Colombia: Drugs, War and the ELN
Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
11 December 2020
The issue of drugs is one that is never far from public discourse on the Colombian conflict. Biased or just simply lazy journalists use the issue to ascribe motives for an endless list of events, massacre and murders. It is true that drug trafficking has permeated all of Colombian society and there is no sector that has not been impacted by it. But not everyone in Colombia is a drug trafficker. However, once again the King of Clubs is played to describe the conflict in terms of a drug problem.
Several Colombian newspapers have recently published articles on the supposed relationship of the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) with drug trafficking and there are already eleven commanders who are under investigation for such crimes and are sought in extradition.(1) They talk as if the ELN dominated the drugs trade, and talk of settling of accounts over drug money, as if they were a crime gang, instead of saying that the ELN takes drastic measures against its members who get involved in drug trafficking and that those internal executions are due to the indiscipline and betrayal of principles of some people and are not an internal dispute over money.(2) Of course, the ELN in an open letter widely distributed on social networks and alternative press, denied any links to the drug trade.(3) But, how true is this new tale? Before looking at the accusations levelled against the ELN it is worth going over the history of drug trafficking in Colombia and the reality of the business in international terms.
Let's start with the obvious. When the FARC and the ELN were founded in 1964 drug trafficking was not a problem in the country and there were no large plantations, i.e. the existence of the guerrillas predates the drugs trade. Later in the 1970s the country went through the marijuana bonanza on the Caribbean coast, but it is the emergence of the large drugs cartels in 1980s around the production of cocaine that would define forever the shape drug trafficking in the country would take. Up till the 1990s the country was not self sufficient in coca leaf, even though it was the main manufacturer of the final product: cocaine. Escobar was dead by the time Colombia achieved self sufficiency and it is in that context that the discourse of blaming the FARC for the drugs trade gained ground, completely ignoring that the main narcos were the founders of the paramilitary groups. One of the most notorious paramilitary groups in the 1980s was the MAS (Death to Kidnappers) founded by the Cali Cartel and other drug traffickers in response to the kidnapping by M-19 of Marta Nieves Ochoa a relative of the Ochoa drug barons.
That discourse, however, was useful in justifying Plan Colombia and there was an element of truth to it, but not that much back then. The FARC's relationship with the drugs trade has not been static and has evolved over time. Almost everyone accepts that they began by imposing a tax on the production of coca leaf, coca base or cocaine in the territories they controlled. The initial relationship changed and the FARC went from just collecting a revolutionary tax to promoting the crop, protecting laboratories and even having laboratories of their own and in some cases, such as the deceased commander Negro Acacio, got directly involved in the drug trade. There is no doubt on the issue. But neither were they the big drug barons that they tried to have us believe, those barons are in the ranks not just of the Democratic Centre but also the Liberal and Conservative parties. It is forgotten that Samper's (1994-1998) excuse regarding drug money entering his campaign's coffers was and still is that it was done behind his back, but no one denies that drug trafficking has to some degree financed every electoral campaign in the country. Although companies like Odebrecht play a role at a national level, at a local and regional level drug trafficking decides who becomes mayor, governor, representative in the house and even senators. Even the brother of the current Vice-President Marta Lucía Ramírez was a drug trafficker and there are loads of photos of many politicians with Ñeñe Hernández and Uribe appears in photos with the son of the paramilitary drug trafficker Cuco Vanoy. It is a matter of public knowledge that several high ranking police officers close to Uribe such as his former head of security Mauricio Santoyo were extradited to the USA for drug related crimes and Uribe's excuse was the same as Samper's: it was all done behind his back.
But when we look at the extent of illicit crops in Colombia, we can clearly see the reason why they are linked to the FARC for so long and not to the ELN. The reason is simple, the majority of the large plantations of coca and opium poppy were to be found in areas under the influence of the FARC. If we look at the crop monitoring carried out by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) we can see that in 2001 the main departments where there were crops were almost exclusively FARC fiefdoms.
In 2001, coca was to be found in 22 departments of the country, compared to just 12 in 1999. However, despite the expansion, just two areas accounted for the majority of the crops: Putumayo-Caquetá had 45% of the total amount of coca (about 65,000 hectares) and Meta-Guaviare-Vaupés with 34% of the area (about 49,000 hectares) i.e. 79% of the total area under coca.(4) They were areas that were completely dominated by the FARC, not a single eleno was to be found in those territories and if they did venture in, it was undercover at the risk of execution by the FARC were they discovered as the FARC did not tolerate political competition in their fiefdoms. When one looks at the map of crops back then, one can see not only the concentration in those areas but also almost all the other departments were dominated by the FARC and those where there were significant amounts of coca and also an ELN presence, one finds Cauca with 3,139 hectares, Nariño with 7,494 hectares and the Norte de Santander with 9,145 hectares. But in those areas there was a certain territorial balance between the different guerrillas and one of the few departments where the ELN was clearly the dominant force was Arauca with 2,749 hectares.(5) But when we look at the counties we can see that it is not as clear cut, as in the Norte de Santander 83% of the coca crops were to be found in just one county: Tibú, FARC fiefdom for many years before the paramilitary takeover in 1999.(6) In Arauca the county of Araquita accounted for 60% of the crops in the department and it was also a FARC fiefdom within an area dominated by the ELN. Thus it is obvious as to why they spoke almost exclusively about the role of the FARC in drug trafficking and not the ELN at that time.
Years later the situation had not changed much, the main producing departments were the FARC fiefdoms. The UNODC study on coca crops in the country in 2013 continues to show a concentration in FARC fiefdoms, with a displacement from Putumayo to Nariño due to aerial spraying and the persecution of the FARC by the state. In 2013, there were just 48,000 hectares of coca in the entire country, with significant reductions in some parts. Nariño, Putumayo, Guaviare and Caquetá accounted for 62% of the land under coca, with Norte de Santander representing 13% and Cauca with just 9%.(7) There was a reduction and a displacement of the crops towards new areas with Nariño accounting for the most dramatic increase of all departments.
In 2019, there was 154,000 hectares of coca, a little over three times the amount grown in 2013, though it was slightly down on 2018 when there was 169,000 hectares.(8) Coca production recovered after 2014 in the middle of the peace process with the FARC. It stands out that in 2019, Arauca, a department dominated by the ELN the UNODC did not report any coca crops.(9) Once again Norte de Santander is a department with widespread coca leaf production almost quadrupling the amount reported in 2001. It had 41,749 hectares of coca but the county of Tibú alone had 20,000 hectares and the same UNODC report indicated that these are not new areas and show that the crop has deep roots in the area.(10)
However, despite the role of the FARC in the drugs trade, they weren't the big drug barons we were led to believe. How can we be sure? Their demobilisation did not alter the flow of cocaine towards the USA and Europe. The big drugs capos in the companies, the Congress of the Republic, the international banks did not stop for a second. Neither did people such as Ñeñe Hernández and other associates of right wing political parties in Colombia stop for a single instant.
Neither the production nor consumption of cocaine halted. The UNODC's World Drug Report says as much about both phenomena. According to the UNODC consumption of cocaine fell from 2.5% in 2002 to 1.5% in 2011 in the USA, but from that year it increased again reaching 2.0% in 2018 and also there are indications of an increase in the sale of cocaine of high purity at lower prices between 2013 and 2017. The price of a gram fell by 29% and the purity increased by 32%.(11) The report also indicates that in Europe there was a significant increase in various places such as the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Estonia and Germany. Nevertheless, some of those countries had seen decreases in consumption in the first years of the century.(12) All of this suggests that there is a greater supply of the drug. This can be seen not only in the previously mentioned figures of an increase in the production of coca leaf in Colombia (or in other countries such as Peru and Bolivia), but can also be seen in drug seizures. An increase in seizures may indicate greater efficiency by the police forces, but combined with stability or an increase in consumption and a reduction in price, rather indicate an increase in production and availability.
According to the UNODC cocaine seizures have increased dramatically since the commencement of Plan Colombia, indicating, although they do not acknowledge it, the failure of their anti-drugs strategy and the tactic of aerial spraying with glyphosate. In 1998 400 tonnes were seized globally and that figure remained relatively stable till 2003, reaching 750 tonnes in 2005 and surpassing the threshold of 900 tonnes in 2015 to finish off at 1,300 tonnes in 2018,(13) i.e. there was no reduction in consumption or the production of cocaine. Throughout the years with or without the FARC there has been coca production and of course the main drug barons never demobilised, the heads of the banks remain in their posts.
The real drug traffickers wear a tie, own large estates, meet with President Duque, it is not the ELN that moves hundreds of tonnes of cocaine around the world. In 2012, the Swiss bank HSBC reached an agreement with the US authorities to pay a kind of fine of $1,920 million dollars for having laundered $881 million dollars from the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cartel of Northern Valle, Colombia. The bank had, despite everything, classified Mexico as a low risk country, thus excluding $670 billion dollars in transactions from monitoring systems and the bank was notified by the authorities but ignored them.(14) Nobody went to jail, in fact no one was prosecuted. As Senator Warren in a session of the Senate Banking Commission pointed out, no one was going to go to jail for this massive crime. Moreover, the Sub Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David S. Cohen refused to recommend a criminal investigation against the bank. There is no need to state that no ELN commander is on the board of this or other banks. The ELN is usually accused of infiltrating universities, but to date no one has accused them of having infiltrated the boards of banks.
It is not the only bank implicated in money laundering, in 2015 London was described as one of the main centres for money laundering the proceeds of drug trafficking.(15) A report by the UK National Crime Agency states, on the basis of a UN calculation that between 2% and 5% of global GDP are laundered funds "that there is a realistic possibility [defined as between 40-50%] that it is in the hundreds of billions of pounds annually"(16) and the majority of it comes from crimes committed outside of the UK. There is no need to say that no ELN commander is a director of those companies, nor is there any need to state that these companies continue to operate and their directors are walking about free and according to the report they could only recover £132 million.(17) The NCA cites favourably the reports of Transparency International. According to this organisation, 1,201 companies operating in the British Overseas Territories inflicted £250 billion in damage through corruption in recent decades. They analysed 237 cases of corruption in the last 30 years. The majority of the companies are registered in the British Virgin Islands (92%) and the majority (90%) of the cases happened there(18) in the favourite headquarters of many companies that operate in Colombia, without mentioning those who finance election campaigns. Once again, the ELN does not operate in those territories, although many mining companies in Colombia are registered there. The report points out that due to legislative changes there are fewer reasons to buy property in the UK through those companies registered in the Overseas Territories, yet the number of properties has remained relatively stable at some 28,000. Of course not all them are the result of illicit funds, however... As far as we know the ELN's Central Command is not the owner of any of these properties.
Transparency International continued with its investigations and its last report highlighted the number of British companies involved in money laundering or dubious transactions. It states that there are 86 banks and financial institutions, 81 legal firms and 62 accounting companies (including the big four that dominate the market). According to this NGO
Whether unwittingly or otherwise, these businesses helped acquire the following assets and entities used to obtain, move and defend corrupt or suspicious wealth: 2,225 Companies incorporated in the UK, its Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies directly involved in making payments; 17,000 more companies incorporated in the UK that we have reasonable grounds to suspect have facilitated similar activity; 421 Properties in the UK worth more than £5 billion; 7 Luxury Jets 3 Luxury Yachts worth around £237 million worth around £170 million.(20)Of course not all the laundered funds are drug related but they are all illicit in origin. However, the USA has not sought in extradition any of the banking capos, legal firms and less still the four big accountancy companies in the world. It would simply collapse the financial system were they to do so.
The extradition of criminals
from Colombia has always been problematic in legal and political terms.
Nowadays, the majority of those extradited are extradited for drug trafficking.
The USA receives 73% of all those extradited from Colombia and 60% of them
face charges of drug trafficking or money laundering.(21) Though
not all those extradited are guilty and there are various cases of people
being returned to Colombia, after their extradition, or others more fortunate
who managed to demonstrate their innocence before being extradited, such
is the case of Ariel Josué, a carpenter from San Vicente del Caguán
who didn't even know how to use a computer and yet for
... the United States and then the Colombian justice system, Ariel Josué was the head of an electronic money laundering network, and had to pay for his crime in a north American prison.
In the absence of an independent investigation nor the verification of his identity, the Supreme Court issued a court order in favour of his extradition and even President Juan Manuel Santos signed the order for him to be taken.(22)Despite those extradited, when not innocent, being poor people or those who have some relationship with right wing political parties or the economic elites of the country, the media and the Colombian and US governments' focus on the problem is always the same: the guerrillas and not the banks or business leaders. In fact, one of the most famous people extradited is Simón Trinidad, a FARC commander and part of the negotiating team in the Caguán. Trinidad was extradited for drug trafficking and despite being a FARC commander they didn't manage to prove any link to the drugs trade and thus resorted to the detention and captivity of three north American mercenaries hired by the Dyncorp company, a company denounced for crimes such as trafficking in minors, prostitution, sexual abuse amongst others.(23) So we should be very careful when it comes to accepting these new allegations against the ELN.
Its open letter not only refutes the allegations against it, but they also put forward proposals as to what to do regarding the problem of crops and drug consumption. It extends an invitation to various organisms to carry out in situ visits and inspections to see the reality of their relationship to the drugs trade, but they go further than clearing up the question of their links or otherwise to the drugs trade and they put forward proposals on the drugs problem as such.
To pick up the proposals made on various occasions by the ELN with the aim of reaching an Agreement that overcomes the phenomenon of drug trafficking that includes the participation of the international community, the communities in the regions that suffer this scourge and various sectors of Colombian society.(25)The issue of drug trafficking is not one that Colombia can solve on its own, it is an international issue in nature, not just in terms of the distribution and consumption of the final products, such as cocaine and heroine or ecstasy and other drugs generally produced in northern countries, but also because Colombia's obligations on the issue are covered by various international UN treaties. The ELN makes various points.
There are reasons to accept the ELN's word on the issue of drugs, and there are more than sufficient reasons to accept the debate on drugs and what to do about them. It is a debate that never occurred in the context of the negotiations with the FARC. The FARC opted to negotiate benefits for themselves, their social base and they never touched the structure of the agricultural economy in the country nor the international law in force on drugs.(31)
The allegations against the
ELN lack any basis in fact, but the media does not ask us to treat it as
truth, but rather it serves as an excuse to delegitimise this organisation
in the eyes of Colombian people and in the international area they are
useful as excuse to continue to militarily support the Colombian state
and in a given moment can be used as a pretext for more direct interventions
against the ELN and perhaps Venezuela.
(1) El Tiempo (05/10/2020) Los 11 elenos que EE.UU. pide en extradición por narcotráfico https://www.eltiempo.com/unidad-investigativa/los-11-miembros-del-eln-que-estados-unidos-pide-en-extradicion-por-narcotrafico-541475
(2) El Tiempo (16/10/2020) Confirman vendetta por coca en las entrañas del Eln https://www.eltiempo.com/unidad-investigativa/eln-alias-pablito-ordena-ejecutar-a-3-lideres-por-temas-de-narcotrafico-543671
(3) ELN (12/10/2020) Carta abierta al Departamento de Estado, a la Fiscalía Federal de los Estados Unidos y al gobierno colombiano https://eln-voces.net/carta-abierta-al-departamento-de-estado-a-la-fiscalia-federal-de-los-estados-unidos-y-al-gobierno-colombiano/
(4) UNODC (2002) Annual Coca Cultivation Survey 2001, SIMCI Project AD/COL/99/E67 p.4
(5) Ibíd., p.6
(6) Calculations made on the basis of the Coca Census November 1st 2001, SIMCI Project.
(7) UNODC (2014) Colombia: Monitoreo de Cultivos de Coca 2013. Colombia. UNODC p. 17
(8) UNODC (2020) Colombia: Monitoreo de Cultivos de Coca 2019. Colombia. UNODC p.15
(9) Ibíd., p.22
(10) Ibíd., p.81
(11) UNODC (2020) World Drug Report Vol. 2 Drug Use and Health Consequences. UNODC. Vienna, p. 26
(12) Ibíd., p.29
(13) UNODC (2020) World Drug Report Vol. 3 Drug Supply. UNODC. Vienna. p.28
(14) Reuters (11/12/2020) HSBC to pay $1.9 billion U.S. fine in money laundering case https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hsbc-probe-idUSBRE8BA05M20121211
(15) The Independent (25/12/2015) London is now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/london-
(16) NCA (2020) National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organised Crime. NCA. London p.54 https://www.nationalcrimeagency.gov.uk/who-we-are/publications/437-national-strategic-assessment-of-serious-and-organised-crime-2020/file
(17) Ibíd., p.55
(18) Transparency International UK (2018) The Cost of Secrecy: The role played by companies registered in the UK's Overseas Territories in money launderin and corruption. TIUK. London. p.2 https://www.transparency.org.uk/sites/default/files/pdf/publications/TIUK-CostofSecrecy-WEB-v2.pdf
(19) Ibíd., p.4
(20) Transparency International (2019) At Your Service: Investigating how UK businesses and institutions help corrupt individuals and regimes launder their money and reputations p.13 https://www.transparency.org.uk/sites/default/files/pdf/publications/TIUK_AtYourService_WEB.pdf
(21) Rojas Castañeda, D. (16/07/2020) Estados Unidos recibió 73% de extraditados desde Colombia en los últimos tres años https://www.asuntoslegales.com.co/consumidor/estados-unido-recibio-73-de-extraditados-desde-colombia-en-los-ultimos-tres-anos-3032110
(22) This and other stories can be consulted at https://www.kienyke.com/krimen-y-korrupcion/indignantes-historias-de-inocentes-que-fueron-prision-por-errores-judiciales
(23) The description of Dyncorp as a mercenary company may seem controversial, but their own webpage leaves in no doubt on the issue. It has 15,000 employees and contractors in 36 countries in the world and they offer their services to all branches of the US military forces, federal agencies and other international "clients". See https://www.dyn-intl.com/
(24) Some NGOs prefer the expression illicit use crops, but it is misnomer. The international treaties on the matter leave us in no doubt on the issue, the crop itself is illicit. The Single Convention of 1961, the convention in force on the issue, in Article 22 No.1 demands the total eradication, the coca leaf and its derivatives are banned. The treaty demands that even the plants belonging to indigenous people be destroyed.
(25) ELN (12/10/2020) Op. Cit.
(26) UNODC (2020) World Drug Report Vol 6. Other Drug Policy Issues. Vienna. UNODC p.9
(27) MPG (2020) 2019 Regulated Marijuana Market Update. https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/sites/default/files/2019 Regulated Marijuana Market Update Report Final.pdf
(28) For more information on the WHO decision see Jelsma, M. (2020) Potential fall-out from the vote on the WHO cannabis recommendations https://www.tni.org/en/article/potential-fall-out-from-the-vote-on-the-who-cannabis-recommendations
(29) UNODC (2020) World Drug Report Vol 5. Socioeconomic Characteristics and Drug Use Disorders. Vienna. UNODC.
(30) For a critique of the Colombian agricultural model in the sub region of Southern Bolivar, North East of Antioquia and Bajo Cauca see Ó Loingsigh, G. (27/07/2014) El Modelo Agro- Exportador y las Comunidades Campesinas https://www.academia.edu/44677017/El_Modelo_Agro_Exportador_y_las_Comunidades_Campesinas and Ó Loingsigh, G. (2019) Extractivismo y muerte en el nororiente. Bogotá. Equipo Jurídico Pueblos https://www.equipopueblos.com/project/extractivismo-y-muerte-en-el-nororiente/
(31) Ó Loingsigh,
G. (2016) Las Drogas y la Paz. El Salmón. No.27 Ibagué
pp. 42 - 46 https://www.academia.edu/30669926/La_Paz_y_las_Drogas