The Complexities of the Drug-Conflict Nexus

Vanda Felbab-Brown

The tiles from the roof slid as soon as I landed on it and noisily crashed down to the picturesque street of Ayacucho, Peru, alerting the Senderista and cocalero guards who patrolled the area near the zócalo. The shots they fired into the air were probably not meant to hit me, but the residents whose roof I destroyed in my ill-fated attempt at escape and who rushed to the roof of the adjacent house in fury looked scary enough.

This was six years ago. I had come to Ayacucho, the former hotbed of the Shining Path, to investigate what happened with the remnants of the guerilla movement and interview the former insurgents and current cocaleros. And I was lucky on that first of my many fieldwork trips to research from the ground up the relationship between military conflict and illicit economies: The cocaleros – maybe five thousand of them – in an impressive display of power seized the area of the main city square while I was there, set up barricades, and held it under siege for a few days, demanding an end to forced eradication of their coca fields. As a result, I got great access and could interview some key actors otherwise hard to track down. But I also had arranged for another trip into one of Peru’s areas of illegal coca cultivation. This involved crossing the Andes in a small plane, meeting up with my contact, hiring a motor boat and later a motorized canoe, and hiking deep into the forest to access the coca fields and the cocaleros. But there I was stuck in Ayacucho without any means to communicate with my contact who was waiting at the edge of the jungle. Hence, my first escape attempt. My second attempt worked out, however; and the fieldwork in the coca fields proved equally valuable.

Subsequent trips took me to some of the world’s most marginalized areas of violence, criminality, and poverty: the coca fields of Colombia, where local cocaleros, alienated from the government by aerial spraying, still swear allegiance to the FARC; the poppy areas of Burma where former insurgents and drug dealers who had become officials of their autonomous zones gave me lengthy lectures on their eradication efforts even while their labs produced meth right under my nose; to Afghanistan where poppy flowers liven up an otherwise bleak landscape, and produce more opium than any other country in the past fifty years; and to India, Mexico, and Morocco.

Each of the trips was not only full of adventure, even fun, but also provided a wealth of data, based on interviews with multinational organizations and government officials, military, police, and intelligence officers, farmers of illicit crops and producers of illegal goods, traffickers, crime bosses, and insurgents. What emerges from the fieldwork and analysis is sobering: Much of U.S. anti-narcotics policy abroad has been based on the premise that suppression of drug production will promote both anti-drug and counterterrorist goals. My work challenges this premise. I show that, far from being complementary, U.S. anti-narcotics and counterinsurgency policies are frequently at odds. Crop eradication— the linchpin of U.S. anti-narcotics strategy— fails to significantly diminish the physical capabilities of the belligerents.

In fact over the past fifty years eradication has not yet bankrupted one single belligerent group to the point of substantially weakening it – not in Colombia, Afghanistan, Peru, Thailand or Burma. In Colombia, for example, the prototypical showcase for those who argue that suppressing an illicit economy will destroy the belligerents (as the government of President Alvaro Uribe frequently did), both the leftist guerrillas, such as the FARC, and the rightist paramilitaries and their descendents, the so-called bandas criminales, adapted by switching to kidnappings, the extortion of other economies, such as gold mining, and following the coca farmers to new areas where they replanted coca. Direct military effort against the FARC that disrupted it movements had a far greater impact on weakening its military capabilities than eradication.

But eradication in a poor country with a paucity of legal livelihoods and with a labor-intensive illicit economy that can provide employment to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, is not simply ineffective. It is also deeply counterproductive since it enhances the belligerents’ legitimacy and increases popular support for them. Over the years, I have interviewed many coca farmers in Colombia, for example, whose sole affinity for the FARC lay in the FARC protection of their coca fields from the government and U.S.-sponsored eradication effort.

Belligerents obtain this political capital by protecting the illicit economy, and hence the local population’s reliable source of livelihood, from government efforts to suppress it. Sometimes, they bargain with traffickers for better prices on behalf of the farmers, and provide otherwise absent social services and public goods, such as clinics, infrastructure, and dispute resolution mechanisms. In short, belligerents use the illicit economy to transform themselves into security providers and economic and political regulators. This political legitimacy is frequently thin, but nonetheless sufficient to motivate the local population to withhold intelligence on the belligerent group from the government if the government attempts to suppress the illicit economy. Such intelligence is critical for winning a counterinsurgency effort.

Four factors largely determine the extent to which belligerents can benefit from their involvement with the illicit economy: the state of the overall economy; the character of the illicit economy; the presence (or absence) of thuggish traffickers; and the government response to the illicit economy.

• The state of the overall economy – poor or rich — determines the availability of alternative sources of income and the number of people in a region who depend on the illicit economy for their livelihood.

• The character of the illicit economy – labor-intensive or not – determines the extent to which the illicit economy provides employment for the local population.

• The presence (or absence) of thuggish traffickers, and

• The government’s response to the illicit economy (which can range from suppression to laissez-faire to legalization) determine the extent to which the population depends on the belligerents to preserve and regulate the illicit economy.

In a nutshell, supporting the illicit economy generates the greatest political capital for belligerents if the state of the overall economy is poor, the illicit economy is labor-intensive, thuggish traffickers are active in the illicit economy, and the government has adopted a harsh strategy, such as eradication.

Instead of destroying the poppy, coca, and marijuana fields, postponing eradication at least until conflict has ended, and ideally until legal livelihoods are in place is more likely to enhance counterinsurgency effectiveness.

Other policies, such as interdiction against drug traffickers and their labs, are easier to calibrate with a counterinsurgency effort, but they too are extremely unlikely to bankrupt belligerents.

But governments can, and many times have, prevailed against belligerents without disrupting their money flows: by winning the hearts and minds of the population and increasing their own military forces, such as in Thailand against the various ethnic and Communist insurgencies in the 1970s or in Peru against the Shining Path in the 1990s. The successes against the FARC in Colombia came despite, not because of, eradication. In Afghanistan, the United States government and ISAF have been able to see how eradication of the poppy fields has pushed the Afghan population into the hands of the Taliban, and the Obama Administration has defunded centrally-led eradication. Individually governors of Afghan provinces occasionally engage in eradication, such as in Helmand, but their efforts have been meager, since intense eradication is politically unsustainable for most of them. The U.S.-led counternarcotics efforts now center on the interdiction of Taliban-linked drug-traffickers and the development of alternative livelihoods.

In fact, this sequencing of security first, then intense counter-narcotics policies, also enhances counternarcotics efforts: Good security is an essential requirement for the success of any counter-narcotics policy – be it mailed-fist eradication or rural development efforts.

In Shooting Up, I provide three sets of recommendations:

1) how to optimize efforts against illicit economies with counterinsurgency and conflict mitigation;

2) how to enhance the effectiveness of counternarcotics policies in sustainably reducing the size of the drug trade and diminishing the power of crime groups; and

3) how to include 2nd and 3rd degree effects into regulation considerations.

Some of these recommendations are:

• When dealing with labor-intensive illicit economies in poor countries, governments should undertake efforts to suppress those economies that affect the wider population only after military conflict has been brought to an end.

• Military forces, whether domestic or international, should focus on directly defeating the belligerents and protecting the population. They can be most effective at supporting policies to suppress illicit economies by focusing on providing basic security. Without such security, efforts to suppress illicit economies will not be effective.

• If belligerents have not yet penetrated an illicit economy, governments should make every effort to prevent them from doing so or tempt the belligerents into suppressing the illicit economy themselves, provided the government can distance itself from such a policy and offer material help to the population.

• Governments also should explore the possibility of licensing particular illicit economies.

• Governments should avoid treating traffickers and belligerents as a unified actor, and therefore strengthen the bond between them; instead, they should explore ways to pit the two actors against each other.

• Interdiction efforts should be designed to limit the coercive and corruptive power of criminal groups, rather than being dominantly focused on stopping illicit flows.

• Governments and their international partners must address the demand for illicit commodities and contraband

• Governments and international organizations need to consider where the illicit economy is likely to re-emerge if suppression efforts in a particular country or region are effective..

• Governments and international organizations need to consider the possibility that other illicit economies will replace the current one if suppression succeeds.

• Finally, when deciding on particular regulations and prohibitions, including international sanctions, governments and international organizations need to seriously consider whether the harm resulting from such a prohibition and its enforcement will be greater than the harm resulting from a laissez-faire approach.