Colombian truth panel calls for ‘legal regulation’ of drugs

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombian Truth Commission on Tuesday called on the government to stop focusing on banning illicit drugs — a cause of violence, he said, in the country’s decades-long civil conflict — and instead become a world leader in “strict legal regulation”.

The panel, named as part of the 2016 peace deal between the government and rebel groups, also called for a transformation of the country’s armed forces and an overhaul of its failed approach to suppressing a thriving cocaine trade that is responsible for more than 90 percent of the drug supply in the United States.

The commission’s recommendations form part of a final report serve as the most detailed account yet of the atrocities committed by all sides during the country’s 52-year civil conflict, the longest in the hemisphere.

The commission scathingly criticizes Colombia’s war on drugs, a joint effort with the United States, the most important ally. It recommends a new approach to the fight against illicit cultivation, one that focuses more on sustainable development and less on the eradication of coca, the base plant of cocaine.

“Current drug policy is ineffective in preventing use,” the panel writes in a report of nearly 900 pages. “The war policy against drugs and drug trafficking has been a factor in the persistence of conflicts and violence in Colombia.

He did not provide further details on which drugs should be decriminalized, or how they would be regulated. The recommendations are advisory and non-binding. Their implementation would require government action. But Colombian President-elect Gustavo Petro said he would comply with the report’s recommendations.

The commission is considering sweeping reforms to the country’s judicial system, calling for greater independence of the attorney general’s office and more thorough investigations into human rights abuses. He urges the government to separate the National Police from the Defense Ministry, an unusual structure which critics say has led to a militarization of law enforcement. It calls for a complete revision of military doctrine and for more transparency and disciplinary control of the security forces. It says the state must ensure compliance with international standards on the use of force and should consider reforming or eliminating the country’s controversial riot police force.

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The recommendations follow four years of research and more than 27,000 interviews with victims, government officials, civil organizations and participants from all sides of the country’s complex history of gun violence. The commission plans to release the full report in installments in the coming weeks. It is expected to shed light on human rights abuses committed by Colombia’s military and armed leftist rebels – as well as previously untold details about the role of the United States , which have provided training and billions of dollars in funding to the nation’s armed forces.

Its report presents staggering new figures reflecting the toll of the conflict in Colombia: more than 450,000 people have died, more than 121,700 have been “forcibly disappeared”, some 50,000 have been kidnapped, around 8 million have been displaced from their households and more than 16,200 children and adolescents have been recruited into armed groups.

Some recommendations differ sharply from the approach taken by the administration of President Iván Duque, which has supported the eradication of coca and a militarized response to drug trafficking. Critics say Duque, who opposed the peace deal, failed to implement the accords properly. As violence increases in rural Colombia, so does coca cultivation, which has tripled since 2012, according to US figures.

The report comes at a critical time for Colombia, just over a week after voters elected the country’s first leftist president. Petro and Vice President-elect Francia Márquez, who will take office in August, attended the truth commission ceremony on Tuesday.

“The approach to truth cannot be revenge,” Petro said. “This should be seen…as the possibility of reconciliation.”

Duque, in particular, did not attend; he was traveling out of the country.

Petro has been a fierce critic of the war on drugs and has said he would support the legalization of marijuana. If he manages to move the country towards a “legal regulation” of drugs, as recommended by the truth commission, he could attract strong opposition from the United States, which has long welcomed its relations with Colombia in the fight against drug trafficking.

The Biden administration has taken a more holistic harm reduction approach than its predecessors to Colombia’s counternarcotics strategy. But it seems unlikely that the US government would support the legalization of a drug as addictive and harmful as cocaine, said Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“With a midterm election, there won’t be a lot of guts in the Democratic Party to endorse this,” Isacson said. But a move towards legalization would be “almost entirely a victory for Colombia”.

“If you could take the profits out of the drug trade, you would take out a lot of the money from organized crime,” Isacson said.

Neither the US State Department nor the US Embassy in Bogotá immediately responded to requests for comment.

“The report of the [commission] symbolizes the end of a listening process and the beginning of a stage of reflection on the past and the future,” the embassy tweeted. “We hope that the plurality of voices present in this story will make victims’ rights and reconciliation a reality.

The civil conflict grew out of generations of armed violence and land disputes in rural parts of the country. Beginning in the 1960s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the leftist rebel group known as FARC, took up arms, rose up against inequality and sought to overthrow the government.

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For decades, FARC insurgents have terrorized the country with kidnappings, bombings and other attacks. At its peak, the group, backed by cocaine profits, had nearly 20,000 fighters and controlled up to a quarter of Colombian territory.

When the FARC took power, paramilitary forces rose up across the country to fight the rebels, sometimes with the complicity of the country’s armed forces. The Colombian military, backed and trained by the US military, responded with brutal force, often against innocent civilians.

In April, senior military officials accepted responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity in an infamous scandal known as the Colombian ‘false positives’ case. Between 2002 and 2008, an estimated 6,402 Colombians were killed by government forces in what the military incorrectly characterized as combat deaths, according to the country’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace. Major military leaders used the body count to show they were winning the war.

The commission, in its final report on Tuesday, said these were “not isolated cases”. It places “institutional responsibility” on the armed forces.

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Thanks to the 2016 peace agreement, for which then-President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, more than 13,000 FARC fighters disarmed and pledged to reintegrate into society. The government has committed to comprehensive reforms to help prevent further violence.

But much of the country continues to suffer from armed conflict. FARC splinter groups, led by rebels who rejected the peace accord, and paramilitary groups continue to terrorize and displace residents. The murder rate of human rights defenders and environmental activists is among the highest in the world.

Tuesday’s ceremony took place at a Bogotá theater named after Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the presidential candidate whose assassination in 1948 helped spark decades of violence in the country.

The peace process in Colombia follows similar post-conflict transitions around the world, such as in South Africa and Uganda, and in Latin America, such as Peru, Uruguay and Argentina. But unlike the others, the commission’s report takes an intersectional approach, with separate chapters focusing on the impact of the conflict on women, LGBTQ people, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.

“Why didn’t the country demand that the guerrillas and the state put an end to the political war? asked Francisco de Roux, chairman of the truth commission. “How dare we let this happen? And how dare we let this continue?

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