Colombia, the world’s biggest producer of cocaine, is rethinking the war on drugs which it has waged for decades backed by U.S. military aid. Minutes after taking office last month, leftist President Gustavo Petro called for a new approach, saying in his inaugural speech that the policies pursued by Bogotá and the U.S. have fueled violence while failing to cut consumption. More details about the change of tack are emerging every week.

Here is what we know so far:

1. What is the new government doing differently?

The farmers who grow coca, the shrub whose leaves are the raw material for making cocaine, are mostly poor. Petro says the government will target people higher up the chain.

His preferred alternative is substitution programs, whereby farmers are given incentives to grow legal crops. But the president warned that the authorities aren’t giving farmers a green light to plant coca and will continue to eradicate plants by force in areas where there is no agreement to dig up the crops voluntarily.

2. Is Colombia going to legalize cocaine?

No. Contrary to some speculation, Petro’s Justice Minister Nestor Osuna said that cocaine will remain illegal in Colombia, and that the authorities will continue trying to halt exports of the drug. He also said the authorities are going to target the mafias who export the final refined product, as well as the people who help them launder the proceeds.

In practice, if Colombia were to legalize the drug unilaterally, it would violate international agreements, and cause a breach with the U.S. and other countries, according to Pedro Arenas, a former congressman from a coca-producing region who founded the NGO Viso Mutop to promote sustainable development. This pariah status would likely harm the nation’s ability to trade and access the global financial system.

3. What is the U.S. involvement?

Colombia has long been a close ally for the U.S. in Latin America and has received more than $10 billion in U.S. aid since President Bill Clinton oversaw the start of the program known as Plan Colombia in the late 1990s. That’s more than any other country outside the Middle East and Asia has been given.


The plan helped strengthen Colombia’s armed forces, giving them the upper hand in their fight with Marxist guerrillas. The amount of land planted with coca fell by about 70% between 2000 and 2012 but then soared again to reach a record in 2017. As well as being the largest provider of foreign aid and military assistance, the U.S. is also the world’s biggest market for cocaine.

Despite opposing Washington’s war on drugs, and its policies toward Venezuela and Cuba, Petro so far appears to have cordial relations with the government of President Joe Biden and has met with several of its senior officials. Republicans in Congress may be more reluctant to approve funding if coca production rises under Petro.

4. Wasn’t the peace process supposed to eradicate coca?

The 2016 peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was meant to herald the start of crop substitution programs on a massive scale. But the program was poorly organized and underfunded even under President Juan Manuel Santos, who supported it. Then, after the 2018-2022 government of President Ivan Duque, it was “almost dead,” according to Arenas.

Duque had been skeptical of the whole peace deal and campaigned against it. Amid the delays, illegal armies working for drug traffickers swiftly occupied the areas abandoned by the FARC, and often sabotaged the programs by threatening and murdering local people who cooperated with it.

5. What does ‘forced eradication’ of illegal crops involve?

So-called manual eradication involves sending in teams of agricultural laborers to dig the bushes up by hand, which often leads to them and their police escorts being attacked by guerrillas and cartels with snipers and land mines.

Colombia already halted the spraying coca from crop dusters in 2015, which was often done by U.S. pilots, on concerns that the herbicide used was carcinogenic. Colombia sprayed illegal crops with the herbicide paraquat as early as 1978, according to Arenas.


6. Petro is pursuing ‘total peace.’ What does that mean?

The FARC have gone, but the Colombian countryside remains overrun by illegal armed groups financed by drug trafficking. These include dozens of groups of so-called “dissident” FARC guerrillas, who became disillusioned with the peace process.

Petro wants to reach out to these organizations with a view to starting peace talks, especially with the National Liberation Army, or ELN, the nation’s largest guerrilla force. To try to get the ball rolling, the government suspended the arrest warrants for the group’s senior leadership.

With drug cartels such as the so-called Gulf Clan, Petro’s plan is to offer not to extradite to the U.S. those who cooperate with the government, as well as giving them reduced sentences. The pursuit of “total peace” goes hand in hand with Petro’s crop substitution plans, which is very difficult to organize if armed groups are trying to undermine it.