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Columbia and Peru's Strategies to Combat the Illegal Drug Trade

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 4592 words Published: 30th Jul 2019

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Colombia and Peru: The Wolves of the Illegal Drug Trade and Attempting to Stop It

The war on drugs has created a discourse around the world centralized on the premise of eradicating the means of production for psychoactive substances such as marijuana, heroine, and cocaine. While this battle transcends territorial boundaries, it is spearheaded by Western governments and multinational organizations; specifically, the United States of America which many of these substances are destined to be exported to from primary producing countries. As a result, this discourse has also been centered on the countries known to produce the bulk of these substances. The countries which supply the majority of said substances are situated in Latin America, specifically, Colombia and Peru. These two countries have been the converging points in which international attention has been focussed and where the primary effort to combat the production and trade of these substances has been placed. Through the comparison of Colombia and Peru’s social, political and judicial environments, their chosen methods in combating the trade of illegal drugs and the success of said methods become evident. Historically and in the present, the countries of Colombia and Peru have had significant numbers of influential drug trade organizations (DTO’s) operating throughout them resulting in extreme levels of violence and high levels of illegal substance production. While the Colombian and Peruvian governments have utilized similar tactics to try and resolve the issue of the national and international drug trade, both have proven ineffective due to a lack in political influence, economic stability, and judicial integrity.

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            To gather a sense of whether Colombia and Peru’s anti-drug trade policies have proven to be effective, these countries historical economic states must be considered. As such, the analyzation of Peru’s economic state will be looked at first. Peru’s relationship with the production of illegal drugs hinges on the coca plant. Off and on from the early 1990’s to present day, Peru has fluctuated between the worlds primary and secondary producer of coca leaf (Lerner, 1998). Peru’s dominance in the cultivation of the coca leaf stems from its cultural and traditional relation to this species of plant and how this relation has been interpreted and accepted by modern Peruvian governments and society. As such, the use of the coca plant has been used in the production of coca tea; an entirely legal activity in Peru. Thusly, due to the importance of the coca leaf in Peruvian culture, the production and consumption of the coca leaf was legal until 1978.[1] It wasn’t until the rise of cartels and their expansion from Colombia to Peru and their impacts noticeable and having an impact on Peruvian society, that the cultivation and production of coca leaf was controlled. With the rise of cartels and their influence penetrating Peruvian society, the legal framework for controlling the production of the coca leaf was conceived and legitimized through Decree Law 22095 (Lerner, 1998).

Although the Peruvian government had imposed regulation over the production of the coca leaf, the continued production of it and or processing into coca paste and cocaine was vastly more lucrative than the cultivation of other plants. As a result, Peru’s high level of rural poverty, unstable economy, and the small margin made from cultivating and harvesting other plants provided the reason for many Peruvians to focus their efforts towards the cultivation of coca and the production of its derivatives (Alvarez, 1992).

            Because of this pre-established tradition within Peruvian society, the production of coca had already been normalized within society. The poor economic conditions for a largely poor rural class and the creation of a new market in which Peru had a comparative advantage suddenly culminated in many rural populations engaging in the cultivation of coca or the production of coca paste. The benefit of engaging in the production of coca for Peru’s poor rural populations is demonstrated by Elena Alvarez as she explains, “Studies estimate per-capita income for Andean peasants at around $50 in the early 1970’s and somewhere between $157 and $620 in the early 1980’s.” (Alvarez, 1992, p. 72). Thusly, these annual income estimates, specifically the second figure, refers to the significant increase in annual earnings by Andean peasants when they began growing the coca plant and engaging in the cocaine industry. It is evident that such an increase in wages would be highly appealing to the Peruvian peasantry. Furthermore, this steep increase in annual income for the peasantry is vital in demonstrating the poor economic state that Peru was in prior to its conceived monopoly over coca plant production. 

            Associated with the boom of coca, another aspect played an important role in rural populations transitioning to the production of coca; the rise of the Western diet in urban centres, the transition away from Andean goods, and the rise of hyperinflation resulting in economic crisis throughout Peru. Firstly, the transition to a Western diet in urban centres further promoted the production of coca as the profitability of supplying these urban centres with foodstuffs sharply declined (Alvarez, 1992). Secondly, from the 1980’s to the mid 1990’s Peru experienced drastic rates of inflation which resulted in it having to abandon its national currency, the Inti and replace it with the Sol in 1991. This greatly impacted the economy and resulted in many Peruvian’s being plunged into economic ruin. The rate of hyper-inflation reached its peak in 1991 with an inflation rate of over 7000 percent[2]. Because of such tough economic times, a rising population was growing in Peru which was out of work and suffering. Thusly, the profitability of engaging in the production of the coca plant and its derivatives provided this group with financial security. At the time, this was difficult to find and spurred the creation of micro-economies (Lerner, 1998, p. 121). Consequently, due to high levels of economic uncertainty and social suffering, the conditions were ripe for Peruvian peasantry to engage in the cultivation of the coca plant, its derivatives, and the illegal drug trade because of the socially formed idea around the coca plant, its ties to Peruvian tradition, and weak economic institutions failing to provide the people of Peru with a stable economy. Lastly, the Peruvian governments attempt at combating the illegal drug trade by implementing programs of crop substitution to attempt and sway the peasantry from growing the coca plant largely failed due to the low annual income that other plants could provide.

            The points made above all refer to the reasons as to why Peru has become such a significant player in the production of illegal drugs, primarily cocaine. These points are essential in demonstrating how the cocaine industry has become such an important aspect of the agrarian economy and why the methods utilized by the Peruvian government have failed to adequately deal with the on-going issue of the international drug trade. While Peru has been strafed by economic instability and weak government thus being unable to properly combat the international drug trade, this has also been the case for the country of Colombia. In the case of Colombia, it has been faced with the problem of powerful paramilitary forces and wealthy cartels, most notably, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – FARC, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), and the Medllin and Cali cartels. These groups engaging in the cultivation, production and international trade of illicit substances and committing acts of violence. While the high-level political threat that paramilitary groups in Colombia is not a shared theme with regards to Peru, the influence of cartels has been experienced by both countries.

Just as Peru has experienced economic hardship, Colombia also shared in this pain following the Asian Crisis in 1998 in which traders panicked and dumped their shares in ‘emerging markets’ resulting in Colombia’s currency to slide (Livingstone, 2004). Because of this economic crisis, the governing administration during this time under the leadership of Andres Pastrana experienced the lowest approval rating in Colombian history. Livingstone also mentions that the economic crisis led to a drastic rise in conflict and in addition, greatly impacted the profits made by the economy during this period.

The discourse around the international drug trade has been a prominent topic around the globe as the import and export of illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and marijuana have directly impacted societies within Latin America but also North America and Europe as well. The source for much of the world’s production of illicit drugs stem directly from the Latin American countries of Colombia and Peru. Largely, resulting from the immense production of illicit psychoactive substances like Marijuana, Cocaine, and Heroine; these countries have implemented anti-drug policies which have produced complex and varying results. Some of the primary methods which Colombia and Peru have utilized to combat the production and trade of these drugs has been the utilization of interdiction and military forces through “crackdowns”. These two methods have been designed and used to halt the production and exportation of drugs at the source; ideally stopping the drugs from ever reaching their targeted populations. While both methods contribute to hindering the drug trade in their respective regions, interdiction specifically refers to the seizures of drugs, money, the arrests of traffickers, and the destruction of drug labs (Gugliotta, 1992). Interdiction has been utilized in both Peru and Colombia but has been the primary method which the Peruvian government has used to thwart the groups and individuals participating in the production of coca paste and cocaine. The other method mentioned, military forces, has been used in both Colombia and Peru to fight influential cartels, narcoterrorists, and revolutionary forces which have plagued these countries since the early 1970’s to present day.

            While both Colombia and Peru have utilized said methods in countering the illegal drug trade, both have experienced different problems in being able to fully accomplish their political and social goal of ending the production and trade of illegal drugs. In the case of Colombia, the rise of drug ‘barons’ and cartels have made it difficult to conduct meaningful political and judicial reform, and institute democratic policies since these groups wielded significant wealth, were able to buy their judicial impunity, bribe elected officials, and form their own security networks. All of which worked to their advantage in maintaining their influence over the political actors and institutions in Colombia. Unfortunately for the Colombian government during the 1980’s, the drug traffickers wielded so much political and judicial power resulting in them being “…acquitted by corrupt or intimidated judges, or by judges devoted to judicial formalities that worked in the traffickers’ favors” (Melo, 1998, p.71). In addition, groups such as the Medellin cartel quickly resorted to widespread violence and acts of terrorism in retaliation to the Colombian government choosing to escalate its war on drug trade organization and begin conduct raids on cartel cocaine producing laboratories using government military forces (Melo, 1998). Notably, the use of these forces has produced varying results because these institutions and people within them were generally corrupt.

Continually, the ineffectiveness of the Colombian judicial system stemmed from its consolidation around a traditional system of judicial practice. The traditional system centered on the ability to solve legal issues within small town environments where the individuals within these towns knew one another and the integrity of these people’s testimonies could be trusted. Thusly, Colombia’s traditional judicial system was ill prepared to change and handle the rise of national and international issues like cartels and guerilla forces. With this judicial system relying heavily on oral testimonies, a high focus on formal procedures, and the protection of the procedural rights of the accused, drug trade organizations were able to penetrate the judicial system by buying off witnesses, judges or resorted to intimidation (Melo, 1998). Due to the ability of these organizations to influence the judicial system and its method of largely basing its decisions off confessions and testimonials demonstrates that the Colombian judicial system was ineffective in enacting the rule of law and contributing to the fight against ending the drug trade in Colombia.

Comparably, Peru has also faced issues regarding its judicial system being able to formally handle the rise of coca plant cultivation and cocaine production. Although it has struggled, Peru did not face the same issues that Colombia had to face regarding the influence and deep ties that cartels had created within the Colombian governments’ judicial and political branches. Furthermore, Peru hasn’t faced the same serious threats that Colombia has regarding revolutionary forces like the FARC and AUC groups. Although both Colombia and Peru have struggled to combat the drug trade judicially, Peru’s judicial system has largely been playing the role of ‘catch-up’ because of the sudden rise of powerful cartels, the creation of the cocaine industry, and the growing threat of the political guerrilla group; the Shinning Path. This is evident through its inability to pass legislation making the consumption of psychoactive drugs illegal and properly persecuting individuals who have committed drug-related crimes (Lerner, 1998). Ultimately, the Peruvian legal system lacks integrity and authority regarding drug control due to the reason that it has had traditional ties to the coca leaf as well as a large portion of its rural population being involved in the cultivation and production of coca paste and or cocaine. Thusly, it is difficult to change a social phenomenon like this because the use of the coca plant has been engrained and accepted into the social norm and had been legally tolerated until the 1970’s.

            Comparatively, both Colombia and Peru have utilized the methods of interdiction. One aspect of interdiction that has been used to combat the cultivation of illicit drugs such as the poppy and coca leaf has been the use of aerial fumigation. Although both governments have used this method, it has proven to be ineffective and highly damaging to the eco-system and inhabitants of the area because of the use of harmful herbicides and pesticides. Heather Ahn-Redding expands on why aerial fumigation has proven to be problematic specifically in Colombia. She explains that this method of eradication has become difficult because drug trade organization continually move further southward following each aerial fumigation raid. Simply, the more aerial raids the Colombian government conducted the farther south these drug trading groups moved their crops resulting in the aircraft performing the fumigating to fly deeper into rebel territory making them vulnerable to ground fire (2005). In both Colombia and Peru, quantitative data demonstrates why this method of eradication was ineffective,

…between 1989 and 1992 resulted in a tiny reduction of coca fields from 121,300 hectares to 120,000, according to US government surveys. The financial losses to the guerrillas were not significant. Similarly, in Colombia, despite massive drug eradication efforts in the 1990s, the amount of coca grown in South America stayed about the same, around 200,000 hectares… (Felbab-Brown, 2005, p. 36)

 Lastly, the use of aerial fumigation in both Colombia and Peru negatively impacted the eco-systems, livestock, and people living in these areas. It made the lands that were sprayed ill fertile because of the harsh herbicides and pesticides used. To conclude, this method of interdiction would not have needed to be used had the Colombian and Peruvian governments utilized alternative methods of interdiction rather than opt for a poison which not only negatively impacted the environment but also the citizens of these nations.

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            One of the major hurdles that both the Colombian and Peruvian governments have had to tackle to combat the trade of illegal drugs has been finding a way to expand and enact their political and military will in every corner of the country. This has proven difficult because both Colombia and Peru lack the infrastructure to allow individuals to access all parts of the country. Furthermore, the geography of Colombia and Peru are mountainous and are apart of the Amazon rainforest; sprawling with dense vegetation making difficult to travel.[3] Continually, with the rise of guerrilla forces in both Colombia and Peru, these groups have utilized the terrain to their advantage specifically in the regions of Caqueta and Meta in Colombia and the valleys of Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro in Peru. In Colombia, the group known as FARC made things particularly complex for Colombian governments to solve as it stood as a significant military threat to the security of the country. The FARC was also heavily involved in the illegal drug trade and was often united with traffickers against the Colombian government. Melo (1998) explains this relationship: “The guerrillas received resources and access to contacts who provided them with arms. While the drug trade gained a means of protecting crops.” (p. 80). United and sharing resources, the traffickers and guerrilla groups posed a prominent political threat to the Colombian government. Ultimately, the Colombian government was ill-equipped to handle such an active threat because of its weak judicial system and lack of political influence outside of urban centres and as a result, these groups were able to engage in the trade of illegal substances largely unopposed.

            In Peru, it too also faced strong opposition from a guerrilla group known as the Shinning Path; a group founded on Maoist ideology that operated primarily in the Upper Huallaga Valley during the early 1980’s. Like Colombia and the FARC, the Shining Path also engaged in the trade of illegal drugs and offered protection to traffickers. Although Colombia and Peru both had to combat guerrilla groups, Peru was largely successful in eliminating the threat that the Shining Path posed. It accomplished this by swaying the support of the peasantry living in the Upper Huallaga Valley to align with the governments military forces thus enabling the Army to engage the Shining Path and greatly reduce its numbers, ousting it from the valley and eliminating its support structure. Although Peru was successful in eliminating the threat of the Shining Path it failed to bring an end to the drug trafficking problem following the election of Peru’s President Alan García in 1985.[4] Consequently, Garcia ended the military campaign in the valley and utilized methods of interdiction rather than military force. Accordingly, traffickers were able to thrive and began to grow their operations as they stood unopposed. Unfortunately, this cycle of military repression and drug trafficking resurgence continued until the mid 1990’s. Even with military repression, Peru, like Colombia, faced corruption problems as its military officers, “…earning $283 (division general) to $213 (second lieutenant) a month would have to face the task of arresting criminals that could offer them the possibility of earning up to 70,000$ a year.” (Dreyfus, 1998, p. 28). In sum, Colombia and Peru have faced the issue of guerrilla groups and powerful drug trafficking organization. While Colombia faced harsh opposition from cartels and the FARC; it was largely unable to deal with these issues, militarily and politically simply opting for a peace treaty. On the other hand, Peru was intermittently successful in eliminating the Communist group known as the Shining Path through the use of military force and then resorting to interdiction tactics. The striking aspect that both these countries have faced is the problem of high corruption rates largely a by-product of poor economic standing resulting in weak security, judicial, and political institutions.

            To conclude, Colombia and Peru have faced many issues due to the rise and dominance of the international drug trade. The trade of illegal drugs has impacted all areas of society and continues to be a place of contention in the Western world. For Colombia and Peru, the illegal drug trade became prominent through different means. In Peru it started through tradition and out of necessity, comparatively, in Colombia it was started through cartels. Although both countries began engaging in the trade of illegal drugs under different circumstances, the governments of these countries have utilized similar methods to combat the trade of illegal drugs. The first method utilized by both Colombia and Peru was varying aspects of interdiction. Notably, initiating programs of crop substitution and of destroying coca and poppy plantations using aerial fumigation. These two methods proved to be ineffective as the cartels and paramilitary groups in both Colombia and Peru continued to grow their operations and the number of hectares only diminished slightly. In the case of Peru, crop substitution programs failed because it was more lucrative for the peasantry to grow the coca plant rather than change and begin growing other crops; a similar case in Colombia. In the end, many Colombian’s and Peruvian individuals continued to engage in the production and trade of illegal drugs because of their country’s weak political institutions and severe economic crisis making it enticing for communities to engage in the illegal drug trade as it created work and it paid a significant amount. Secondly, the judicial branches in Colombia and Peru were ill-ready for the wave of crime and illegal activity produced by the trade of illegal drugs. Even with policies passed, both countries judicial systems were easily corrupted and were not designed to readily produce convictions against the individuals engaging in the trafficking of narcotics. Lastly, Colombia and Peru faced similar problems regarding paramilitary forces such as the FARC and the Shining Path. These groups were able to thrive as the governments of Colombia and Peru utilized the methods of interdiction and weak military action. Even when these paramilitary groups and cartels were brought into court, the problem of weak judicial institutions and rampant corruption played a part in these countries being unable to stop the rise of the illegal drug trade. Ultimately, Colombia and Peru have been fighting a loosing battle due to ineffective political institutions, poor economic circumstances, and rampant corruption throughout their security and judicial institutions.


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[1] Affairs, B. f. (2017, March). International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Drug and Chemical Control. Retrieved from U.S Department of State: https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/268025.pdf

[2] Gomez, C. (2018). Peru’s Debt Crisis and Subsequent Shock Economy. [online] International.ucla.edu. Available at: http://international.ucla.edu/institute/article/19898 [Accessed 19 Nov. 2018].

[3]M. Liliana. (2016). Deforestation and Coca Cultivation Rooted in Twentieth – Century Development Projects. [online] Oxford Academic: American Institute of Biological Sciences. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/66/11/974/2754290 [Accessed 20 Nov. 2018].

[4] Dreyfus, P. G. (1998, September 24). COCAINE, THE MILITARY AND SHINING PATH, 1980-1995. Geneva, Switzerland.


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