Rethinking the Problem
In the run-up to the special session of the UN General Assembly on the World Drug Problem in 2016, the debate on drug policies has gained fresh impetus. Nevertheless, on the ground in production countries such as Colombia, strategies have not changed much so far: we continue to fumigate coca cultivations, destroy laboratories, detain small-scale traffickers and point to the lack of action of the consumption countries to reduce demand. Despite the progress in the current Colombian peace talks, the agreement between the government of Colombia and the rebel group FARC on the “solution to the illegal drug problem” focuses on the same links in the cocaine supply chain: cultivation, production and consumption.
Instead of limiting ourselves to eliminating these links, we should shift our attention to the intermediaries – the narco-brokers and the financiers – the glue that holds together the supply chain links of cultivation, production and consumption. Fumigations, manual eradication and alternative development programmes did diminish the area of coca cultivation by 51 per cent between 2007 and 2013 in Colombia. But, innovations in processing methods and transportation have maintained stable levels of cocaine production.
Targeting coca farmers, traffickers and dealers has failed to reduce the cocaine business in any significant way. The large number of farmers, the abundance of territories available for new cultivation, the ease of substituting destroyed laboratories and the infinity of new mules, traffickers and dealers easily fill the voids of the captured and the killed ones.
There is a firm rock in this ocean of adaptation and reconfiguration: the narco-broker, who coordinates agreements between the various supply chain links and helps reduce mistrust between the groups that participate in this lucrative business.
In the case of fumigations, captures or killings, the broker can reconfigure the network which facilitates the drug trafficking flow. The broker is the element which is most difficult to replace because he or she features three characteristics that are scarce in illegal businesses: trustworthiness, reliability and strong networking skills.
First, the narco-broker’s trustworthiness is crucial to maintain the links. As he/she tends to be the only direct contact with the groups, he/she is responsible for reducing the risks of detention or death for those involved in the drug deals. Yet these deals are by no means legally binding; the possibility of cheating and betrayal is omnipresent, which makes trustworthiness a characteristic that is hard to find. Megateo, a wanted narco-broker of Eastern Colombia, is one of the few exceptions. During my travels in Colombian Catatumbo many people told me that he is perceived to comply with what he says. Therefore, he not only successfully manages the arrangemens with the three Colombian rebel groups FARC, ELN and EPL, but is also appreciated by the community.
Second, in order for the narco-deals to materialise, the broker has to be perceived as a reliable business parter by all parties involved. A reputation of a “good broker” over many years confers him/her the credibility that is necessary to succeed in the illicit business. Given the quickly changing nature of the drug business, it is difficult to find people with many years of experience in the cocaine industry: often, narco brokers do not even reach the age of 30, making it difficult to fill the void left by a captured or killed broker. This is perhaps why the capture of Colombian brokers “Loco Barrera” in September 2012, and “Marquito Figueroa” in October 2014 were portrayed by the media as major blows against the illegal drug business.
Finally, the narco-broker needs to have a large network of contacts because his/her function is to connect and reconnect the supply chain links without jeopardising the business, even if one of the links breaks off. Like an octopus which has its tentacles in many parts, the narco-broker has connections which extend vertically to penetrate all classes of society and, horizontally to all sectors including politics. As a neighbourhood leader in Cúcuta, Colombia, explained to me, it was not without reason that the suspect of being an important narco-broker in the region, who was assassinated in April 2012, was called “The Octopus”. Having networks across different sectors and classes of society requires skills of versatility and adaptation that few people possess.
The narco-brokers are the intermediaries who primarily manage the later stages of the cocaine supply chain. Yet in order to adopt a holistic strategy, we have to identify the brokers at all levels, starting from the coca cultivation and the coca paste. The figures who stand out in these initial stages are the “financiers”. As I have discovered in conversations with local coca farmers in Southern and Eastern Colombia, they ensure that the first links of the cocaine supply chain stay connected in at least three ways. First, the financiers buy the coca leaves or the coca paste from the farmers in order to sell the product to those in charge of processing. If there are no roads on which the farmers would be able to take the products to the market, the financiers arrive at the farms to buy the coca. Second, if any of their clients are no longer able to sell coca due to fumigations or manual eradication, they provide the coca farmers with new seeds or look for other farmers to ensure the supply for the laboratories. Third, if farmers attempt to substitute coca with other crops, the financiers may increase the prices of the coca paste to make the deal more lucrative.
At the same time, the financiers contribute to uncertainty and ignorance among the communities regarding the identity of those who administer the laboratories, and of those who control the other supply chain links, including the armed groups who are present in the territory: it is neither clear who operates in the name of whom, nor who decided to impose a new price. Hence, while on the one hand, the financiers increase the stability of the cocaine supply chain, on the other hand they reduce clarity on the rules of the game for the farmers.
Addressing the Glue between the Links
Continuing to kill or capture farmers, mules and traffickers will not bring any signifcant changes nor effective solutions. Instead, addressing the narco-brokers and financiers, that is, the “glue” that holds together the supply chain links, helps disrupt the chain and make new configurations more difficult.
Of course this does not replace sustainable development policies that address issues such as education, health and infrastructure in order to offer alternative livelihood strategies to the communities affected by the cocaine supply chain. But it constitutes a complementary approach which should form part of the discussions on the solution to the illegal drug problem and the debate on drug policies more widely.
Dr. Annette Idler
University of Oxford
This post originally appeared in Spanish: