Columbia's president declares War on Drugs lost, proposes huge changes (2023)

Colombia's president has declared that'the war on drugs has failed' - using his first addressto theUnited NationsGeneral Assembly to suggest sweeping changes to the nation's drug laws that could end in the legalization of cocaine.

Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla fighter and the first left-wing president of the Latin American nation, was inaugurated as president last month. He campaigned on a pledge to unite the deeply divided country, promising to fight against inequality and climate change, and achieve peace with leftist rebels and crime gangs.

Colombia is the world's largest producer of cocaine, accounting for 64 percent of all of the drug in 2019, according to the latest UN report. It is the source of more than 90 percent of the drug seized in the United States, and is home to the largest Drug Enforcement Administration office overseas.

The war on drugs, launched by Richard Nixon in 1971 and massively ramped up under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, has cost the United States over a trillion dollars, and yet has failed to reduce drug use: U.S. overdose deaths rose by 15 percent last year.

Petro, 62, campaigned on a new international strategy to fight drug trafficking, saying the U.S.-led war on drugs has failed.

Colombia President Gustavo Petro, 62, opened his first address at the United Nations General Assembly by stating 'the war on drugs has failed'

Pictured: Gustavo Petro at his swearing-in ceremony on August 7

'It is time for a new international convention that accepts that the war on drugs has failed; that it has left a million dead Latin Americans during 40 years; and that it leaves 70,000 North Americans dead by overdose each year,' he said in his inauguration speech.

'The war on drugs strengthened mafias and weakened states.'

Jonathan Finer, the White House deputy national security adviser, who met with Petro in Bogota before his inauguration, said at the time: 'The United States and the Biden administration is not a supporter of decriminalization.'

Yet on Tuesday, Petro took his message to the greatest global stage, telling the annual gathering of heads of state and world leaders in New York that an urgent rethink was needed.

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The veteran congressman said that humanity's 'addiction to irrational power, profit and money' has been more damaging than drug addiction.

'What is more poisonous for humanity: cocaine, coal or oil?' he asked the assembly.

'The opinion of power has ordered that cocaine is poison and must be persecuted, while it only causes minimal deaths from overdoses. But instead, coal and oil must be protected, even when it can extinguish all humanity.'

Petro's predecessor, conservative Ivan Duque, warned that Petro could legalize all drugs - and possibly threaten the United States.

'What worries me is that there is now the possibility of getting into the permission, or the legalization of, cocaine and consumption,' Duque said on Friday.

'I think that it will be very bad for Colombia, and that will be very bad for the countries in the hemisphere, and I think that could generate also a majority security threat to the United States.'

Pictured: Ivan Duque. The former president said that cocaine legalization could lead to security risks in the United States

Pictured: Colombia's Navy retrieves a ton and a half of cocaine packages. According to a report, more than 260,000 Colombians have died as a result of the war on drugs

Colombia's justice minister, Nestor Osuna, has insisted that cocaine will remain illegal, 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.

Felipe Tascon, Petro's drugs czar, said they plans to put an end to aerial spraying and the manual eradication of coca, which critics say unfairly targets poor rural farmers.

He said that regulating the sale of cocaine would wrest the market from armed groups and cartels.

'Drug traffickers know that their business depends on it being prohibited,' Tascon said.

'If you regulate it like a public market the high profits disappear and the drug trafficking disappears.

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'The government's program doesn't talk about the problem of drugs,' he added.

'It talks about the problems generated by the prohibition of drugs.'

If Colombia were to legalize the drug unilaterally, it would violate international agreements, and cause a breachwith the US 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.

Yet still the speculation remained that Colombia would follow the example set in the Americas by Canada - where cocaine is decriminalized in British Columbia - and Argentina, where it is legal for personal use.

At present, Colombians can legally possess less than one gram, and in Mexico half a gram is legal.

Total cocaine production hit a new record of 1,982 tonnes in 2020, according to the UNODC, more than twice as much as in 2014.

Petro's critics worry that the loosening of drug controls in his country will have a devastating impact on the United States, and on transit countries such as Mexico - whichhas seen more than 360,000 homicides since 2006, when the government declared war on the cartels.

It will be felt beyond the Americas too: all but three of Latin America's 21 mainland nations are now 'main countries of source or transit' for cocaine, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime - the tiny nations of Guyana, Belize and El Salvador are the only exceptions.

'It would incrementally kill the cooperation,' a former DEA official told The Washington Post. 'It would be devastating, not just regionally, but globally. Everyone would be fighting from the outside in.'

Lifting restrictions on Colombian cocaine consumption is likely, critics fear, to lead to a flash-flood of the drug in the U.S. - a gram of the drug sells for $120 in the United States, according to, yet only fetches $4 in Colombia.

And the United States is already battling a surge in cocaine use.

Almost 15,000 Americans died from cocaine overdoses in 2018, according to the latest Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) statistics.

Deaths from drug poisoning involving cocaine have increased about 251 percent from 2010 to 2018 - with the worst-afflicted states being New York (1,276 deaths), Florida (1,221), Ohio (1,105), Pennsylvania (1,045), New Jersey (867), and Illinois (771).

Texas border officials hauled in almost $12 million worth of cocaine disguised as baby wipes earlier this month - the state'sbiggest drugs bust in 20 years.

The drugs were seized at the Colombia-Solidarity Bridge near the town of Laredo, one hundred miles from San Antonio, after US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers gave a 2016 Stoughton trailer a secondary inspection.

They uncovered 1,935 packages containing nearly a ton of cocaine within the shipment, after bringing out the sniffer dogs and inspecting the trailer.

The month prior, more than half a million dollars worth of cocaine was seized from a freight truck attempting to enter the US at the same town, with the drug disguised as juice.

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Texas border officialsuncovered 1,935 packages containing 1,532.65 pounds of alleged cocaine.US Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations (ICE-HSI) special agents are investigating the haul, which has an estimated street value of $11,818,400

Petro suggested that conflict over energy resources has led to more deaths than drug trafficking.'What is more poisonous for humanity: cocaine, coal or oil?' he asked

Pictured: Coca paste, an extract of the coca leaf. Colombia is the world's largest producer of cocaine and produces more than the next two nations, Peru and Bolivia, combined

During his campaign for the presidency, Petro stated that he wants Colombia to export foods and incentivize agricultural production in favor of cocaine and weapons.

Colombian Senator Gustavo Bolivar supported Petro's statements, adding that he believed recent regulation of marijuana could extend to cocaine.

Drug trafficking efforts in Colombia have grown despite the nation continuing to spend money on fighting it, he said.


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'We will never achieve peace in Colombia until we regulate drug trafficking,' said Bolivar.

'Not even the United States, with all their might and money, could win the war on drugs.

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'Right now, Colombia produces more drugs than when Pablo Escobar was alive. There are more consumers. There are more farmers.'

A report from the Truth Commission, which investigated 50 years of Colombian civil conflict, found that drug trafficking prolonged conflict despite $8 billion in military aid being sent from the US to Colombia.

An estimated 260,000 Colombians have died as a result of the war on drugs.

Duque said 40 percent of Colombia's exports come from oil and gas, and the country could not risk alienating the international community by legalizing cocaine.

As Petro hopes to transition from the war on drugs to a focus on climate change efforts, Duque said the new president must consider the nation's future.

'There's a transition going on and Colombia can turn itself in the next decade into an exporter of green hydrogen, but so far, we need to keep the balance of doing a good job when it comes to oil and gas in terms of exports on production,' Duque said.

'At the same time, we need to keep on expanding on non-conventional renewable energies.'

Despite $8 billion in military aid being sent to Colombia to combat the war on drugs, a report suggests that the growth in drug trafficking has only led to more conflict

Pictured: The fumigation process of coca plants. 'We will never achieve peace in Colombia until we regulate drug trafficking,' one Colombian senator said

During his address on Tuesday, Petro said global efforts to save the environment have been 'hypocritical,' as world leaders ignore the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

'The climate disaster that will kill hundreds of millions of people is not being caused by the planet, it is being caused by capital,' he said.

'By the logic of consuming more and more, producing more and more, and for some earning more and more.'

After hearing Petro's proposals, Bolivia's president, Luis Arce said he would like to continue discussions between the two nations about how regulations could feasibly be eased.

'He shared the ideas with us that he spoke about today,' Arce said.

'We would like to hear a very specific proposal about this.'

The U.S. is yet to comment on Petro's plan, but despite his opposing Washington's war on drugs, and his 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.

Jim Crotty, a former deputy chief of staff at the DEA, argued that a legal cocaine trade 'is not going to get rid of the illegal trade.'

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'As we've seen before in Colombia and elsewhere, there's always someone to fill that vacuum,' Crotty said.


Why is Columbia so famous for drugs? ›

Colombia had the dubious distinction of being the world-leading producer of coca for many years Worldwide demand for psychoactive drugs during the 1960 and 1970s resulted in increased production and processing of these in Colombia.

How much money does Colombia make from drugs? ›

Cocaine is closely tied with Colombia's political and economical scene. The country's drug industry is estimated to be worth over 10 billion dollars.

Is there a drug war in Colombia? ›

In little more than a decade, a small group of men who operate out of Medellin, Colombia's second largest city, has come to dominate the cocaine business as well as the governments of several other countries.

Is Colombia still known for drugs? ›

For many, Colombia is synonymous with drug cartels and narco-traffickers. It is one of the largest narcotics producers in the world – last year, the US government estimated was producing over one million kilograms of cocaine, the highest in the world and more than the two closest nations, Peru and Bolivia, combined.

Is Colombia safe to visit? ›

Reconsider travel due to crime and terrorism. Exercise increased caution due to civil unrest and kidnapping. Some areas have increased risk.

What is the largest drug cartel in the world? ›

The Sinaloa Cartel is widely considered to be the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world, perhaps even more influential and capable than the infamous Medellín Cartel of Colombia during its prime.


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