By Mary Ryder.
In June 2022 the Colombian Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition launched its final report, Hay Futuro Si Hay Verdad: Hallazgos y Recomendaciones (There is a Future if There is Truth: Findings and Recommendations). This was the culmination of three and half years of work investigating the causes and consequences of decades of armed conflict in the country, developing a wide-ranging set of recommendations to support the transition to peace.
Colombia’s Truth Commission had a hugely ambitious mandate and introduced a number of innovations, including working with pedagogy as an operational pillar, integrating feminist methodologies, exploring the mobilities of drugs and money in the conflict, and collecting testimonies beyond the borders of the nation. It faced myriad political challenges and ran throughout the global pandemic. The release of its final report and its acceptance by Colombia’s new President, Gustavo Petro, renew prospects for peace in the country and signal the enormous responsibility for Colombian society to widely acknowledge the truths the final report presents and work towards its recommendations.
Colleagues from the Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies and the School of Education at the University of Bristol have been working with the Colombian Truth Commission since its inception, supporting the innovative work described above. Funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the University of Bristol and support from the MEMPAZ and EdJAM projects have enabled the development of gender-sensitive methodologies for collecting testimonies and the collection and transcription of thousands of testimonies from women and LGTBQI+ people affected by conflict. Commissioners Alejandra Miller, who led the Commission’s innovative work on gender, and Carlos Beristain, who led its work collecting testimonies from Colombians in exile, both visited the university in 2019, as did members of the pedagogy and gender working groups (see more here).
Along with another University of Bristol doctoral researcher, Laura Hankin, I have worked closely with the Truth Commission throughout its operation. Here I reflect upon the key role of the drugs working group, to which I contributed, and the importance of understanding the complex relationship between the movement of drugs – and of capital generated by the illegal trade – and the armed conflict in Colombia.
Drugs in the Truth Commission
The Colombian Truth Commission is the first in the world to meaningfully investigate the role of illegal drug economies in an armed conflict, and to dispute the continuation of UN conventions on international drug prohibition by recognising their damaging and counter-productive impact on Colombia’s transition from war to peace.
Drug economies were central to the Commission’s mandate, which explicitly called for an investigation into the relationship between Colombia’s armed conflict and the cultivation of illegal crops, the production and commercialisation of illegal drugs, and the laundering of assets derived from drug trafficking.
The team responsible for this work sought to expand upon existing literature and research that has tended to reduce illegal drugs-trafficking to a means of financing Colombia’s armed conflict, and to contest a longstanding political discourse that blames illegal drugs-trafficking as the source of all problems in Colombia. A deliberate choice was made to focus not just on drugs-trafficking but on understanding the dynamics of regional drug economies – of which trafficking is just one part – and how these interact with the conflict. We also took a broad view of who is involved – from citizens, police, guerrilla and paramilitary groups to politicians and local authorities – who is benefitting from them, and who is suffering because of them.
For more than three years we delved into the Truth Commission’s archives to explore the regulations and controls that different armed groups in Colombia held over drug production, trafficking and consumption in the regions under their control; the conflation of counter-insurgency efforts with counter-drug policy efforts, and the militarisation of state-citizen relations in these regions; the impact of forced eradication and aerial spraying of glyphosate on campesinos, different ethnic groups and on the movement of money in Colombian territories; and campaign financing and the corruption of politics and public institutions through incomes from the illegal drug trade, among other dynamics.
The Commission’s findings reveal a complex web of entangled networks, comprised of political, armed and civilian members involved in the production, supply or use of illegal drugs, which varied widely across the different regions of Colombia and at different moments of the armed conflict. The report describes how the circulation of drugs became a means of accumulating wealth and power for these different actors, which generated violence on Colombian society and caused corruption in many institutions and politics.
Another key conclusion of the final report is that Colombia’s traditional political conflict was exacerbated and degraded by the punitive, prohibitionist ‘war on drugs’. Drug prohibition criminalised anyone involved in the production, supply or use of illegal drugs, which stigmatised their behaviour as ‘wrong’ or ‘immoral’ and in turn justified acts of violence against them. For example, systematic human rights violations were exercised against drug users by armed actors as a mechanism to gain acceptance among the wider population, many of whom deemed it a valid and desirable way to deal with people considered ‘disposable’, ‘flawed’ and ‘dangerous’.
The ‘war on drugs’ also resulted in the transformation of the armed forces, whose attention was diverted from citizen protection to destroying coca fields and drug laboratories and pursuing drugs-traffickers, often against the will of many rural communities whose livelihoods depended on illegal crop production. These prohibitionist policies not only failed to shut down these illegal economies, but they played a key role in scaling up the violence.
The Commission’s recommendations for the non-repetition of violence state that Colombian leaders must now recognise how drug economies have penetrated the country’s culture, economy and politics and how the global ‘war on drugs’ is continuing to drive its armed conflict in the present. In particular, it recommends that the new Colombian government leads and promotes an international debate to reform drug policy in cooperation with the United States and to move toward legal regulation. The report is unequivocal that this change is urgent and necessary to eliminate one of the key structural drivers of conflict in the country.
The work discussed above is presented in chapter 6 of the final report Hay Futuro Si Hay Verdad and in three case studies which expose, first, the repression and stigmatisation of coca-growing farmers in the armed conflict, second, the militarisation of Colombia’s Macarena region under the logic of the ‘war on drugs’, and third, the victimisation of people using drugs.