contribute to a healthy, prosperous and peaceful future for Colombia.

Drug suppression has worked best when former insurgents have been committed to it.In China, Vietnam and Afghanistan, the winning insurgent group was the most successful in eradicating drug crops.  As they transitioned into authoritarian states, the ruling political parties viewed opium as a challenge to their domestic authority.  In addition, each of these suppression campaigns had an international dimension.  In its propaganda, the CCP stressed the legacy of foreigners’ use of opium to control its people.  The CPV and the Taliban, in contrast, saw suppression campaigns as a way to establish more favorable contacts with the wider world.

In Peru, the victorious government and successive governments have struggled to control drug cultivation and wrestled with the remnants of SL that have gained from coca cultivation and cocaine production.  The democratic institutions and close connections to the US have prevented the use of the draconian tactics that the CCP, CPV and Taliban were able to use.  Notwithstanding these constraints, the Peruvian government did not successfully co-opt demobilized SL members to assist with counter-drug efforts.  These individuals have joined drug trafficking organizations or have reverted to guerrilla activities or both.

In this instance, the case of Peru is closer to the situation in Colombia.  The troubling history of human rights abuses aside, Colombia is one of the region’s more durable democracies, which has institutions that are still subject to domestic constraints and international scrutiny.  Nonetheless, an important consideration is the degree to which the FARC can be trusted and empowered to cooperate with coca suppression and cocaine interdiction efforts.  In many regions, former guerrillas will have greater local knowledge of the patterns of the drug economy.  Whether they can work alongside government activities or undertake them independently are open questions.

Drug control was successful when it became an important priority for state-building.Each country had competing post-conflict concerns that placed counter-drug efforts as a low priority.  Only when drug crops were viewed as the source of underlying problems with state-building did governments take a more aggressive counter-drug stances.  However, in the case of Peru, farmers were not subjected to harsh tactics as in China, Vietnam and Afghanistan.  When Peruvian cocaleros were subjected to eradication efforts, the resources for alternate livelihoods were often not forthcoming.  This pushed them into the arms of the remnants of SL for protection. 

Perhaps counterintuitively, the cases of drug suppression as part of state-building in China, Vietnam and Afghanistan are more germane to Colombia.  Although Peru is a democracy that wrestled with drug trafficking guerrillas, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s Democratic Security Policy explicitly sought to extend the state’s reach into FARC territory by denying it sanctuary and tackling the illicit economy.  For the years that it was in effect, the Policy was a type of state-building strategy. It sought to expand the administrative reach and territorial control of the state to areas where guerrilla movements were active.  Controlling coca cultivation and cocaine trafficking were tightly linked to fighting insurgent groups and providing security to Colombian citizens.

Although the succeeding administration of Juan Manuel Santos moved away from the strategy towards a pursuit of an ultimately successful peace deal, the residual effects of the Democratic Security Policy can still be seen in the deal’s framework for integrating guerrilla territory under Colombian state authority.  The peace agreement includes programs for alternative agricultural programs to divert coca farmers away from the illicit economy.  Foreseeing the potential benefits of peace for drug traffickers, the Colombian military has launched interdiction operations against larger drug trafficking organizations. 

Colombia has unique circumstances.Unlike the four other countries in the previous examples, Colombia struggled for decades with narco wars among various drug cartels.  At times, powerful drug cartels colluded with guerrillas and paramilitaries to confront the Colombian state; in other instances the cartels were equally confrontational.  The enduring levels of violence created a drag on the strength of Colombia’s state capacity.  Simultaneously tackling reintegration efforts and cocaine trafficking will be affected by this history. 

Unlike the previous four examples, Colombia’s peace agreement must go through a non-binding, nationwide plebiscite to be approved by Colombian voters.  Although non-binding, a vote against the agreement would be a major stumbling block to bring both a cessation of the conflict and stronger efforts to end coca cultivation and drug trafficking in regions controlled by the FARC.  In fact, many FARC fighters are hedging their bets due to the plebiscite. Reports have indicated that FARC fighters are swelling the ranks of the Ejercito Liberacion Nacional (ELN), the other Leftist guerrilla group with links to the cocaine trade.[11]

Contested territory where the cocaine trade was robust may become “coca shatterzones.” These would be areas where friction between government authority and FARC is generated over what constitutes criminal activity and aggressive law enforcement and, therefore, becomes difficult to differentiate from a return to arms.  The short-term result might be what Carlos Ospina calls “ambiguous political reintegration,”[12] or an uneven process of state-building punctuated by a rise of organized crime groups.  This, too, has afflicted Colombia since the prior decommissioning of a number of drug trafficking, right-wing paramilitaries. 

Concluding Reflections

As with any complex interplay of war, drug trafficking and conflict resolution, context is still powerful.  The cases of China, Vietnam, Peru and Afghanistan were each unique in their own time.  Colombia’s history, culture, political system and role in the region are unique features that should be included in a fuller analysis of the country’s future cocaine economy and its links to peace.  In the future, Colombia will also serve as a case study of how a country torn by war and the illicit economy struggled to reintegrate itself.  With skillful policies and diligent efforts, Colombia will likely serve as a positive example for scholars and policy-makers.

The views expressed are the author's and do not represent those of the US Government, Department of Defense or the US Army.

End Notes

[1] J. Weston Phippen, “Who Will Control Colombia’s Cocaine Without FARC?” The Atlantic, July 1, 2016 (accessed July, 13, 2016). 

[2] Motohiro Kobayashi, “Drug Operations by Resident Japanese in Tianjin,” in Timothy Brook and Bob Wakabayashi eds., Opium Regimes (Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 2000).

[3] Zhou Yongming, Anti-Drug Crusades in Twentieth-Century China (New York:  Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 98.

[4] James Windle, “The Suppression of Illicit Opium Production in Viet Nam:  An Introductory Narrative,” Crime, Law and Social Change 57 (2012), 429.

[5] James Windle, “Security Trumps Drug Control:  How Securitization Explains Drug Policy Paradoxes in Thailand and Vietnam,” Drugs Education, Prevention and Policy, February 18, 2016, 2.

[6] Vanda Felbab-Brown, Shooting Up:  Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs (Washington, DC:  The Brookings Institutions, 2010), 64. 

[7] Graham Farrell and John Thorne, “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?:  Evaluation of the Taliban Crackdown Against Opium Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan,” International Journal of Drug Policy 16 (2005), 85.

[8] Barbara Crossette, “Taliban’s Ban on Poppy a Success, US Aides Say,” New York Times, May 20, 2001 (accessed on July 14, 2016).

[9] Donna Leinwand, Toni Locy and Vivienne Walt, “US Expected to Target Afghanistan’s Opium,” USA Today, October 18, 2001 (accessed July 15, 2016).

[10] Luke Harding, “Taliban to Lift Ban on Farmers Growing Opium if US Attacks,” The Guardian, September 24, 2001 (accessed on July 12, 2016).

[11] Andrew Willis, “Rebel ‘Romance’ Means Gold and Cocaine to Flow After Peace Deal,” Bloomberg News, June 22, 2016, (accessed July 21, 2016); Nick Miroff, “Colombia is Preparing for Peace.  So are its Drug Traffickers,” Washington Post, February 2, 2016 (accessed July 21, 2016).

[12] Carlos Ospina, “Colombia and the FARC:  From Military Victory to Ambiguous Political Reintegration,,” in, Michelle Hughes and Michael Miklaucic eds. Impunity: Countering Illicit Power in War and Transition (Washington, DC:  National Defense University, 2016).


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Paul Rexton Kan is Professor of National Security Studies and former Henry L. Stimson Chair of Military Studies at the US Army War College. In February 2011, he served as the Senior Visiting Counternarcotics Adviser at NATO Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan.  He is also the author of the book Drugs and Contemporary Warfare (Potomac Books, 2009), Cartels at War: Mexico's Drug Fueled Violence and the Threat to US National Security (Potomac Books, 2012), and Drug Trafficking and International Security (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).


Tom Triumph

Tue, 08/09/2016 - 11:07am

Very insightful. It would be instructive to know more about how the drug trades grew in relation to political power, as dismantling it requires substituting the old with the new.

For example, the history of the British use of opium to get and hold power in Asia makes plain why the CCP had to smash it hard and throughout the country. As you point out, Columbia is a democracy where such heavy-handed methods might not be tolerated. Did the rise of Columbia's drug trade come from PARC, or did they just co-opt it in their campaign for political power? If PARC cultivated the trade for power, the government needs to make sure it offers that to the former rebels. It may be that PARC's control can be turned against the growers, much like Vietnam did.

More background on the motivations of why the trade in these areas grew in the first place will offer more insights into how the players need to be handled moving forward.