Aaron Picozzi is the research associate for the military fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Coast Guard veteran, and currently serves in the Army National Guard.
A recent victory in the half century conflict in Colombia was marked by an agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC) leader Rodrigo Londono, and President Juan Manual Santos. But as thousands of FARC rebels hand their weapons over to a UN mission, many will be faced with a difficult consequence of the peace—a lifestyle change from fighting for an ideology, to attempting to rejoin society as a former solider. With the folding of the FARC organization comes the question: what will happen to the Colombian cocaine trade that was so closely tied to the rebel group?
It is doubtful the dissolution of the FARC will bring an end to Colombia’s participation in global cocaine trade—a business which nets the FARC anywhere from $200 million to $3.5 billion annually, and is responsible for 90 percent of total cocaine used in the United States. Faced with questionable futures and the disappearance of a clear command structure, rebels may continue the lucrative criminal activities they have perfected over years of conflict, but this time they will be separate from the organizational structure the FARC once provided.
Colombia has not carried out their war on drugs alone. The United States has played an integral role in the fight, funneling over six billion dollars, $4.8 billion of which went directly to the Colombian military or police, over eight years through the counternarcotics program Plan Colombia. The direct efforts of the United States within Colombian borders, which include military raids and the eradication of coca crops by spraying chemicals, have drawn criticism from neighboring countries and Colombian citizens alike, yet there is a U.S. military option that circumvents many of the chief complaints surrounding U.S.–Latin American foreign policy.
To support the FARC stand-down, while congruently fighting the drug trade, the United States can double down on a technique it already employs. In 2015, the Coast Guard stopped 144.8 metric tons of illegal cocaine from reaching its destination through maritime and air interdiction campaigns. These techniques have been employed through cooperative efforts, such as the Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) directed Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S), a multi-organization group comprising members from all five branches of U.S. military service, multiple agencies within the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Intelligence Community, as well as representatives from various countries, both near and far from the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility. This group is focused on the eradication of illegal drug trafficking. Continued and increased use of JIATF-S and the U.S. Coast Guard counter-drug teams can help combat the transnational drug trade. Unfortunately, the U.S. Coast Guard is projecting lower interdiction numbers for 2017 due to the U.S Navy’s plan for reducing the number of sea and air assets allocated to JIATF-S mission set. A reduction in dedicated assets will create a more difficult counter-drug operation, yielding fewer interdictions, and opening the door to those who wish to capitalize on the destabilized Colombian drug syndicate.
The use of air and sea assets allows the U.S. military to assist Colombia directly, without carrying the stigma of a foreign military incursion. This focus on fighting the Colombian drug trade would also help with the herculean task of reintegrating the estimated 6,000 to 7,000 fighters and 8,500 supplementary civilian supporters from FARC; if the efficacy of the transnational drug trade is reduced, it may dissuade former drug-dealing transitioning FARC members from continuing their involvement. While rebel reintegration programs currently exist in Colombia, they are costly, lengthy, and garner a recidivism rate of roughly twenty five percent. Many rebels know only the militant work required to operate in a jungle combat environment or the illicit activity that financed their operation.
During the FARC detente, the United States can increase offshore interdiction activity without evoking feelings of Reaganesque Latin American policy. By reinvesting in maritime and air operations targeting the Colombian drug trade, the United States can continue its efforts without political meddling. These actions can both support the peace plans, while simultaneously protecting the United States from the threats of transnational drug organizations.