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Fake News and political establishment leading Colombia back to war

Anti-establishment and corruption candidate and former M-19 guerrilla member, Gustavo Petro

On June 17th Colombia votes in the final runoff round in one of its most pivotal and closely fought Presidential elections in decades. The two remaining candidates are starkly polarised, as are the potential outcomes for Colombia and the entire Latin American region. The candidates are charismatic, anti-establishment and anti-corruption, leftist candidate Gustavo Petro and Ivan Duque, ordained political heir of former hard-right President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (now under investigation by the Supreme Court over his alleged role in war crimes committed by a paramilitary death squad.

Petro has laid bare Colombia’s failed democracy in this campaign by agressively highlighting revelations over vote rigging, corruption, U.S. Clientelism and the massive extent of the State’s involvement in atrocities committed by the paramilitaries responsible for the vast majority of bloodshed the long running civil war. Meanwhile, the fragile peace accord between the Government and the FARC guerrilla group is on the verge of collapse amidst poor delivery on transitional justice promises and corruption allegations. Uribe, Duque and other right-wing politicians have perpetuated a concerted misinformation campaign around the perceived ‘leniency’ of the peace deal with the help of a compliant mainstream media to bolster support. The media has also helped their cause by portraying Petro as a communist and raising the spectre of Colombia becoming the next Venezuela.

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This all masks the horrible truth that in fact, a victory for Duque will be catastrophic for the peace and progress of Colombia. This would effectively cease any further investigation into issues of corruption or Uribe and other leading politicians’ involvement in the paramilitary movement. It would also allow the continuation of the unchecked expansion of the use of paramilitaries as a tool of neoliberal economic exploitation in Colombia that occurred under Uribe’s rule. However, it is looking increasingly as if this is what will happen, as Centrist politicians (including current President and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Juan Manuel Santos) have refused to support Petro’s bid, leaving him isolated and effectively gifting Duque the presidency.

A Fragile Peace

With 49 million people, Colombia is the third-most populous country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico. However, due to its central geographical position, and leading role in the ‘Bolivarian’ independence struggle against Spanish rule, Colombia has traditionally held a historical leadership position in Latin America. However, for the last century, the United States and a small Colombian elite have manipulated the course of politics through a long rein of militaristic right-wing government and a protracted low-intensity civil war. Colombia’s over half-century long civil war between various socialist guerilla groups and the government has claimed at least 220,000 lives, displaced nearly six million people, and resulted in 27,000 kidnappings and 25,000 disappearances.

The civil war has slowly started to wind down since the Presidency and Congressional majority passed from the far right Conservative Party to Santos and the centre-right in 2010. Business and citizen confidence has been finally growing again in Colombia, due to this eight years of more stable and moderate policy. This was a significant shift after a long rein of militaristic far-right rule (arguably since at least 1948). The historic peace accord between the FARC (Colombia’s largest communist guerrilla group) and the government brokered by Santos in 2016 was a huge step towards peaceful resolution of the conflict. This deal was possible largely due to Santos’ Government’s more amenable attitude towards a ‘truth and reconciliation’ approach and ‘transitional justice’ provisions for former combatants on both sides. With the deal agreed and the civil war beginning to wind down, Colombia was well poised to continue this path of peace and stability and become a regional powerhouse once again.

However, Duque and Conservative Party spiritual leader Uribe, have fought this peace process tooth and nail every step of the way. Uribe was the figurehead of the ‘No’ campaign in the referendum in which 51% of Colombians tragically voted against the peace accord in 2016. As The Guardian reported “their decision was swayed by an opposition leader (Uribe) who will do anything for power.” This article refers to the significant manipulation of the truth by the conservatives and the Media in the context of the 2016 referendum campaign. Duque has now continued the strategy of mining this deep and unjustified vein of opposition to the transitional justice elements of the peace process to garner votes for a more hard-line approach towards FARC. Colombia Reports states that Duque has threatened on the campaign trail to unilaterally amend the peace deal and to pull the plug on ongoing talks with the ELN (the last remaining socialist rebel group). As a recent reuters article puts it: "Opposition to the FARC accord, as too lenient on the former guerrillas, remains a vote-winner for the right and Duque has promised to modify the deal if he wins office.”

Furthermore, this hysteria resulted in a poor result for both the left and Santos’ centre right in the legislative elections in Colombia’s two-tier system. This outcome led to a right-wing controlled congress with a majority opposed to the peace process. Later in the article I explore the hypocrisy and underlying reasons for this attitude towards the peace deal. If Duque does win the presidential elections, this could definitively spell the end the delicate peace process, plunging Colombia back into fully fledged civil war.

A broken democracy

These elections are now subject to allegations of fraud involving Santos and his centre-right candidate German Vargas. According to Semana magazine,

Colombia’s electoral authorities were sued to investigate alleged fraud during the first round of presidential elections. The final round is taking place under the watch of EU monitors. Petro earlier called on his supporters to “defeat the fraud of Santos and the Registrar to favour candidate Vargas” in the preliminary round.

A swing back to a far right Presidency will certainly do nothing for strengthening democracy or reforming broken democratic institutions in Colombia. A Colombia Reports expose on the far right of Colombia states:

“Making the distinction between democratic conservatism and fascism is difficult in Colombia. Unlike in most countries, Colombia’s Conservative Party has traditionally opposed democracy.”

Unfortunately the Colombian far-right has demonstrated repeatedly that it is prepared to use undemocratic methods (including violence) to ensure this situation of militaristic government and perpetual war continues. It is conveniently overlooked by the Media in Colombia and abroad, that the underlying reason for this brutal civil war from the beginning was essentially the inability of the right-wing political elite to accept the mandate of democratic elections. As Aljazeera points out, the assassination of reformist candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948, is seen as the beginning of the violent conflict between the left and the state that has plagued the Nation to this day. Leftist candidate Luis Carlos Galan was killed at a campaign stop just days before the elections in 1989 and Carlos Pizarro the following year. This was around the point of the escalation of the USA’s ‘war on drugs’ in Colombia.

Petro would in fact be the first leftist President in Colombia’s history. However, the 2018 election has been no exception to this undemocratic and violent trend. Petro has already been the target of at least one serious assassination attempt on the campaign trail when a bullet missed his head by inches while traveling in an armoured vehicle in March 2018.

The bigger picture – A U.S backed dictatorship in all but name

The unfortunate truth is that the prospect of a Petro presidency stands as a threat to the interests of many very powerful politicians and businesspeople at the pinnacle of Colombian society. It may also have affected the upper and middle class Colombians who have grown accustomed to the benefits of an unequal society backed by a friendly USA and fear rocking the boat.

In any serious analysis, Colombia’s corrupt political system dominated by an elite and a state prepared to exercise extreme violence on its people, constitutes a fascist U.S. imperialist backed neoliberal military dictatorship, with a façade of democracy. Bogota University professor and historian Renán Vega Cantor recently published this study in the context of the negotiations to end the Colombian conflict delineating U.S. involvement and intervention in Colombia over the past century. It outlines how the USA has continued giving aid and military support while hundreds of thousands of Colombians were being killed, and millions forced off their lands, and political repression became the norm under successive right-wing governments. In Cantor’s words the USA “is no mere outside influence, but is a direct actor in the conflict owing to prolonged involvement.”

It is clear that the U.S. imperialist agenda and local political and economic elites both benefit greatly from the continued rule of the neoliberal right and a continued state of war in Colombia. As Cantor says ‘there existed for more than 100 years a pact (with the USA) among the national elites for whom subordination led to economic and political gains.’ This is primarily because the militarist and exploitative and extractive economic approach of the Colombian right ensures a cheap and steady flow of valuable export commodities such as bananas, petroleum and cocaine to the USA.

With this U.S. backing and impunity in domestic and international courts, the right has ruled Colombia with a militaristic approach for most of the past hundred years. Uribe himself oversaw one of the worst periods of this bloody history and the expansion of the role of paramilitaries as a weapon of war and neoliberal economic exploitation. Insight Crime here summarises the research of the project ‘Rutas De Conflicto’ (Routes of Conflict) by Colombia’s National Center of Historical Memory and investigative website Verdad Abierta (Open Truth) which analyses the genesis and expansion of the paramilitary movement from a weapon of war into one of economic exploitation and expropriation:

“Initially, the paramilitary movement began as the private armies of drug traffickers, land owners and powerful economic interests such as emerald mining dons, but these armies, which in 1997 would group together as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), began to become ever more involved in drug trafficking as well as land grabs and other criminal activities such as illegal mining. Soon, they began to expand their territorial control throughout regions occupied by the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), using massacres committed under the military-political banner to seize control of areas of key strategic significance to the drug trade and other criminal interests.”

The threat of a Petro Presidency

The staunchly socialist candidate and former member of the long disbanded M-19 guerilla group has been a lightening rod for discontent over the above macro level issues facing Colombia. His fearless anti-corruption and pro-peace campaign has highlighted the need to address corruption, U.S. Clientelism and to address past injustices and war crimes by the state and political figures. A Petro presidency would mean the continuation of the peace process and would escalate judicial investigations into serious allegations of state involvement in vote rigging, war crimes and corruption. This all would contribute to the necessary work of strengthening the democratic institutions of Colombia.

Petro also seeks to create a more socially equal society by ending the neoliberal land grabs of paramilitaries and promising land reform of Colombia’s highly unequal land ownership. He has promised a just transition for ex-combatants and victims throught the truth and reconciliation process and by proactively developing new sustainable opportunities in the impoverished regions and ‘barrios’ of Colombia.

Petro is also environmentally radical and is vocal about the need to adapt to the threat of global warming and diversify Colombia’s economy. Given the fact that oil is Colombia’s largest exporting earner and the country has a major multi-national industry vested in this activity, this policy has perhaps made him more enemies than any other.

Petro’s popularity is unprecedented for such a radically progressive politician in Colombia in recent times. This message was clearly resonating with many Colombians who have been left out of the progress made by the country over the past century of militaristic imperialist rule as throughout the campaign he has proven to be a rock star politician capable of pulling huge audiences of tens of thousands at stadium rallies reminiscent of Bernie Sanders. This is perhaps because Petro was finally confronting issues many Colombians have talked about for years, but few have broached in public and lived to tell the tale.

Despite all of the mounting evidence of corruption and state complicity in the horrors inflicted by the far-right in recent Colombian history, this reformist and anti-corruption candidate now appears likely to lose to a far right candidate who has essentially campaigned on continuing this imperialistic and militaristic approach. Like Sanders, or former President Dilma in Brazil, the Media and the political establishment have combined to ensure Petro is blocked from office. It is highly likey that this is because Petro’s policies present a serious threat to a powerful elite that has kept a tight rein on Colombia’s political, Judicial and Media institutions for decades. Change is not good for business from their perspective.

A crowd at Petro’s recent rally in Bogota. Photo: Colombia Reports

Establishment reality bites Petro

The overwhelming media and political opposition to Petro appears to be taking its toll, as he only ended up with 25% of votes in the first round after polling significantly higher earlier in the campaign. The more moderate leftist candidate Sergio Fajardo gained in the late stages to split the left vote. Furthermore, this negative portrayal of Petro has forced Fajardo and the rest of the political centrists to refuse to endorse Petro in the Presidential run-off. Colombia Reports stated that only socialist party Democratic Pole has said it would endorse Petro and the Green Alliance said it would only endorse Petro under conditions.

As this Colombia Reports article puts it:

“The moderate leaders coincide with Petro’s promise to promote peace and fight corruption, but reject his direct confrontations with Duque and his allies over clientelism and their alleged involvement in war crimes and corruption.”

Although these centrist leaders are encouraging voters to turn in a blank ballot, they are essentially guaranteeing the election of Duque who ended first in the first round with 39% of the votes, and with it sealing the end of a just peace process. As Petro tweeted himself, those who cast a blank vote “will elect Duque.”

Fake News leading the march to war

As we saw in the U.S. recently, with near total control over the media and public discourse, character assassination and misinformation or ‘Fake News’ has been a highly effective tool for the far-right. In fact fear and misinformation are perhaps more effective tools than violence in the hands of a powerful elite and compliant Media these days. It seems hard to fathom that the memories of politicians and voters in Colombia are so short (or distorted) that they can let this happen all over again. However, It also seemed unbelieveable that the U.S would elect Trump, however we all know how that story ended. Unfortunately, the story has been repeated in too many so-called democratic nations over the past few years.

The ownership of Colombian media is highly concentrated and controlled by a wealthy elite ruling cabal who set the agenda and discourse rigidly with a noticeable bias towards pro-business and pro-government news. As a result, the Media has either ignored or distorted the legitimate social justice and environmental issues raised by Petro to create fear around the potential of his presidency. Social media information channels such as facebook and whatsapp are heavily used and, as elsewhere they have suffered from an absolute barrage of misinformation and fake news that has created confusion and clouded the real issues in this campaign.

The media has unfairly and without basis, maligned Petro alternately as a Satanist (for respecting indigenous traditions) or most often just as a communist and the next Nicolas Maduro seeking to collapse Colombia’s economy back to the stone age. As this reuters article states: “The spectacle of neighboring Venezuela sinking into deep economic crisis under a Socialist government has also allowed him (Duque) to argue that a leftist victory would spell disaster."

Leading global economist and writer Thomas Piketty has recently endorsed Petro which shows the arguments claiming his economic policies are communist are unfounded. However, this This ‘Communist’ scaremongering has proved highly effective, as Venezuelan immigrants to Colombia are a constant presence in the media and in public. More than one million Venezuelans have fled to Colombia to escape the unfolding humanitarian crisis caused by U.S. sanctions. The High Commission of the United Nations for Refugees (ACNUR) recently expressed its concern that groups are forming online and meeting in cities to protest the presence of Venezuelans. This is particularly ironic given that Venezuela has received thousands of Colombian asylum seekers throughout the civil war.

The Media has conveniently ignored the fact that Petro has consistently distanced himself from Maduro and clearly stated he is not seeking to turn Colombia into another Venezuela. Rather he has claimed he seeks to forge a new era in progressive Latin American progressive politics. As this excellent interview in The Nation details, Petro states that he seeks to build a new left for Latin America and move away from the traditional Havana-Caracas-Buenos Aires-Managua axis.

“You can see a new axis forming, belonging to a new progressivism: Mexico City-Bogotá-Sao Paulo, maybe Lima, depending on what happens after the crisis. That axis would be different, and part of this will depend on me, if we can achieve this in Colombia. It will be an axis that sees the transformations of Latin America toward a productive economy, and not one based on the extraction of resources.”

This lack of honest and critical media in Colombia is also in part due to a long history of murders or death threats against journalists and activists who dare to speak out on human rights or corruption issues. Colombia remains on of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. The journalist who revealed the murder investigation against Uribe, for instance, is already enjoying strict security measures after multiple death threats related to his investigations into criminal enterprises of politicians.

Peace provides impunity and free rein for paramilitaries and cartels

FARC has now successfully demobilised and rebranded as a peaceful political party under the terms of the peace accord. However, as a result of their (now seemingly misplaced) trust in the peace process and the Government by turning in their arms, FARC now have a substantially weakened position and many former members have been killed by paramilitaries or captured and imprisioned by the state. A former FARC idealogical leader is now facing extradition to the USA (which is contrary to the terms of the peace accord). If Duque is elected President, FARC will likely be wiped out as a political presence entirely through continued assassinations and extraditions to the U.S.

Most problematic of all, the demobilisation of FARC and the failure of the government to provide new opportunities or security has simply created a power vacuum and a chaotic situation. This has allowed right-wing paramilitaries, drug cartels and splinter communist groups outside of the peace process to consolidate their grip over the lucrative drug growing and smuggling operations and illegal economic activities. This chaos has all led to a dramatic spike in violence in many impoverished rural areas since the peace deal was signed.

For all their faults, the FARC and other communist groups, in many cases actually provided some stability and protection for their own poor, indigenous and rural communities from exploitation and violence at the hands of paramilitaries, cartels and companies. Disturbingly, their demobilisation has also seen a rise in neoliberal land and resource grabs and in murders of demobilised FARC members as well as human rights and environmental activists who oppose the new groups land grabs and illegal economic activity such as mining. New NGO research suggests that the killing of human rights activists doubled this year.

However, a Duque presidency means we are highly likely to see massively expanded paramilitary and military activity in a bid to destroy the remaining leftist groups such as the ELN and continue this agenda of economic expropriation. Sadly, many more lives will be lost and many more poor, indigenous and rural Colombians forced off their lands in this process.

Mythology and misinformation threaten the fragile Peace process.

The 2016 FARC peace deal initially promised great things for stability and peace in the region and the war was significantly de-escalated as a result. However, the peace process is now on the verge of falling apart. Santos’ government has been accused of failing to deliver on its’ end of the bargain to rejuvenate rural areas with much needed upgrades to infrastructure, health, education and agriculture and creating real transitional opportunities for ex-combatants. In the first year of the process, the centre-right government executed less than 20% of the agreements made with the guerrillas and there have been allegations of corruption and missing funds within the project.

The reality is, that Colombia’s weak institutions and corrupt state were probably never up to the undertaking of delivering this ambitious programme of reconciliation needed to peacefully and justly end the conflict. As a result, the European Union (EU) announced recently that it is providing more than $17 million to fund the transitional provisions to assist former combatants to reintegrate back into society.

However, this failure was also ensured by the right-wing politicians and the Media’s hypocritical opposition to these crucial forgiveness and transitional justice aspects of the process. As described above, the Colombian Media was complicit in the extensive scaremongering and spreading of misinformation about the ‘leniency’ of the deal, and political power games have blocked any real progress.

The hysteria around the deal allowing FARC to become a political party proved completely unfounded as they received very few votes in the end. There is, however, clear precedent for the success of this approach with Sinn Fein in Ireland and in South Africa and other civil conflicts. Furthermore the AUC paramilitary group successfully demobilised in 2006 and its’ high ranking members received impunity.

Dispelling the mythological history of the war

This Media and political hysteria over the deal’s ‘truth and reconciliation’ provisions allowing ex-combatants to transition back to society without threat of prosecutions led many to vote for Duque. Many more will vote for him again in this final round primarily for this reason. The worst part of all this, is that it is based on a massive lie. The inherent hypocrisy of Uribe and Duque’s attitude is that it is based on a well established mythology and double standards perpetuated by decades of pro-right and anti-guerilla propaganda influencing the public perception in Colombia.

While much press domestically and internationally has been given to atrocities alleged to have been committed by FARC guerrillas in the civil war, all independent evidence suggests that the right-wing Government backed militias such as the AUC were responsible for far more civilian deaths that the FARC over the course of the war.

The project “Rutas de Conflicto”, clearly demonstrates this lie in the finding that between 1982 and 2013, paramilitary groups were responsible for the overwhelming majority of deaths — committing 1,166 massacres in total. This was followed by 295 massacres at the hands of unidentified groups, 238 by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and 139 by the security forces.

A linguistic analysis of Colombian media sources further highlights the extreme bias which led to the public perception that the guerilla’s were responsible for the war or the many civilian deaths. Newspapers persistently failed to name the perpertrators and dehumanised victims in the case of the state atrocities and almost always named FARC and other guerilla groups (often falsely) as perpertrators and humanised victims when reporting guerilla violence.

In contrast to the hysteria about leniency towards FARC combatants, Colombia Reports states that when state-loyal paramilitary group AUC demobilised in 2006, there was no protest at all from the media or the populace, in spite of this group receiving far more judicial benefits and money, after having committed considerably more killings and massacres than all the guerrilla groups put together.

Colombia’s former president Alvaro Uribe is under investigation by the Supreme Court for murder. Photo: Colombia reports

The myth belies a truth of impunity from justice

The underlying reason for Uribe and Duque’s vehement opposition to the peace deal is now becoming clearer, they fear the sunlight it would shine on the dirty past. The Truth Commissions established by the deal are unearthing some damaging revelations from former guerillas and paramilitary members about the roles of state players (including Uribe). As a result of these testimonies, evidence suggests that Uribe is currently under investigation by the Colombian Supreme Court for conspiracy to commit murder over his long alleged ties to paramilitary death squads responsible for war crimes in the civil war. The allegations are that Uribe helped form the Bloque Metro paramilitary group while he was governor of the Antioquia province in the 1990s. One of the main challenges of the investigation is keeping the witnesses against Uribe alive, as at least two witnesses to this inquiry have already been murdered and the last remaining witness has survived two attempts on his life.

As Petro says:

“How complicit was the state in the country’s genocide? A few specific politicians are particularly responsible. One of them, in my opinion, is Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who is the politician most responsible for the expansion of paramilitarism, an instrument used for political power, for drug trafficking, and for genocide in Colombia—much more so than the guerrillas.”

Furthermore, declassified United States cables have led to claims that Uribe had ties to Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel in the 1990s and that his early Senate election campaigns were financed by the Ochoa crime family that helped found the infamous syndicate.

Uribe is far from being the only politician with reason to fear a Petro anti-corruption Presidency, as it appears the state involvement was systematic and widespread. President Santos served as defense minister from 2006 until 2009, at the height of the The False positives scandal and neither he nor predecessor Álvaro Uribe have been called to account over this incomprehensible atrocity. The scandal emerged in 2008 implicating high level Colombian Military Generals in murder of innocent civilians to raise their body counts to make it appear they were winning in the war against FARC and receive further U.S. funding for the war effort. However, The Guardian recently reported that a new study indicates the scale of this scandal was much larger than previously reported. According to the authors, approximately 10,000 civilians were executed by the army between 2002 and 2010 – more than three times the number tallied by human rights groups.

More revelations from the truth and reconciliation testimonies from one of the paramilitaries’ most important political chiefs, also suggest that far-right death squads controlled approximately half of Colombia’s congress in the early 2000s. Even The AUC’s former ideologue Ivan Roberto Duque (not the presidential candidate), has criticised the Colombian media and judicial system for failing to follow up on the “1,500 hours of testimonies” of demobilized members of the AUC (Paramilitary death squad) in which they identify businessmen and members of the military that allegedly participated in the mass victimization of civilians. Duque said he had “no doubt” that paramilitary commanders influenced the presidential elections of 2002 in which Uribe was elected president.

Colombian NGOs and human rights activists say the impunity to these crimes is galling. While nearly 5,000 state agents have been implicated, only around 780 have been convicted and among them there has not been a single general. The even larger issue is why the world does not know more about this and why the role of the USA and the CIA in this gruesome war has not been examined more closely. It is difficult to believe that the U.S. agents involved in the war on drugs had no knowledge of these war crimes. Even if that was so, the negligence that entails is perhaps even worse.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Colombia’s prosecution is investigating corruption in some of the country’s biggest ports after the arrest of a former defense ministry adviser who admitted to trafficking cocaine to Europe. The investigation alleges that multiple security officials in the Caribbean ports of Santa Marta and Barranquilla were paid to allow the passage of containers with cocaine.

The Big Picture – a U.S. imperialist power play

There has also been a wider trend of interventionism, imperialism and manipulation of democratic processes emerging in Latin America of late. This manipulation coincides with U.S. strategic and economic interests in the region and has been primarily focused on Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil which all happen to be major oil producing Nations.

Brazil’s recent events in which an elected social-democratic government was deposed through media manipulation and politically motivated impeachment and court proceedings have been described by many as a ‘postmodern-coup’. The Intercept, for example, reported the new president Michel Temer has even admitted the motivation for this coup to have been the failure of President Dilma to adhere to a neoliberal programme.

Even closer and more concerning is Venezuela, with which Colombia shares a common border. Much has been said in the mainstream Media about the undemocratic nature of Venezuela under Chavez and Maduro. However, such critiques conveniently ingnore the reality that, as in the case of Cuba, socialism or communism are neither responsible for the lack of democratic freedom nor for the failure of the economy. Venezuela’s current situation is, in fact, the result an ongoing U.S. led economic war on the nation involving sanctions and a string of attempted coups to re-install a complient neoliberal government. The Independent reported last year that CIA chief Mike Pompeo admitted that the agency is working to change the elected government of Venezuela and is collaborating with two countries in the region to do so. Colombia, as the conveniently located U.S. client state on Venezuela’s border with access to the oil-rich carribbean, is integral to this agenda of regime change and the long-term goal of control over the entire Latin American region.

The state role in the failed war on drugs

Photo: Carlos Villalón's upcoming book, 'Coca: The Lost War,' follows the coca plant from the fields of Colombia to the murders of Mexico and beyond.

Cocaine is the white elephant in the room in any discussion of Colombia’s troubles. This lucrative commodity grows natively and Colombia is the largest producer in the world. The money this illegal trade generates inevitably touches every aspect of Colombian politics. In the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. global “war on drugs” massively escalated Colombia’s civil war in an attempting to eliminate supply at its source or as some argue, simply to assert political control over the supply. If the goal was to limit the flow, it was an abysmal failure as cocaine exports to the USA today are at roughly the same level they were in 1980 at the start of this war. If, however, the U.S. strategic goal was simply to ensure the right people controlled the lucrative industry and therefore the country, then the continued backing of the militaristic government and paramilitaries makes much more sense. Meanwhile, as George Soros’ Open Society Foundation reports, the human toll of this ‘war on drugs’ - which is still being tallied - is shocking and inexcusable.

Petro has also proposed a new approach to combatting the cocaine trade in calling for an end on this failed war on drugs and pushing for legalisation of all drugs and innovative alternative crops for growers. The 2016 peace agreement marked the first significant shift towards a new approach, that prioritises human rights and public health in the issue of coca. This is not as radical as it sounds. A new report, Coca Industrialization: A Path to Innovation, Development, and Peace in Colombia, explores coca’s beneficial uses—both new and old—and brings visibility to promising grassroots initiatives invigorated by this new turn toward more humane policies. The coca plant itself in its pure form is both a sacred indigenous crop and a nutritious and beneficial natural health food and product. This also presents a potentially lucrative industry for Colombia to move forward away from prohibition towards alternate uses of the crop which benefit the traditional growers in the regions. Petro acknowledges that solving this complex issue still depends on the USA and other ‘demand’ side countries addressing their major part in this failed war by changing their own laws.

Hope for the future?

Colombia is a nation rich in natural and human potential. It is the second most bio-diverse nation in the world and features geography from tropical rainforest to Caribbean coast and everything in between. This nation is comprised of hard-working and innovative people who have endured so much suffering and bloodshed and still seek to build a better country. Colombia is perfectly poised to become a regional success story and transition to a carbon neutral and sustainable future. If Petro is able to implement his plans for a sustainable economy and social justice for the many impoverished, Colombia could lead the way in the new, peaceful and progressive Latin America. If he loses, on the other hand, things are looking decidedly grim. I would love to be proven wrong, but I fear for my friends in Colombia and journalistic colleagues if Colombia’s pendulum swings back to authoritarian and right wing rule. The current quest for justice, truth and reconciliation will likely end in flames and a future with even higher levels of conflict, persecution, corruption and militaristic economic exploitation will emerge from the ashes. The only positives from this campaign in that case could be that it has heralded the beginning of a new left movement in Colombia that will continue to battle peacefully for peace, social justice and democratic freedoms.

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