The Colombian government's estimate that the FARC makes up to $3.5 billion annually in profts from the drug trade is staggering, but may not be entirely accurate.
Speaking at a forum organized by the University of Miami on October 23, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon provided the government’s latest figures on the illicit activities of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). According to Pinzon, the FARC makes between $2.4 and $3.5 billion annually from the drug trade. He added that of the 350 tons of cocaine produced in Colombia annually, some 200 can be linked back to the guerrillas.
Whereas the FARC were believed to have some 20,000 fighters at their peak in 2000, Pinzon said that they currently number 8,147, a drop of more than 50 percent in the past decade. Still, he noted that the rebels are “a very different organization” than before, having lost several top commanders in recent years.
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Estimating the size of the FARC’s total budget is an inexact science. Pinzon’s estimate of the rebels’ profits from the drug trade differs widely from a recent calculation released by the Attorney General’s Office, which put their total profits at around $1.1 billion. Both of these assessments are far higher than the United Nations Development program’s calculation in 2003, which listed the FARC’s annual income at no more than $342 million, with $204 million coming from the drug trade.
Additionally, Pinzon’s assertion that the FARC are “linked” to nearly two-thirds of cocaine produced in Colombia is a deceptively broad statement. These links can range from involvement in overseeing the early stages of coca cultivation and processing to directly exporting shipments of the drug into neighboring countries like Venezuela or Ecuador. While the guerrillas have been known to participate in the latter, the former arrangement is more common.
Ultimately it may be best to take Pinzon’s figures with a grain of salt. He is likely playing the hardline "bad cop" at the same time as the government enters into peace talks with the guerrillas to try to end the country's five-decade-old conflict. At the negotiating table the FARC are recognized as having political aspirations and their involvement in the drug trade is barely on the agenda for the talks. By focusing on the rebels’ criminal activities in his public comments, Pinzon may be sending a signal to FARC leaders that a failure to follow through on the peace process could see them permanently labelled as nothing more than "narco-terrorists."