A Bargain with Narcos? Challenges for Colombia

by Raúl Zepeda Gil and Camilo Pantoja

October 24, 2022

After the 2016 Peace Agreement between the Colombian Government and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC in Spanish), Colombia experienced a steady homicide reduction—from 96 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2002 to 35 in 2019. Although there was hope for a further decline, homicide rates have recently risen, as reported by the National Police. The main reason for this is the remaining presence of criminal organisations. In response, the newly installed president, Gustavo Petro, has proposed a new peace agreement with these organisations. This article discusses how such an agreement can be reached, the risks involved, and the new horizons for Colombia and other countries facing highly organised criminal violence.


Since 2020, rural communities in Colombia have solicited the Government to establish peace negotiations with local criminal organisations. However, the past presidential administration instead intensified military operations against them. The result has been increasingly forced displacement, violence against human rights activists, and massacres

The new Government headed by President Petro and Vice-President Francia Márquez has openly heeded the call from these rural communities for peace negotiations. The angle they have chosen is a cessation of the war on drugs in Colombia, pursuing a ceasefire and demilitarisation as recommended by the Truth Commission established by the 2016 Peace Agreement and the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner. President Petro appointed Danilo Rueda—a facilitator of the 2016 Peace Agreement and a human rights advocate—as the new Commissioner for Peace. His approach will involve regional dialogues for peace.


In contrast to guerrillas, criminal organisations are not ideologically driven. These organisations do not look to overthrow the Government or replace the governing elite. However, their violent actions have political goals in another sense: to change governmental security policy. Therefore, we argue that peace dialogues are possible. The Government can renegotiate its security policy in exchange for violence reduction pacts. Achim Wennmann argues that negotiations with criminal organisations have historically happened worldwide to tackle violence in exchange for criminal justice deals. Alternatively, as Lessing argues for Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico, governments can choose to deploy restrained and strategic operations with a temporary withdrawal of forces to signal that violent activities are not tolerated, while signalling that there is space for negotiations, too.

Peace can also be reached from a regulation angle. Governments seek to regulate illicit markets even if some goods are prohibited. Realistically, a complete halt to smuggling has never been possible. Therefore, governments look for how to address illicit markets with specific goals from a public security perspective, for example, by prioritising some crimes over others or prosecuting the most violent crimes. On drug regulation, some national or local governments, such as Portugal and some states in the United States, have legalised drugs under certain conditions to halt the presence of violent drug dealers. Legalisation has a strong incentive for peace by regulating illicit goods: it displaces violent military options for governments that often foster criminal organisations’ retaliatory cycles of violence.

A new peace agreement with drug trafficking organisations would present a significant political challenge to the international drug prohibition regime because Colombia has been one of the epicentres of the global war on drugs—a country known for its intensive cocaine production and international drug trafficking, as well as deadly military operations supported by the United States Government. Suppose a peace agreement with narcos in Colombia is successful. In that case, it will open the gates to dismantling the international drug prohibition regime and could lead other countries to adopt alternative, more peaceful drug policies.


Despite the possibilities, three challenges lie ahead for President Petro. First, the United States Government will likely pressure him not to dismantle the drug prohibition regime. President Biden has historically been a supporter of war on drugs, although he has announced some restrained flexibility on the marijuana front. For Colombia, a government dependent on U.S. bilateral cooperation, this will complicate efforts toward peace agreements. Nevertheless, drug legalisation in some U.S. cities and states has slowly opened new possibilities to change public opinion and policy at the federal level.

Second, the conservative element of the Colombian population will pose another source of social pressure, as nonviolent crime prevention policies are typically resisted by conservative “tough on crime” politicians and activists. They can rightfully object that drug trafficking cannot be negotiated in the same way as political motivations of guerrillas, and any such efforts would be seen as defeating the rule of law. For example, a peace agreement in Colombia would imply reducing sentences or banning extradition to the U.S. for cartel leaders, as was done in the past. Moreover, some transitional justice mechanisms that are used for civil wars may even suspend criminal prosecution. Particularly regarding victims of crimes against humanity, some could argue that such arrangements as part of peace agreements can lead to impunity. To address these legitimate concerns, a detailed plan for transitional justice mechanisms must be in place with victims’ agreement. For instance, this could be by accepting alternative justice measures such as public apologies and monetary reparations instead of criminal prosecution.

Guards on alert after burning a coca laboratory near Tumaco, Colombia,June, 2008. Credit: Policía Antinarcóticos

Finally, as has previously occurred with several minor FARC splinter groups, some criminal organisations may avoid engaging directly in peace agreements and instead take advantage of the disarmament of others to take their share of the illicit markets. In addition, new criminal organisations could surge after the peace process as other opportunistic gangs aim to take territories and illicit markets given up by organisations involved in the peace deal. Petro’s Government will have to put in place alternative plans for these kinds of “free riders”: for instance, an open call for the use of force to bind them to the agreement, as was done by the police in Rio de Janeiro in the favelas: short, intense operations, followed by negotiation for a surrender through mediators.

The previously mentioned scenario will be more likely if drug prohibition remains. Although Petro has called for the end of the war on drugs, he requires Congress to make two critical political decisions: decriminalise drugs; and retire Colombia from the United Nations drug prohibition treaties. The peace process will have to be drafted both with a decriminalisation scenario and without one, in which the Government chooses not to use deadly force to maintain it,

The Future

The new Colombian Government has opened the debate surrounding nonmilitary solutions to violent crime. However, nonviolent solutions will require rethinking common perceptions about crime and justice. For example, one must reconsider that some crimes are non-negotiable—particularly violent, sexual, and human trafficking crimes—while others can be tolerated on some level. This approach should be paired with longer-term crime reduction policy by expanding social welfare to deter criminal involvement. Negotiating the law might seem like a government weakness for tough-on-crime advocates, but temporary transitional agreements to stop prosecuting some crimes are always possible in criminal justice systems. These alternative justice mechanisms usually happen when attorneys’ offices do not prosecute some crimes in order to get cooperation to find evidence for other crimes. In this case, the strength comes from an agreement’s ability to transform deadly conflicts into peaceful settlements by regulating illicit markets.

Abandoning drug prohibition, tough-on-crime policies, and militarisation are just a part of the peace negotiation process. For criminal organisations, new implementation methods for disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration policies must be crafted using lessons from other civil war peace processes. In addition, a memory and reconciliation process must be implemented.

If Petro is successful, Colombia’s peace process could serve as a model to other countries experiencing drug trafficking violence. Symbolically, a Colombian approach that works to dismantle the international drug prohibition regime may provide hope for millions of victims of drug-related criminal violence worldwide, for whom the international war on drugs has failed.

Raúl Zepeda Gil is a PhD Candidate at the Defence Studies Department in King’s College London, researching youth and violent crime in the Mexican Drug War. He previously took his master’s in political science at El Colegio de México, studying criminal violence history in the region of Tierra Caliente in Mexico. His bachelor’s degree thesis at the National Autonomous University of Mexico is about United Nations state-building in post-conflict countries.

Camilo Pantoja is a PhD Candidate at the Centre of Historical Research in El Colegio de México, researching the history of the National Liberation Army in Colombia. He previously took his master’s at El Colegio de México in political science, studying the history of organised crime violence in Guerrero, México. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the National University of Colombia.

Header image: Gustavo Petro address police officers, 2015.
Credit: Gustavo Petro Urrego

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