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Another UN agency savages the drug war

Originally posted here

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the UN agency charged with developing strategies to reduce global poverty, has strongly criticised current international drug policy, highlighting the disastrous costs it is producing – particularly for the world’s poor.

In the agency’s formal submission to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs (PDF), launched at the annual UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs which began last week in Vienna, the UNDP argues:

"While drug control policies have been justified by the real and potential harms associated with illicit drug production, trafficking, and use (e.g., threats to safety and security, health problems, crime, decreased productivity, unemployment, and poverty), evidence shows that in many countries, policies and related enforcement activities focused on reducing supply and demand have had little effect in eradicating production or problematic drug use."

The agency goes on to say:

"As various UN organizations have observed, these efforts have had harmful collateral consequences: creating a criminal black market; fuelling corruption, violence, and instability; threatening public health and safety; generating large-scale human rights abuses, including abusive and inhumane punishments; and discrimination and marginalization of people who use drugs, indigenous peoples, women, and youth".

With regard to the harmful impacts on international development specifically, the UNDP states that international drug policy is having a negative effect on “poverty and sustainable livelihoods; governance and the rule of law; human rights; gender equality; the environment; and on indigenous peoples and traditional and religious practices.”  Detailed sections on each of these topic areas follow in the body of the report.

View From the Ground: Rosario, Argentina

In early January around 2,000 members of Argentina’s military-style border force – known as the gendarmeria – left the country’s second city of Rosario.  They had arrived 9 months earlier, on April 9th, carried clandestinely into the city as part of an elaborate rouse involving a fake climate change conference.  In a surprise display of force the local press justifiably described as “cinematic”, six helicopters hovered above while more than 80 raids were launched on known ‘bunkers’, the one room buildings that serve as illicit drug dispensers and are almost wholly located in the villas, the poor neighbourhoods that form a loose rim around the city centre.  At the forefront of proceedings was the National Security Secretary, Segio Berni.  “This was the largest operation in the history of Argentina, with the objective of pacifying the area of Rosario,” he told the press.

Since 2012 drug trafficking and violence have become issues of public debate in the city.  The violence and the trafficking had been going on in isolation in the villas, separate from the affluent heart of the city, but the issue was forced into the public eye and onto the political agenda thanks to the dedicated work of the activist organisation Frente Popular Dario Santillan after three of its members were killed on New Year’s Day 2012 by a local drug gang who mistook them for rivals.  Since a spike in mid-2010, violence has been spiralling upwards.  The city’s homicide rate is now the highest in the country.  Overwhelmingly, the victims are young men and boys; confrontations between rival gangs involved in the drug trade – generally small outfits, and often family-run – are considered to be behind a sizeable proportion of the deaths.  In response, “insecurity” has become the buzzword among politicians and the media.  It’s election time here at the moment and the posters blanketing every advertising space promise to combat insecurity, to bring back security, to make Rosario normal again.  Official mentions of the root causes – poverty, exclusion, corruption – are rare.  Policies designed to address them are even rarer.  (I know an activist group that struggled for a year and a half just to have lights put above a football pitch so the kids in one villa could have something to do in the evenings.)  The growing use of Argentina as a transit point for cocaine headed to Europe has increased the stakes and likely contributed to the violence, as have a provincial police force heavily involved in the trade and the lacklustre efforts of the judiciary and the government.  But in the public mind, and according to government policy, the embodiment of insecurity, the cause and the consequence, is a drugged-up 16 year old with a gun (a forthcoming GDPO Situation Analysis will discuss the treatment of children here involved in the trade).  “What these kids need,” local journalist, author, and political candidate Carlos del Frade told me, “is education, sport, art, activities.  They don’t need the gendarmeria in the neighbourhood.”  But that’s what they got.

It was something of an omen of things to come that while the mega-operation of April 9th looked impressive, the haul that day – 25 low-level actors involved in small-scale selling, “three guns, a couple of thousand dollars and some drugs”, quoting the former governor of the province – was less so.  The gendarmeria continued the established trend of pursuing the lowest and most visible link in the trafficking chain. Over their 9 month stay they did reduce violence in certain areas of the city; when they were replaced by the provincial police, shootings resumed.  Their presence also resembled an occupation and abuses were reported.  A university study of one area found selling alcohol was not permitted after 10pm, shopping receipts needed to be kept at hand to show proof of purchase, youngsters were detained arbitrarily and prevented from gathering outside, and people riding motorbikes were constantly stopped and searched.  Drug traffickers, local sources suggest, responded by selling more at night, and switching from ‘retail’ selling to ‘delivery’ – a text message is sent and a motorbike appears with the goods.  After the bandage was ripped off in January the blood began flowing again – as would be expected.

Party politics is central to all this.  When the gendarmeria were withdrawn, Berni, of the ruling Frente Para la Victoria party, could not resist using the opportunity to fire some parting shots at the Socialists who govern Rosario and Santa Fe.  The Socialists blame the national government for not sealing up the borders and not acting on drug trafficking, which is a federal, not provincial crime.  The national government blame local corruption.  Both have a case.  Berni rightly took some flak for politicising the issue, but this was merely an open recognition of what previous actions have made clear.  Even major operations are largely reactive and serve to score political points: when the provincial government were impelled to move on the city’s biggest drugs gang two years ago, the national government sent their forces into the province to capture a powerful drug trafficker – “I’m caught in the middle of a political war”, he somewhat justifiably told the press.  Nice rhetoric aside, the national government, which has sworn not to follow a War on Drugs approach, has done exactly that with the sending of the gendarmeria.

For now there are few signs things will improve.  Post-gendarmeria, the public debate is focused on the narrow question of whether they should come back or not; the governor of the province, Antonio Bonafatti, is adamant they return.  The national government seems to be enjoying watching their provincial rivals suffer.  Not enough is being done or said, on a national or provincial level, about the conditions behind the violence and trafficking – present in many cities across the country – or about the corruption in the police, the judiciary and the government; some local experts are incensed the provincial government didn’t use the breathing space provided by the national forces to overhaul the notoriously corrupt police force.  The short term seems to be the sole consideration for parties focused on upcoming elections. “The long term exists only for theoretical dalliances,” remarked a local columnist while discussing the dominance of the “security” issue within local political campaigns.  But serious, sustained programs designed to address deep-rooted issues are imperative if the many youngsters growing up in the villas who feel helpless and excluded and angry, who have lost a sense of value for life, are to have a better future than the one offered to them today.  Youngsters like 23 year old Pablo Martinez, who died this February while playing russian roulette.

By Ross Eventon

Worrying proposals to discuss the international scheduling of Ketamine at the CND in March 2015

As noted in the 2014 TNI – IDPC report Scheduling in the international drug control system, although often viewed as an obscure technical issue, the problem of scheduling lies at the core of the functioning of the international drug control system. Scheduling – the classification of a substance within a graded system of controls and restrictions, or ‘schedules’ – must take place in order for a substance to be included in the international control framework, and determines the type and intensity of controls to be applied. For this reason, the topic is of central importance.  Within this context, recent years have seen ketamine become an increasing point of contention.  Concerned by ‘recreational use’, some states, China key among them, have been pushing for international control of the drug.  This goes against repeated recommendations from the WHO, the body responsible for providing expert guidance on scheduling decisions within the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND).  As the WHO points out, while some non-medical use certainly takes place within some parts of the world, international scheduling would likely have damaging consequences on medical access to the drug (a WHO listed essential medicine) in developing countries.  Here it is the only available anaesthetic for essential surgery in most rural areas.

This Fact Sheet on the Proposal to Discuss International Scheduling of Ketamine at the 58th CND – endorsed by a wide range of civil society organisations, including the GDPO – provides background on the issue and explains why international scheduling would go against all the scientific evidence on the issue, be procedurally unsound and generate considerable negative public health impacts in parts of the world where there is already an acute crisis in essential surgery.

GDPO Summer School Success

In July, Global Drug Policy Observatory staff Professors David Bewley Taylor and Julia Buxton delivered the 10 day intensive Human Rights and Drug Policy summer school, at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary. Funded by the Open Society’s Global Drug Policy Programme, the summer school was attended by 24 participants from across the world. This included colleagues from Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Lithuania, Tajikistan, Hungary, Jamaica, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, United States of America, Poland, Ireland and the United Kingdom. With backgrounds in journalism, social work, harm reduction, legal services, advocacy, political service and the security sector, the participants brought extensive professional experience to the course, which presented an excellent opportunity for global networking and knowledge exchange.

The summer school was delivered by academics and practitioners through lectures, discussion groups and workshops that enabled participants to analyse core issues and debates at the interface of human rights and drug policy. This began with David Bewley Taylor’s day-long session exploring the treaty framework and institutions of the international drug control regime administered by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Key questions included the remit and mandate of bodies such as the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), and the extent to which current reform of cannabis laws constitute a breach of the 1961 Single Convention. On the second day, participants considered international human rights conventions and obligations supported by key cases in human rights law. Delivered by Damon Barrett, Deputy Director and Head of Research and Advocacy at the Harm Reduction International and Director of the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy, the session incorporated a focus on the rights of children and of minority religious groups particularly Rastafari.

Niamh Eastwood, the Executive Director of the drug policy reform and legal services organisation Release delivered the third day’s session. This addressed racial disparities in drug policy enforcement, trends in incarceration for drug related offences, and, returning to a theme raised earlier by Bewley Taylor, the politics of drug scheduling. Course participants welcomed back Peter Sarosi and Denes Balazs from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) at the end of the week. The first engagement for participants at the beginning of the course had been an informative and moving visit to a needle injecting facility with Peter Sarosi. In this second session with HCLU, participants enjoyed a day of media training in drugs advocacy. This involved submitting to a recorded camera interview, which was played back to the class for comments.

As the summer school is an intensive course, designed to maximise the ability of professionals to take time from work to attend, participants were back in the classroom on Saturday with Dr Katherine Pettus, Advocacy Officer at the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care. This was a challenging session, requiring participants to focus on the impacts in poor and developing countries of lack of access to essential medicines. The session threaded with earlier discussions on the scheduling of controlled drugs and the role of drug control bodies (CND but particularly the INCB) in impeding access to medicines that are essential for pain relief in terminal illness. Participants did enjoy a break on the Sunday, with the majority taking the opportunity of a boat cruise along the Danube to Szentendre.

The final three days of the course were delivered by Kasia Malinowska Sempruch the Director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Programme and Julia Buxton. With Kasia, participants examined the record and principles of global harm reduction initiatives, including safe injecting facilities and methadone maintenance programmes. The impact on women of drug policy enforcement was considered, developing the argument forwarded earlier in the course by Niamh Eastwood relating to bias in the policing and treatment of drug-related offences. Julia Buxton examined why the international community focuses attention on naturally occurring (cocaine and opioid) drugs that are produced in the Global South, rather than more widely abused synthetic drugs manufactured in Europe, North America and China. Following this discussion, participants considered the cost paid by developing and conflict prone countries in their role as ‘front line’ states in the international drug war. The final session was applied in orientation, and focused on writing drug policy reports. Participants presented and discussed different topics for a Situation Analysis, supporting each other in constructing brief, focused analytical pieces.

Feedback from the course was extremely positive, with friendship and close working relations making for excellent group dynamics throughout the 10 day period of study. This was the final year Human Rights and Drug policy will be delivered at the CEU, with the course relocating to other institutions in India, Ghana and Mexico for 2015. With Julia Buxton’s move to the School of Public Policy at the CEU in January 2015, work will begin to develop a Masters level programme in Human Rights and Drug Policy; a programme that will aim to maintain a close relationship with Swansea University and the GDPO.

2014 The World Drug Report: The Titanic sails at dawn

This post was originally published here by the International Drug Policy Consortium.

As it its customary practice, the UNODC released its flagship publication on June 26th, the UN’s designated ‘International day against drug abuse and trafficking’ as well as the occasion of the ‘Support Don’t Punish’ day of action, which seeks to draw attention to the collateral damage of the ‘war on drugs’. So the growing debate over the failure of the international drug control system, which has now entered mainstream political discussion, provides the context for the publication of the most recent World Drug Report.

UNODC Executive Director Yuri Fedotov acknowledged that the Report is being published at a key moment for drug policy. As ever, the UN claims to be external to these disputes and to constitute a neutral source of data, the Report continues to position the UNODC as a supporter of the current drug control regime and the international treaties that underpin it. In his Foreword, Mr. Fedotov refers to the recent Commission on Narcotic Drugs as providing a ‘much needed forum for an open and inclusive dialogue’, and to ‘a shared understanding of a way forward’ to counter the ‘world drug problem’. This, at best, is wishful thinking. The Report’s fundamental terms are not up for negotiation. What exactly the ‘world drug problem’ is (i.e. the lack of access to essential medicines for billions of people, the alienation produced by drug law policing, the market opportunity the system offers to organised crime) is a question that the Report does not ask, let alone answer.

As to the main body of the 2014 World Drug Report, the most prominent headlining issue recalls a familiar narrative at the UNODC: the stability of global drug use, its containment by the present drug control arrangements, which restrict drug use to about 5 per cent of the world population – some 243 million individuals having illicitly consumed drugs in 2012. ‘Problem drug users’ have meanwhile continued to represent about 0.6 per cent of the global population, around 1 in every 200 individuals. Opium production in Afghanistan and Myanmar has expanded, while Novel Psychoactive Substances continue to proliferate. Global use of cannabis ‘seems to be down’, but has increased in North America. Although these data can inevitably only provide us with approximations, they are impressive enough, and will be analysed in depth when IDPC produces its annual response to the World Drug Report (to be released in early October).

But for now, in the build up to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs in 2016, when the consensus of which the UNODC speaks is fast disappearing, a more clear-eyed recognition of the facts is needed. As countries around the world grow weary of a system devised in very different circumstances and that fails to meet the policy needs of the contemporary age, the time for platitudes is surely past.

Christopher Hallam, IDPC Research Officer

Peace Wins in Colombia

When the Colombian presidential elections headed into a run-off in May, and voters were given the choice between the right-wing incumbent Santos administration and Óscar Iván Zuluaga, a right-wing protégé of former President Alvaro Uribe Velez, journalist Mario López, writing in the local newspaper El Espectador, noted, “Whichever candidate wins the country is not going to change its economic model, this is the reason the establishment has supported and financed both candidates in the same proportion.  The only considerable difference is the peace process moving forward in Havana, and, perhaps, the personal style of leadership.”  The article was titled “War or Peace?”  Zuluaga’s stance softened slightly in respect to the talks, but for those opposed to both the right and the ultra-right an essential dilemma remained: vote to save the peace process in its current form, or submit a blank vote in protest at the constrained choice?  (A cartoon doing the rounds on social media showed a cow standing at the crux of two paths, one with a sign saying ‘Santos’, the other ‘Zuluaga’.  After a small distance the paths could be seen to converge and enter a dark tunnel, above which a sign read “Well-being”, replacing the scrubbed-out but still legible “Slaughterhouse”).   It looks like the decision by centre and left wing groups to support Santos may have been the critical factor in giving him a 5 point victory in the run-off, ensuring the survival of the peace talks and the tentative steps that have so far been made, including the agreed upon but not-yet-finalised commitments to radically alter the country’s approach to the questions of illicit drug production and consumption.  Leading opposition figures afterwards celebrated the victory under the banner “Peace Won.”   Left wing senator Ivan Cepeda Castro told local press that the vote for Santos was a pragmatic one. Those who made the choice, he said, would not forfeit their role as the opposition.

The elections have been a reminder of the conservative sentiments held by powerful sectors of Colombian society and a significant proportion of the population (a recent poll suggested only about half of Colombians thought democracy was preferable to authoritarianism, a result that maybe says more about the specific nature of what ‘democracy’ has entailed in the country rather than widespread anti-democratic sentiments among the people).  It also demonstrated the fragility of even minor progressive gains in the current political climate.

Just prior to the run-off, the government announced they would be opening peace talks with the second largest guerilla group in the country, the ELN (The National Liberation Army), in the near future.

Resistance to a ‘War on Drugs’ in West Africa

It has long been known that the most cost-effective way to combat the drug trade is through treatment, prevention, and education at home.  These methods continue to be underfunded in the the main consumer countries.  Instead, the focus is on supply, a policy choice that has, among many other disastrous implications, served to push routes around the globe in a cat and mouse war of attrition between cartels and law enforcement agencies.  In recent years, West Africa has experienced an uptick in interdictions of illicit drugs bound for Europe.  This has inevitably led to official discussion, mainly among foreign states and agencies, of the need to confront the trafficking problem through militarised, punitive, supply-focused means.  Civil society and observers of the drug war elsewhere have been arguing against such an approach.  GDPO itself has produced two reports on the region.  Last November a report discussed the strategic goals that underlie the agenda being pushed by foreign actors, and this month another policy brief highlighted the risks involved in a War on Drugs type approach to the region.  The Institute of Development Studies released a paper on West Africa this month, written by a technical advisor to GDPO.  The report is a critique of the calls for “building up increased regional law enforcement and interdiction capacities to curb illicit flows.”  In a similar vein, the West Africa Commission on Drugs, a group of experts headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, this month released a comprehensive assessment of the present situation in the region.  The group warn against the adoption of War on Drugs-style policies and reiterate a now common conclusion: “that criminalisation of drug use worsens health and social problems, puts huge pressures on the criminal justice system and incites corruption.”  Instead they recommend partial decriminalisation, and that drugs be treated as a public health concern.  Such high-level advocacy is an important step in saving West Africa from the drug policy related nightmares experienced elsewhere.

The Commission’s report is online here.


A Temporary Aberration?

The punitive element of the War on Drugs at home has led to record rates of incarceration.  Of the world’s entire prison population, twenty five percent are now in the US.  More than half the inmates are there on drug-related charges, and of these the majority were arrested for simple possession.

On this note, here is an excerpt from a speech given in 1993 by Federal Judge Jack B. Weinstein of Brooklyn, New York, at the Cardozo School of Law, in Manhattan:

“The sentencing guidelines which Congress requires judges to follow result, in the main, in the cruel imposition of excessive sentences, over-filling our jails and causing unnecessary havoc to families, society, and prisons. Most judges today take it for granted, as I do, that the applicable guideline for the defendant before them will represent an excessive sentence. Drug cases, particularly those involving low-level smugglers or “mules” who are poverty-stricken, present a special problem, because the sentences mandated are so overwhelming.  I am now so depressed by the drug situation that this week I sent a memorandum to all the judges and magistrate judges in my district stating:

One day last week I had to sentence a peasant woman from West Africa to forty-six months in a drug case. The result for her young children will undoubtedly be, as she suggested, devastating. On the same day I sentenced a man to thirty years as a second drug offender – a heavy sentence mandated by the Guidelines and statute. These two cases confirm my sense of frustration about much of the cruelty I have been party to in connection with the “war on drugs” that is being fought by the military, police, and courts rather than by our medical and social institutions.  I myself am unsure how this drug problem should be handled, but I need a rest from the oppressive sense of futility that these drug cases leave. Accordingly, I have taken my name out of the wheel for drug cases. This resolution leaves me uncomfortable since it shifts the “dirty work” to other judges.  At the moment, however, I simply cannot sentence another impoverished person whose destruction can have no discernible effect on the drug trade. I wish I were in a position to propose some solution but I am not. I’m just a tired old judge who has temporarily filled his quota of remorselessness. 

Until we can address and deal with the rotten aspects of our society that lead to drug dependence, we will not deal effectively with the drug problem.  I believe that in the future we will look back on this horrendous period of overpunishment as a temporary American aberration. Apart from everything else, the expense of this foolishness is too great for the taxpayers to bear.”

PG Network Meeting Held in London

The PG Network held it’s 3rd official meeting on Friday 25th April at Kings College London.

The network continues to grow and this time we welcomed three new members to the group: Burke Basaranel, Emrah Ozdemir and David Perez Esparza.

The network members all gave a short summary of their research and John Collins reported back to the group on the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting held in Vienna in March 2014.

The next meeting will be held in Bristol at the end of July (date and venue tbc).  New members always welcome!

A Partial Solution ; The Colombian Government, the FARC, and the drugs issue at the peace talks

On May 16th the Colombian government announced an agreement had been reached with the FARC guerrilla on the latest issue under discussion at the peace talks in Havana, Cuba: “A Solution to the Problem of Illicit Drugs.”  The points agreed upon, which were provided in an accompanying text, suggest some positive steps away from the repressive, militarised approach which has been so disastrous for the people of Colombia and the region.

In a break with the official discourse of the past, illicit drugs are separated from the internal conflict between the FARC and the government.  There is a recognition that “the continuation of [illicit] cultivation is linked partly to the existence of conditions of poverty, marginalisation and weak state presence, as well as the existence of criminal organisations dedicated to narco-trafficking.”  Eradication operations have been a mainstay of government policy, but if the agreement holds this looks set to change.  The FARC have long been calling for crop substitution and alternative development in rural areas, and while the government has adopted some piecemeal efforts, the text implies such initiatives will now take precedence and will be guided by the freshly created “community assemblies”, thereby granting some local democratic governance to drug policy.  Crop destruction should be voluntary the text says, but in cases where growers refuse the government will go ahead with forced eradication.  Fumigation is not mentioned, but the head of the government delegation to the talks has said spraying would remain an option in “extreme cases.”  The text notes that the FARC remain opposed to spraying and want all eradication to be manual.

There are important prescriptions for consumption-side policies, which will “focus on human rights and public health” and on evidence-based solutions, to be implemented with the participation of local communities.  A shift in approach has been in the works for some time.  “Almost literally, they took what we had said in the Government Advisory Commission on Drug Policy,” one of its members told the Colombian press.  The Commission was created by President Santos last year.  At its head was ex-president Cesar Gaviria, one of the former Latin American leaders who had earlier been part of a report that argued for a “paradigm shift” in drug policy in the region.  The Commission has endorsed the position articulated in a widely-publicised Organisation of American States report, initiated at the behest of Santos and Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and published in May 2013.  Perhaps unsurprisingly given the impact of the War on Drugs in the region, the first multilateral body to present a harsh condemnation of the policies was primarily Latin American.  The two reports represented high-level recognition of the problems inherent in the drugs policies pushed by Washington for the previous four decades.

There are other important elements of the agreement worth mentioning here: a commitment from the  government to focus on the higher-level members of the drug trade, on money laundering, trafficking in precursors, and corruption; a joint recognition of the need for global consensus on drug policy; government recognition of the use of coca by indigenous peoples; and it was also announced that the FARC will give the government the locations of anti-personnel mines used to protect crop growing areas.

But optimism should be tempered, not least by the text’s own caveat that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”  The agreement on one of the most politically charged issues in the country comes just prior to elections in which the incumbents are being challenged by a party openly hostile to the continuation of the talks.  It is difficult not to assume that this was a motivator in getting the deal done on time.  There are indications the FARC made some concessions in the short term.  In a statement released immediately after the agreement was announced, the FARC’s negotiating team said there were one or two elements that still needed to be addressed, as there also were, they added, in the previous two agreements on ‘Integral Agricultural Development Policy’ and ‘Political Participation’.   Three issues were raised in relation to drugs.  First, FARC representatives reemphasised the need for a new government approach that “focused its efforts on the persecution and imprisonment of the main beneficiaries of the illicit drug market, as well as in the dismantling of transnational trafficking networks and money laundering.”  This would be supported by a Commission made up of experts and civil society “for the design of a new democratic and participative national anti-drug policy.”  A second point called for the immediate suspension of chemical spraying and for reparations to be paid to the victims, and a third for the creation of a national conference with a principal task of looking into the commercialisation and production of drugs by the paramilitaries.

The Colombian government’s history of promises and law-making on vital issues also invites scepticism.  The text may acknowledge indigenous use of coca, but the rights of the indigenous population, which are guaranteed in Colombia’s constitution, are routinely violated.  And how can the appalling effect of fumigation be squared with the government’s new commitment to “take into consideration the respect for human rights, the environment and the buen vivir” during eradication operations?  It is also not clear how much of the wording was simply a FARC effort to save face; the mention of a rejection of “intervention in the internal affairs of states” seems almost comical given extent of US involvement in Colombia.  Until these agreements are codified and transferred into practice, it is impossible to judge their merit.

Moving away from the talks in Havana, there are broader issues that need to be addressed before a ‘solution’ can be seriously discussed.  As the talks opened, Colombian officials made very clear that the country’s economic model was not up for negotiation.  But it can hardly be separated from the drugs issue.  Aggressive economic ‘liberalisation’ over the past two decades has exacerbated already shocking levels of wealth and land inequality.  The fact that UNDP statistics show 1% of land owners hold half the agricultural land is central to any discussion of illicit cultivation.  As is the health of Colombia’s rural economy.  One impact of the economic model has been the progressive undermining of traditional agricultural production, a process that reached its zenith in 2012 with the coming into effect of a Free Trade Agreement with the United States.  US-subsidised goods now ‘compete’ with local produce unprotected by tariffs.  Oxfam reported at the time that a predicted 1.8 million farmers in Colombia would be adversely effected.  The charity outlined three survival options for farmers: join the armed groups, leave the countryside and join the millions of displaced living in slums surrounding the major cities, or switch to producing coca.  In this economic environment, crop-substitution and alternative development are merely bandages.  Agricultural workers staged enormous strikes in 2013 and again this year in response to these developments.  In both cases, farmers’ organisations cited the impact of neo-liberal reforms and the need to defend national production as the reasons they had resorted to such measures.

Beyond a meek reference to “corruption” the text makes no mention of the government’s long-established involvement with drug traffickers or its links – well-documented and both tacit and overt – with the paramilitaries, the rural death squads turned criminal syndicates heavily reliant on trafficking and other illicit activities.  One important role of the paramilitaries is to crush dissent to the economic model and the unjust social and political dispensation.  Human rights activists are systematically murdered in Colombia, and the number of killings has been rising in recent years – seventy eight were killed in 2013.  It is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade union leader; “In Colombia it’s safer to form a guerrilla group or a criminal band than a labor union,” states one opposition political leader.  The declaration of a new left-wing political movement called the Patriotic March notes the following:

“[The] economic model has led to increased degradation of sovereignty, greater concentration and centralization of wealth, increasing social inequality, insecurity and pauperization of labor, social and environmental depredation and the continued appropriation of social wealth and the fruits of labor through the dispossession and displacement of the population.”

Forty eight Patriotic March activists have been killed in the last two years.  In rural areas, paramilitary violence has driven people from their land, paving the way for corporate takeover; a former paramilitary described the nexus of collusion between the paramilitaries, the corporations and the government: “We went in killing, others followed buying, and the third group legalized.”  The number of displaced people, in a country where around 1o% of the population have been forced from their homes, has been rising in recent years, and communities seeking to return to their land face armed opposition; 71 people trying to get back home were killed between 2006 and 2011, with only one case leading to a criminal sentence.

For these reasons, the same context discussed in relation to the drugs issue needs to be applied to any talk of ‘peace’.  An agreement between the FARC and the government is hardly the end of violence in Colombia – there is another very real war where only one side has the weapons.  Here is a recent example, one more story in a history of paramilitary terror so shocking it sometimes defies belief.  In the city of Buenaventura  on the Pacific coast, paramilitaries – often referred to as “successor groups” following a demobilisation process widely considered to have been a sham – “restrict residents’ movements, recruit their children, extort their businesses, and routinely engage in horrific acts of violence against anyone who defies their will.”  Thirteen thousand people, mainly afro-Colombians, fled the city last year.  A report by Human Rights Watch explains why:

“Buenaventura residents in different parts of the city told Human Rights Watch that successor groups have houses known as casas de pique, or “chop-up houses,” where they take victims to dismember them, and from which neighbors can hear their screams and pleas for help. For example, for several months during 2013, residents of a waterfront neighborhood witnessed members of a successor group taking people into a “chop-up house” on a weekly basis. Afterward the members of the group would emerge carrying plastic bags, which the neighbors believed contained the dismembered corpses of the victims. On some occasions, screams coming from the house led witnesses to believe the victims were being dismembered alive. Residents saw the group take several victims’ remains to a nearby island on the bay.”

The report found that “authorities have not protected the population” from the paramilitaries, and, “even more troublingly, several inhabitants reported witnessing members of the police meet with the successor group in their neighborhoods.”  Unsurprisingly, “there is a profound distrust in authorities and a pervasive sense of defenselessness in the face of the groups’ constant abuses.”  As is generally the case with paramilitary violence and terror, impunity reigns.  Government officials have tried to downplay the seriousness of the situation by pointing to a falling homicide rate, but HRW note that this is only the result of “disappearances” not being classified as homicides.  The report gives an example of the price of resistance:

“Many residents of Buenaventura have lost all faith in the ability of the government to protect them. On September 13, 2013, hundreds of them participated in a march for peace led by the local Catholic bishop. The march wound through several of the city’s neighborhoods and ended on a soccer field, where the participants prayed for an end to the violence. The next day, a 23-year-old man’s head appeared on the field, with parts of his body scattered through nearby neighborhoods. When his family sought justice for the murder, they began receiving death threats and fled the city, joining the ranks of Buenaventura’s displaced.”

The group responsible are known as “Los Urabeños”, one of the largest drug trafficking organisations in the country.  In 2012 Human Rights Watch’s World Report noted that such groups “continue to grow, maintain extensive ties with public security force members and local officials, and commit widespread atrocities.”  Until this is addressed, talk of ‘peace’, while an important step, retains a hollow ring.  And, where drug cultivation is so intimately connected to paramilitary violence, displacement, and rural impoverishment, an agreement with the FARC should be welcomed, but with the recognition that it is only one side of the story.