On 13 September, US President Donald Trump shocked Colombia with a threat to “decertify” the country if it does not reverse a recent surge in cocaine production. Trump’s warning that Colombia might not be fulfilling its international obligations to control drug production came at the White House’s annual evaluation of which countries it deems major drug producing and transit areas. Venezuela and Bolivia were the only countries to be decertified on this occasion.

What is decertification?

In order to appreciate the gravity of Trump’s threat, it is necessary to understand what decertification entails. Introduced as part of drug control foreign policy in 1986, the certification process is a means by which the US publicly evaluates the drug control efforts of major producing or transit countries.

Countries whose drug control efforts are deemed “unsatisfactory” are decertified, and as a result are subject to sanctions, which may include a US boycott on loans from international institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). In practice, scholars like Elizabeth Joyce have argued that the program serves as a coercive tool to help the US government impose its interests on other countries.

The threat of decertification had a real effect on Colombian drug policy during the 1990s. Reacting to a scandal revealing possible ties between Ernesto Samper’s presidential campaign and the Cali Cartel, Bill Clinton’s administration decertified Colombia in 1996.

President Samper’s US visa was consequently revoked and the country lost privileges such as preferential treatment in trade and some antinarcotics funding. In order to be recertified, Colombia acquiesced to nearly every US demand, increasing the maximum penalty for drug trafficking and approving the extradition of its drug traffickers to the US. The certification program was redesigned in 2002 to lessen the trade and credit consequences of decertification, but in practice the changes were minimal.

Colombia has always been included in the list of major drug producing and trafficking countries. That designation requires that 1,000 or more hectares of illicit opium or heroin, coca – or 5,000 or more hectares of cannabis – are produced in a country; but is not meant to be a reflection of a government’s counter-narcotics efforts or cooperation with the US. Inclusion on the list does not come with any penalties.

President donald trump signs a bill in the oval office
President Trump has threatened Colombia with “decertification”. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The rationale behind Trump’s statement

Trump’s statement cited “record growth of coca cultivation and cocaine production over the past three years, including record cultivation over the last 12 months” as its reason for considering decertification. A report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in July showed an increase of 52% in areas of coca leaf cultivation – from 96,000 hectares to 146,000 hectares – between 2015 and 2016. That amount of coca translates to a potential yield of 866 metric tons of cocaine.

The increase triggered alarm bells in Washington. Colombia is the source of 90% of the cocaine consumed in the United States. A Senate debate in mid-September saw US politicians from both major parties – Democrats and Republicans – express extreme concern over the efficacy of Colombia’s drug policy.

Longtime California senator, Dianne Feinstein, rejected the attempts of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ government to move away from its programmes of forced eradication of coca crops – which rural Colombians have protested for years – toward programmes of alternative development and crop substitution. Feinstein announced that she would not support future funding to Colombia that is not directly aimed at policies of prohibition and eradication of illicit cultivations and interdiction.

Trump’s administration ultimately decided not to decertify Colombia because of the close partnership between the Colombian National Police and Armed Forces and US law enforcement and security agencies. However, by keeping the designation “as an option,” Trump’s message to Colombia is clear: fall in line.

Timockenko and Juan Manuel Santos sign Colombia's peace deal in Cartagena wearing white
Colombia’s hard-fought peace deal with the FARC rebel group included a section on drug policy. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Implications for Colombia

The threat of decertification puts President Santos in a difficult position. He has expressed his belief on numerous occasions that the US-led global emphasis on prohibition has done little to diminish either global drug production or consumption. Since taking office in 2010, he has been vocal in his belief that the international community must reconsider its approach to drug policy.

In 2012, he sparked headlines during a summit of hemispheric leaders in Cartagena when he challenged then-President Barack Obama to rethink the War on Drugs. On the domestic front, Santos has invested considerable resources into refocusing domestic drug policy to deemphasise prohibition and promote development and public health initiatives as a better solution. In 2015, he suspended his government’s program of aerial eradication of coca crops with the herbicide glyphosate, citing health concerns.

The Colombian government’s 2016 peace deal with the FARC guerrilla group reflects Santos’s approach to drug policy. The accord, which devotes an entire section to the issue of illicit drug cultivation, trafficking and consumption, funnels significant resources toward alternative development and crop substitution programs. Under the deal, the government and former guerrillas will work together with peasant families to voluntarily eradicate nearly 50,000 hectares of coca in 2017.

Decertification could seriously jeopardise Santos’s chances of success in solving Colombia’s drug problem his way. In March, the US Congress approved an aid package of $450 million to help Colombia implement its peace process. This funding could be reduced if Trump decides to decertify Colombia. Furthermore, decertification could serve as fodder for opponents of Santos’ peace process. The FARC served as a key player in the Colombian drug trade, and many argue the peace deal is one of the biggest reasons for the increase in coca production.

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