Late in 2013 the UN made it official, announcing that Peru had become the largest producer of cocaine in the world. For over two decades Colombian had been the main source. Over a decade of energetic anti-drug efforts forced drug gangs out of business or into neighboring countries (mainly Peru and Ecuador but also Venezuela and Brazil). Peru had been the main cocaine producer until 1992, when Colombia took the lead. Peru has a problem similar to Colombia’s; leftist rebels (the Shining Path) working with drug gangs to create drug production sanctuaries. Peru crushed the Shining Path in the early 1990s but the group survived and made a comeback. Cocaine production in Colombia fell 13 percent last year and that decline continues. Ecuador is the third largest producer, but with only about half the output of Colombia.
The economic collapse has in Venezuela has reached the point where the socialist government is being criticized by its own far-left zealots who have long been core supporters. The extreme left cannot accept any suggestion that the socialist policies of the government have caused the economic collapse and urge the imposition of even more centralized control of the economy. This is what many senior Venezuelan officials are coming to realize is what has caused the economic collapse. But the far left is composed of true-believers to whom economic issues are a matter of faith, not reality. There is one far-left criticism that is accurate; there is a growing problem with corruption. That is not likely to get fixed before it all collapses. While the far-left zealots may be pure, they are not effective enough as political operatives to control the government. Those who are in control are not willing to reduce the corruption because too many of the corrupt officials see that the socialist policies are not and cannot work and the money they are stealing will be a way out of this mess for themselves and their families. Unfortunately many of their less affluent followers are figuring this out as well and are becoming unruly about it. This is particularly troublesome when it happens with some of the armed militias the government has formed to provide protection against a popular uprising. Losing the support of the far-left and the armed militias means the ruling socialists are another corrupt dictatorship ripe for overthrow followed by a civil war. Unless there are some fundamental (and not very socialist, thus very unlikely) economic reforms the inflation (now over 60 percent), unemployment (officially low but most of it is low-paying make-work) and shortages (especially of essentials) will get worse.
July 2, 2014: In the north a major oil company announced it was temporarily closing its oil fields in Arauca province creating lost output of 67,000 barrels a day. This closure will continue until the government does something about the constant attacks by the ELN. The leftist rebels are officially demanding more economic benefits for people living near the oil fields. Unofficially ELN is trying to get the oil companies to pay for protection from these attacks. The latest round of violence, on the 29th, left 13 wounded. The government responded by doubling the number of troops in the area and sending in special commando units to find and destroy the local ELN leadership that keeps these attacking coming. The oil companies would prefer to pay the protection money but not only is that illegal but the government has been very effective at enforcing that ban. Normally Colombia produces about a million barrels a day, mostly for export.
June 15, 2014: The final round of the presidential election was held and incumbent Juan Manuel Santos won a slim (50.9 percent) victory. Santos got 26 percent of the first round vote versus 29 percent for the main challenger. The May 25 vote was declared inconclusive as no one got over 50 percent. The chief challenger (Oscar Ivan Zuluaga) then drew even in the opinion polls and that was mainly because of his hostility to the FARC peace negotiations. That is an attitude shared by most Colombians, many of whom also believe that FARC is just using the peace talks as a ploy to get the government to ease up on the military effort against the leftist rebels and their drug gang allies. Yet many Colombians do support the peace talks and that is one reason why Zuluaga eventually retreated from earlier vows to end the FARC negotiations if elected. In the last weeks of the campaign he said he would demand FARC stop fighting if they wanted the talks to continue. That might cause FARC hard-liners to get their way and continue the war. What apparently put Santos, a conservative, over the top was widespread support by leftists. Santos was respected by leftists for his willingness to make concessions during the FARC negotiations, despite widespread public opposition to those concessions.
The strength of the challenge to Santos was visible during the March elections for the Congress. There Santos’s party lose some support, getting only 47 of the 102 seats in the upper house of Congress. The FARC peace talks were not the only thing that got Santos into trouble. In 2010 newly elected president Santos made peace with Venezuela, whose president Hugo Chavez had become very angry when accused, by Santo's predecessor (Uribe) of allowing Colombian leftists and drug gangs to hide out on the Venezuelan side of the border. Santos and Chavez initially said nice things about each other and planned free trade and such. This didn’t last because of the worsening economic and social situation in Venezuela and the need to blame it on Colombia.
Santos was also helped by FARC leadership becoming more openly critical of the drug trade and FARC’s role in it. Making money from working with the drug gangs has long been a contentious issue in FARC. At one point FARC negotiators proposed legalizing production of coca leaf (for cocaine), opium poppies (for heroin) and marijuana as a way to deal with the drug problem. Many in the government were sympathetic to this but realized that the U.S. and European countries on the receiving end of these powerful narcotics are not. The legalization of drugs proposal was set aside despite the fact that many in FARC are desperate to maintain that source of income (which has also made some FARC commanders rich). Once the peace deal is done the government expects FARC to exit all its criminal activities (drugs, extortion, theft and kidnapping.) That will mean FARC will lose most of its personnel, as many members are mainly in it for the money. But if some of FARC’s drug operations were legalized the leftist group would be much better off. The government is offering alternative economic opportunities while senior FARC leadership appear to accept as preferable to trying to keep some of the drug business. As with past peace deals (with the anti-leftist militias) some FARC members will not surrender but will go total gangster (with the drug trade) and leave their leftist politics behind.
Santos headed the Defense Ministry for former president Uribe and Uribe backed Santos in his initial run for president. But once elected Santos and Uribe disagreed about how Santos handled the peace talks with FARC. Uribe accused Santos of a “peace at any price” strategy and many Colombians agreed with that. His narrow victory makes it clear that he will be judged by how well he gets FARC to honor the terms of the peace deal. Another contentious issues was Santos effort to rebuild relationships with other South American nations. Uribe was disliked by other South American leaders who tended to be leftist and in favor of more state control of the economy. Uribe used a system more like what is found in the United States and China. Most of Colombia was pacified during the eight years of Uribe's rule, and Colombians were allowed to go about their business. Crime and terrorist violence declined more than 50 percent in that eight years and the economy flourished, far surpassing growth in neighboring countries. Even international tourism was up in Colombia. That's a sure sign that the rest of the world believes what is happening in Colombia, despite the paranoid fantasies of the leftist neighbors. Economic growth has continued under Santos, as has the war against FARC and the drug gangs. If Santos can keep the economic growth going he will win the support of many Colombians who are currently doubtful of his effectiveness.
June 10, 2014: The ELN, the smaller of the two major leftist rebel groups, made it official and announced the start of peace negotiations with the government. ELN also admitted that it had, as many suspected, been holding preliminary talks with the government since January. The government is apparently offering ELN the same terms that FARC agreed to. As with FARC, ELN had factions opposed to making peace and willing to fight to the death. ELN leaders sought to avoid an internal power struggle over the issue and that took more than a year of effort. FARC and ELN both sought peace for the same reason; the decade long government effort to destroy them has continued to be successful. For example, in 2013 FARC lost nearly 300 men killed and over 1,200 captured or surrendered. Since 2002 FARC and the smaller ELN have lost over 34,000 killed and over 14,000 captured or surrendered. Many more have deserted. Current FARC armed strength is about 7,000 while ELN has less than 2,000. FARC is no longer optimistic about their future, which is why FARC leadership has stuck with the peace talks for over a year now. ELN has concurred, despite a burst of increased ELN violence in the last year.
While some FARC factions are still getting lots of cocaine cash, most are not and have been scrambling for new ways to make money and keep their people paid, fed, armed and motivated. Pressure like this keeps the FARC negotiating a peace deal which the government expects to implement later this year. While FARC has suffered many defeats in the last decade it is still a viable criminal organization. As a political movement it is in much worse shape and the “politicals” in the FARC leadership appear to be pushing the peace talks. The FARC “gangster” factions are going along, but want to continue making money in the drug trade and other illegal endeavors.
June 8, 2014: FARC declared a week long unilateral ceasefire for the final week of campaigning by the two presidential candidates. That ends on the 15th with the election. If the challenger wins and replaces the incumbent it is likely the final peace terms for FARC may be changed and the entire peace deal may be delayed for a long time. So FARC has been quietly supporting the incumbent.
June 5, 2014: In the north a major oil pipeline (that normally moves up to ten percent of all oil production) was bombed again by ELN. The last major attack was only fixed on May 25th.
June 3, 2014: In the north (Arauca province) an ELN roadside bomb killed four policemen.