Colombia’s presidential election, scheduled for May 27, comes at a critical time in the country’s history. The peace process with the FARC is underway, but new criminal dynamics are presenting challenges that the next president will have to face. Although every candidate has proposals to fight organized crime, the viability of some of their ideas is uncertain.

InSight Crime analyzed the proposals of the five main presidential candidates on drug trafficking, criminal groups, security, justice and the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), as well as their positions on illegal mining.

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Drug trafficking was the most controversial topic, with candidates offering proposals from opposite ends of the spectrum. They also had different opinions on how to deal with guerrilla groups. Some say they would walk away from the negotiating table with the ELN, and all but one would support the current FARC peace process, which has taken historic steps towards ending the armed conflict. A number of the candidates’ proposals are risky, and could backfire if not well implemented. Others could see long-term success if done correctly.


With Colombia producing more cocaine than ever, the drug trade will be a major security issue for the incoming president.

Past anti-narcotics policies have run into numerous challenges. Forced eradication has not reduced overall coca levels as eradicated areas are often re-sown by farmers shortly thereafter. There have been health concerns associated with the chemicals used to kill the plants, and recent operations to uproot farmers’ cash crops have spurred protests and massacres of civilians.

As part of a 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the government has launched a new crop substitution program aimed at incentivizing farmers to replace illicit coca with legal crops. While promising, the program has been undermined by powerful armed groups seeking to move in on criminal economies left behind by the FARC.

Despite the lack of success associated with forced eradication in the past, two candidates, Germán Vargas Lleras and Iván Duque, both strongly support the practice.

Both Vargas Lleras and Duque have pledged to reinstate the aerial fumigation of drug crops, a controversial practice banned in 2015 on health grounds.

Duque has proposed making farmers uprooting coca crops mandatory — not voluntary, as the peace agreement with the FARC stipulates.

Vargas Lleras has called voluntary crop substitution “a failure,” although he has advocated a coca eradication goal for 2022 that mainly focuses on substitution.

Other candidates, like Sergio Fajardo and Humberto de la Calle, prioritize substitution, but would also maintain forced eradication as an alternative.

Gustavo Petro, on the other hand, would eliminate forced eradication, due to the social unrest it creates, and focus fully on providing legal opportunities to vulnerable populations.

While some favor more heavy-handed approaches, all candidates have spoken on some level about the importance of rural development and the creation of legal business alternatives so farmers might stay away from the drug trade. Fajardo, for instance, has mentioned the importance of the Territory-Focused Development Programs (Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial – PDET), a long-term rural development project for specific municipalities created by the FARC peace deal.

Illicit crop control has yielded less-than-ideal results, but effectively targeting later rungs of the drug trade, like the processing and trafficking of cocaine, could do a lot to disrupt the powerful groups behind the industry.

Some candidates directly address these stages. Vargas Lleras has proposed a reasonably comprehensive strategy that includes securing Colombia’s seas against maritime trafficking — one of the main ways of moving narcotics out of the country. Duque has proposed improving intelligence to detect cocaine laboratories, many of which have now been made mobile.

Criminal Groups, Security and Justice

Colombia’s next president will have to oversee a recalibration of the country’s overall security strategy in the post-FARC era.

The police is the preferred institution to take the lead in fighting organized crime: soldiers are trained to eliminate enemies, not to prevent and solve crimes. Nevertheless, many of Colombia’s crime groups wield serious firepower, meaning the military may need to continue to support the police in operations.

Securing territories formerly under FARC control has proven difficult for the government, as other crime groups have moved in to fill the power vacuum. Huge deployments of security forces have done little to address underlying problems, at times simply displacing violence to other areas.

Improved intelligence gathering, social and economic initiatives for vulnerable communities, efficient justice and steady rural development will be key to achieving long-term results. But these goals come with a hefty price tag, meaning Colombia’s next head of state may have to make tough choices when it comes to how to distribute limited security resources. And the solution isn’t simply to hire more security forces; a poorly planned hiring surge could diminish the quality of recruits and make them more vulnerable to corruption.

Duque and Vargas Lleras have both emphasized the importance of the armed forces in their proposed security strategies.

Vargas Lleras has advocated using military force to establish a presence in areas not currently under state control as a way of allowing other state institutions to enter rural areas. Under his plan, both the military and the police would see an increase in staffing levels, and the police would take the lead in the fight against organized crime with support from the military.

Duque wants to strengthen and modernize the security forces, and improve technology both in rural and urban settings.

De la Calle, on the other hand, has argued that the government’s main enemy, the FARC, has demobilized, and that security forces therefore should shift from an offensive to a defensive posture, securing territories against the incursion of criminal groups. At the same time the state should emphasize crime prevention and improving rural quality of life.

De la Calle has also proposed transferring military officials into the police to refocus efforts on citizen security. While sourcing from the military means that recruits may be better prepared in some ways, adequately retraining the soldiers in areas like human rights and investigative tactics will be crucial to their success as law enforcement officers.

Fajardo’s security strategy centers on the justice system. Instead of rounding up large numbers of suspected criminals in ultimately unproductive arrests, the former mayor would focus on taking down groups’ leaders and financial structures. He also wants to facilitate the collective surrender of members of criminal organization with a law much like the one currently making its way through Congress as part of the FARC peace accords.

In terms of the security forces, Fajardo would put the police at the head of the fight against crime, with military support when necessary. And he would change the military’s broader role to focus on border security, constructing rural infrastructure, and removing landmines.

Petro’s main strategy is socioeconomic development as a way of steering poor populations away from criminal economies. As this weakens illegal groups, Petro argues, they will be easier to defeat militarily. Petro has said he would eliminate obligatory military service and focus the military on defending territorial sovereignty, though it is unclear exactly what this would entail.

Although there is significant divergence in the candidates’ general approach to security issues, most agree that targeting the finances of crime groups should be an important objective and have suggested specific tactics.

Fajardo and de la Calle have both promised to strengthen financial intelligence gathering and improve criminal asset seizure procedures. Duque has also talked about improving anti-money laundering efforts, specifically in reference to assets that the FARC did not declare as it was required to do under the peace deal. However, his proposals are thin on concrete details.

ELN Peace Talks

With the FARC now defunct as a rebel group, the ELN has become the most important guerrilla group that Colombia’s next president will have to deal with. But the issue is a thorny one.

The ELN has been the biggest winner in terms of finances, territory and military might from the FARC’s demobilization. Without a timely response from the government, the danger the group poses will only continue to escalate. Moreover, part of the ELN’s leadership and fighters are believed to be hiding out in neighboring Venezuela, complicating efforts to achieve military gains against the group.

The ELN and the government have been engaged in rocky peace talks for a year. But a final deal with the FARC took four years to hammer out, and the ELN’s fractious nature makes it likely that its talks will take at least as long to bear fruit. Setting tight deadlines and taking important bargaining chips like ceasefires and judicial benefits off the table will likely alienate many ELN members and perhaps even high-ranking commanders. And even if the talks are successful, many factions are likely to continue involvement in illegal activities.

All the candidates have kept the military option on the table in their proposals for dealing with the ELN. But their stances on the peace negotiations vary widely.

Vargas Lleras and Duque are opposed to the current ELN talks. Vargas Lleras has affirmed he will end the talks altogether if he is elected. Duque has given the ELN an ultimatum: if fighters want to demobilize and receive reduced sentences — complete amnesty is not an option — they must give up all criminal activities, and concentrate in designated zones with international supervision within a certain period of time. If this does not occur, they will be attacked by state forces.

Fajardo would also give the ELN a time constraint: the peace talks would have to be finalized a year after he takes office. He has refused to offer a bilateral ceasefire and would continue the military offensive against the group during talks.

De la Calle has expressed a desire to make the ELN talks work, often using the word “hopefully.” Should the talks not work, however, he would continue to combat the ELN militarily.

Petro, a former guerrilla of the April 19th Movement (Movimiento 19 de abril – M-19), which demobilized three decades ago, supports the ELN peace talks. But he stresses that the insurgents must decide which path to follow — the ideological one, or the world of drug trafficking. Should they choose drugs, Petro says, they would be “no longer a guerrilla group … these are criminal organizations” and should be fought militarily.

Both Duque and Vargas Lleras have addressed the problem of the ELN’s safe haven in Venezuela, with Duque promising to denounce the Venezuelan regime’s “support” towards the ELN at the UN Security Council.

FARC Peace Process

More than a year and a half since the FARC and the government signed a peace deal, many aspects of the agreement — the group’s participation in politics, promises not to extradite former fighters, and other issues — still hang in the balance. The next presidential administration could work to build trust in the deal, or it could push for changes that put the already shaky implementation further at risk, driving more FARC members back into the underworld.

With the exception of Duque, all candidates have stated that they would maintain the current peace deal.

Duque would make “structural changes” to the accords, stating that FARC politicians should not be allowed to enter Congress without first making reparations to their victims. (The FARC party has been assigned 10 unelected seats as part of the deal, to be occupied in mid-2018.) The reparations process is part of the transitional justice mechanism (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP), which future FARC congressmen have signed onto but not yet completed.

Duque has also promised to stop drug trafficking from being treated as a political crime, in effect removing the amnesty the peace deal offered to former FARC members who had engaged in the drug trade.

While the other candidates have expressed support for the peace deal, they have also made it clear that they will treat FARC members who break the conditions of the accord like any other criminal.

Illegal Mining

Although drug trafficking typically receives much more attention, illegal mining is a huge economy in Colombia, in some cases more profitable to criminal groups than the drug trade. Illegal mining has funded powerful, violent crime groups and has brought devastating environmental consequences.

While destroying mining infrastructure has seen some results, mining communities must be provided with legal alternatives in order to stop them from turning to other criminal economies like the drug trade.

Most of the candidates — de la Calle, Fajardo, Vargas Lleras and Duque — have proposed the formalization of informal miners as one potential solution. But de la Calle, Fajardo and Vargas Lleras would also continue security force operations against illegal mining activities.

Duque’s main proposal would be to make the National Bank the sole authorized buyer of gold in the country (as was the case in the past). This would restrict illegal gold sales, which are often made via legal trading establishments, or make these more visible.

Petro’s main proposal takes a different approach, as he believes that to steer people away from illegal mining, alternative rural economies must be nurtured. He would also reform mining regulations to reflect that artisanal mining should not be considered illegal.

* The proposals listed in this article represent the most prominent proposals on subjects relating to organized crime gathered via a thorough revision of each candidate’s campaign proposals and a revision of debates and public commentary.

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