The War on Drugs: Colombia’s loss of sovereignty to the U.S.

The “War on Drugs” (WoD) is a prominent example of transnational crime (TNC) counter measures. This essay will focus on how the WoD has affected Colombia. I contend that the WoD and its TNC counter measures have had a deleterious effect on Colombia’s peasant class and international interests have undermined the self-determination of the Colombian people, leading to protracted conflicts against insurgents and drug lords instead of negotiated solutions.

I will do this by firstly defining my terms and the theory I will use to make my case. Secondly I will provide a brief legal history between Colombia and the US, outlining the key pieces of legislation which have been enacted between the two partner states. An analysis of these policies will follow with particular attention on the gains made by the US and its effects on Colombian self-determination.

Theory, Relevant Legislation and Actors

In this essay I will use a mix of two prominent theories of international relations to make an understanding behind the actions of the state and non-state actors(NSA) involved, primarily Realism and Norms. Realism is a theory of international relations which can be summarised as international relations being about “states pursuing interests in terms of power.” (Brown & Ainley 2005, p.30). Norms are in essence universal values/rules by which states abide without necessarily being legal such as human rights (Dunne & Hanson, p.64). Particularly important is that if a state outright reject norms/universal values they pay a price in the form of universal condemnation, exclusion and potentially even coercive measures aimed at forcing such standards upon that state (Dunne & Hanson, p.64).

The Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 (ADAA1998) under Title IV – International Narcotics Control outlines several initiatives by the US to wage the WoD, it is the first TNC counter measure I will explain. Most important to us are S.4202 which outlines that funds will be allocated for drug producing states to engage in aerial coca eradication (read: fumigation); eligibility for US foreign aid is granted under the full adoption of US plans for anti-narcotics efforts (S.4204C); military assistance in anti-narcotic efforts (S.4205) and an annual certification for bilateral assistance(S.4407) which states that assistance (both military and monetary) will be withheld from states which fail to live up to their obligations under this domestic piece of policy. States which fail to meet their obligations to the US will not only face the termination of foreign aid but also the active legal requirement for the US to vote against that state’s interests in multilateral developments such as bank assistance (S.4407 [5A&B]). Meaning that under US law, the US will use its “voice and vote” against states it deems to not be complying with it drug policy in regard to development funds from international institutions such as the IMF (Chaves-Agudelo et al 2015, p.8).

The Washington Consensus is a set of 10 neoliberal policies which outline steps on how to correct “Latin-specific maladies” through a pro market agenda (Chaves-Agudelo et al 2015, p.4). It is another TNC counter measure like the ADAA1988 that focuses on neoliberal economic development as solutions instead of law enforcement to TNC. It outlines that Latin American states should privatise their enterprises, deregulate their markets and open markets to foreign investment (read: ownership). Important to note are the regional powers: Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia, all of which resist free market policies present in the Washington Consensus.

Finally Plan Colombia is the final TNC counter measure I will cover; it was originally conceived by President Andrés Pastrana as a set of development projects which did not focus on narco-trafficking, military aid or fumigation – it did not mention las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) rebels either (Gardener 2000, para. 72). However, through negotiations with US President Bill Clinton, Plan Colombia was changed to include plans to fumigate coca fields (Chaves-Adugelo et al 2015, p. 6), greater adoption of the ADAA1998 and its hyper-punitive criminal justice system (Chaves-Adeugelo et al 2015, p.7) which came with monetary/military assistance offered by the act as well as greater adoption of the Washington Consensus.

Effects and consequences of Plan Colombia

The ADAA1988’s requirement for aerial fumigation of illicit crops was a failure. It was not able to reduce the production of marijuana nor reduce the number of drugs exported to the US (Chaves-Agudelo et al 2015, p.6). Because cultivation of illicit crops generally occurs where the state has the least oversight – such as inaccessible mountainous jungle regions – operations returned once fumigation was cleared. This is called the “Balloon Effect”: the inelastic demand of drugs will be satisfied by traffickers in one way or another (Chaves-Agudelo et al 2015, p.6).

Between 2000 and 2008 more than 1 million hectares were sprayed (Chaves-Agudelo et al 2015, p.6). Drug fumigation was found to have negative effects on deforestation, health, agriculture and human displacement with studies finding them highly related (Rincón-Ruiz & Kallis 2013, p.60). Forced displacement occurred because of the removal of land cover – oftentimes to communities not involved in drug production – causing peasant communities to lose assets, belongings and also cultural referents, social networks and sense of community (Chaves-Agudelo et al 2015, p.7). Worst of all because these fumigations took place in rural areas inaccessible to state governance, narco-traffickers be they drug lords or la FARC had an easier time recruiting peasants to farm coca because wages are higher than the norm, offering a form of stability that the Colombian state simply cannot offer (Chaves-Adugelo et al 2015, p.6).

The Washington Consensus’ effects on Colombian peasants has also hampered the drug war and TNC counter measures. As Colombia has opened its markets up to foreign ownership they’ve grow more susceptible to the global economy. In 2002 when coffee prices fell, peasants were forced to grow coca to make up the loss of income, doing so knowing the illegality (Chaves-Agudelo et al 2015, p.8). This of course being completely avoidable had there been some state subsidisation or attempt to buffer the Colombian economy from these foreign changes in the market.

It is not difficult to understand through a Realist framework why the US has taken such interest in Colombia and the WoD. Colombia has been fighting a guerrilla war since at least the 1940s during La Violencia, a bloody civil war which FARC claims it was founded during (Rochlin 2011, p.242). La FARC are a revolutionary guerrilla group which seeks to turn Colombia into a socialist state or at the very least find some form of legitimate political representation. The US would not want an ideologically opposed regional power in South America alongside those of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. The US has a long history of intervening in the affairs of America Latina for this reason. In 2003 it was implicated in a coup against socialist President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela (Rochlin 2011, p.248), in 1973 aided military fascist Augusto Pinochet take power in Chile, invaded Panama in 1989 and over threw the government of Guatemala in 1954 which lead to a 40-year civil war (Davies, 2014).

All of this intervention is generally done under the guise of TNC counter measures, yet more often than not is related directly to US interests, such as control over the Panama Canal or ensuring there is not another socialist/communist enemy within America Latina or opening up markets for trade. Here it is obvious to see how the US camouflages its interventions with the use of strong international norms to justify its Realist/neoliberal aims. An obvious example being how the US justifies military action against la FARC because of links to drugs/terrorism after rebranding la FARC as a terrorist group in 1997 (US Department of State 2016, para 18), it uses these norms to justify its actions. Thus the US is largely successful in pursuing its interests because their actions are prefaced with acceptable norms in the international arena.

Most troubling however is the fact that the US’s continual intervention in Colombia’s civil war and drug problem has undermined not only the sovereignty of Colombia but the ability of the people to actually resolve these conflicts. The effect of such a protracted conflict is that people continue to die. Over time Colombians have been open to compromises and negotiations which would bring an end to the conflict as in 1996 when the public sought conciliatory positions between aggressors (Lessing 2015, p.1499).

However due in two parts, this was not a possible option to the Colombian state or people. Firstly, Colombia is bound by the ADAA1988 to commit to action what the US views as necessary to combat TNC, otherwise it would face retribution under S.4407 5 A and B. This means that even though the Colombian public was willing to make peace with its communist rebels, it was not a political possibility due to foreign interests until recently.

Secondly, challenging this situation is made difficult by just how strong the norm against drugs is internationally. Australia for instance recently passed laws making it legal to grow cannabis for medicinal reasons, however it was stymied early on by the Minister for Health, Sussan Ley, having to find ways around Australia’s international obligations (Office of the Minister of Health 2016, para.10). Ironic considering Australia has no issue side stepping and working around its international obligations to refugees (Amnesty International 2013), but it cannot do so when it comes to drugs, a strong example of the normative power of TNC counter measures against the WoD.

Further the normative power of the WoD and its view on criminality makes it not only taboo for the US and Colombia to negotiate with la FARC and other narco-trafficking groups (Lessing 2015, p.1449), it pushes them into seeking greater power over them. Wars of this nature are however simply unwinnable; and any non-myopic state in its right mind can only fight these wars with the goal of constraining the drug trade, not eliminating it (Lessing 2015, p.1493). Since when you defeat one cartel, there will always be another body to move in – the balloon effect (Lessing 2015, p.1493). The problem being the harder the US and Colombia hit these clandestine bodies, the harder they hit back (Lessing 2015, p.1501). So although la FARC and even the cartels have offered to stop their militant activities in the past (Lessing 2015, p.1492), the US and Colombia simply cannot compromise their position to the cartels/rebels because of the normative power of the WoD, meaning that these conflicts end up running longer than they should and are bloodier as a result.


Thus as a result of the ADAA1988, the Washington Consensus and Plan Colombia, the effects of these TNC counter measures in the WoD have been largely negative for Colombia and America Latina. Aerial fumigation of crops without alternative modes of income for peasants has led to forced displacement and deleterious effects on the environment/health of Colombians without reducing drug production. The normative power of the WoD has stifled the Colombian people’s ability to negotiate and end its protracted and bloody conflict. With these two grave effects in mind I conclude that the negative impacts of transnational crime counter measures on the WoD in America Latina have far outweighed the positive outcomes.





Amnesty International 2013, Government removes Australia from its own borders to avoid obligations, viewed


Brown, C, & Ainley, K., (2005) The Development of International Relations Theory in the Twentieth Century, in

Understanding International Relations, Ch2, (19-37)

Davies, N, J, S. (2014) 35 Countries where the U.S. has supported fascists, drug lords and terrorists, viewed


Dunne, T., & Hanson, M., (2009) Human Rights in International Relations, In M, Goodheart (Ed.) Human Rights:

Politics and Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (61-67)

Gardener, D., (2000), Losing the War on Drugs, Part 2, The Ottowa Citizen, viewed 23/03/2016,

Lessing, B., (2015) Logics of Violence in Criminal War, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 59(8), (1486-1516)

Office of The Hon Sussan Ley MP 2016, Historic Cannabis Legislation Passes Parliament, viewed 23/03/2016,

United States of America 1988, Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988

Rincón-Ruiz, A., & Kallis, G., (2013) Caught in the middle, Colombia’s War on Drugs and its effects on forest and

people. Geoforum, 46, (60-78)

Rochlin, J, F., (2011) Who Said the Cold War is Over? The political economy of strategic conflict between

Venezuela and Colombia, Third World Quarterly, 32(20), (237-260)

The United States Department of State 2016, Foreign Terrorist Organisations, viewed 23/03/2016,





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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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