The Right to Return…to What? Venezuelan Migrants Caught Between Conflicts

18 November 2020, 1530 EST

This is a guest post by Shauna N. Gillooly is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Irvine and a visiting researcher at Pontifica Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia. Her research focuses on peacebuilding and transitional justice in contexts of continued political violence.

In 2015, Venezuela’s already-in decline economy took yet another turn for the worse. Then-historically low oil prices, along with internal mismanagement of infrastructure by Maduro’s administration, led to millions of Venezuelans leaving the country in search of a more stable life. For many of them, the obvious first stop was neighboring country Colombia. The following year, after the signing of a historic peace agreement between the Colombian government and leftist guerrilla group The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), saw the lowest levels of violence in the country in a generation. Colombia’s peace economy was on an upswing, and as the situation got more complex in Venezuela, Colombia relaxed documentation requirements for Venezuelans entering the country—no passport required.  

 Fast-forward to 2020: Colombia is emerging from a nationally mandated quarantine which lasted almost seven months due to the COVID-19 outbreak. With the outbreak and quarantine, the informal economy has collapsed. Promised aid from the government for the poorest and most vulnerable populations has yet to appear in many cases. Demand for services has decreased, and many Venezuelans are evicted from what homes they have in cities like Bogotá and Medellín because they can no longer afford the 3,000 pesos (equivalent to less than 50 cents) a night for the rooms they rent. Moreover, the peace for Colombia that seemed so close in 2016 is starting to appear more unattainable than it’s ever been. Institutional foot-dragging and politicking from the central government in Bogotá has led to a proliferation of smaller and less organized armed groups fighting across the country for territory, the most valuable kind being areas which produce coca, the primary ingredient in what eventually becomes cocaine, and the trafficking routes that get it out of Colombia to the lucrative market for consumption in the United States and Western Europe.

Deal with It

In 2016, almost simultaneously with the increasing destabilization of Venezuela, the Colombian government signed a peace deal with FARC, indicating an end to a 54-year long civil conflict. Then-Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos had two years to begin implementation of the peace accords before the next presidential elections and a change in administration, which did not go as quickly or smoothly as hoped for.

Enter Iván Duque, right-wing candidate for conservative party Democratic Center, protegee of outspoken critic of the peace deal and former president Álvaro Uribe. Duque campaigned on the constitutionally dubious platform of changing the accords, saying they were too lenient on the guerrillas, while simultaneously promoting an orange economy for Colombia—one based on increasing tourism, artisan projects, and foreign investment during a new era of peace.

True to his campaign promises, upon taking office in 2018, Duque did what he could to slow implementation of the peace deal. Peace accord implementations are slow and messy processes by nature, but this clear lack of action and institutional foot-dragging from the government made an already complex process even more difficult.

In late 2018, several high-level FARC commanders disappeared from their demobilization zones. A few months later in 2019, they issued a call for FARC to return to arms via video message, citing the government’s lack of progress and betrayal of the peace accords. According to recent reports, FARC dissidents are starting to re-form and reorganize along their previous blocs.

But even previously to some FARC forces rejoining an armed struggle, there were problems throughout the national territory. After a brief honeymoon period following the peace deal in 2016 and 2017, which saw some of the lowest levels of violence in a generation, the conflict began to take on a new form. This is because when FARC left their territories, they also left valuable, ungoverned resources behind. Much of the area they controlled in the Northeast and Southwest part of the country was prime land for the production of coca, the primary ingredient in what is eventually processed into cocaine. Both regions contain vital avenues to get the product out of Colombia and to the big money market in the United States and Western Europe.

Today, the majority of the armed groups that are squabbling over territory are the proverbial grandsons of paramilitary groups. Together with FARC dissidents and Colombia’s largest active guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), these groups make territorial control throughout the country an increasingly violent and ever-changing landscape. These groups present yet another threat to those millions of Venezuelan migrants either trying to eke out a living near border regions or traverse deeper into Colombian territory.

A History of Contentious Policy Solutions

Colombia, perhaps more than any other country, has been impacted by the failed US War on Drugs. While the United States’ current policy toward Colombia continues to be colored by War on Drug-esque policies, these sorts of policy ideas initially emerged through US Cold War policy in Latin America. Since the 1950s, US policy has primarily been supportive of right-wing, pro-US political candidates and military aid —Colombia is no exception to this policy approach.

In spite of these measures and the Colombian government’s cooperation with US War on Drugs policies, narcotic and insurgent activity in the country continued, with levels of violence perpetrated against civilians increasing throughout the 1980s and 1990s by state and non-state entities alike. By the late 1980s and through the 1990s, powerful drug cartels went head-to-head with the Colombian government, and leftist insurgent forces controlled a significant portion of the national territory. A US policy focus on counter-insurgent and counter-narcotic policies had not gone well for Colombia.

In 1988, RAND corporation published a two-year study commissioned and funded by the US Department of Defense on the impact of increased military participation in the prohibition of drugs. The study concluded that military involvement in preventing the entrance of drugs in the US would have minimal or no effect on the trafficking of cocaine, and might in fact actually increase the profits of drug cartels and manufacturers. The study concluded that the involvement of the military in a War on Drugs in Colombia would have almost no effect on the rate and amount of cocaine being imported into the US.

Yet US policy in Colombia toward the production of cocaine remains the same. In spite of forced manual eradication and a return to the policy of aerial fumigation under current Colombian president Duque (at the pressure from President Trump, and despite evidence of serious health effects), coca production remains at an all-time high. In 2018, Colombia had 171,000 hectares of coca cultivation, which equates to 1,120 metric tons of cocaine produced in one year alone. The measures of manual eradication and aerial fumigation can be likened to a hamster wheel, as farmers and traffickers just replant the crop as soon as eradicators move on and the herbicides stop working. The result of 50 years’ worth of counter-narcotic and counter-insurgent US foreign policy has only resulted in a proliferation of cocaine as well as one of armed groups.

New Policies for a New Era

One of the first people to suggest the legalization of cocaine in Colombia due to the epic failure of the War on Drugs was Attorney General Alfredo Gutierrez Marquez in 1988. While this suggestion was greeted with disagreement and outrage, it is clear that policies touted by Colombia and the US in the past have not worked. Legalizing the production of cocaine in Colombia would reduce overall levels violence, lead to more stable livelihoods and competitive prices for coca farmers, and could make the product itself safer through regulation.

To be clear, the process of legalization would be a long-term one. Marijuana should be come first, and serve as something of a blueprint. It is avaialable online on We already have examples of countries like Canada and Uruguay who have successfully legalized and regulated marijuana at a federal level. Tax revenue collected from marijuana and cocaine should be used to help relieve pressure on the state as it integrates Venezuelan migrants and fund local development projects in collaboration with rural community leaders. In Colombia, this structure already exists—the Agency for Territorial Renovation developed Development Programs with Territorial Focus (PDETs) as a part of the peace deal. The agency collaborates with rural community leaders to develop projects that are most useful to that specific community. Revenue from legalization of marijuana and cocaine can be used to expand PDET initiatives and community-driven projects, as well as strengthening the public health system. Harvard economist Jeffery Mirron estimates that tax revenue from taxing cocaine would be in the millions for a single US state—imagine what that number might look for Colombia itself. He also estimates that legalizing cocaine would reduce its price by 80%, putting a huge dent in the coffers of illegal armed groups that use cocaine to fund their fight.

Legalizing the production and regulating the final product of cocaine means less violence by armed groups throughout the country. With legalization, the reasons for current violence dramatically decreases, meaning less contested territory and less internal displacement. Legalization means fair market prices for Colombian farmers who, at present, have to sell their crops at the price that whichever armed group in control of the territory says. It also means potential improvement in the working conditions and pay for harvesters of coca, many of which are Venezuelan migrants. Legalization also means regulation—the safety of the product would increase, less likely to be cut with dangerous combinations as a money-saving measure.

What can the United States do? Its greatest contribution to this solution would be to not punish Colombia for legalization. It should continue to increase humanitarian and developmental aid, focusing on support for locally driven projects like the PDET initiatives and the hard-hit border regions rather than no-strings-attached military aid.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has thrown levels of inequality into an even harsher light. Moving forward, it is vital that we re-examine how long-held policies may or may not be actually helping, taking this opportunity to have discussions about innovative solutions.

Photo Credit: Fernando Vergara, AP.