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Learning about complexities of narcotics trade and conflict in Colombia

Report on the IPU Delegation to Colombia,

This was the first BGIPU delegation to Colombia since 2003, and the timing could hardly have been more opportune, with the peace process between the Government and the FARC rebels starting on 5th October. Apart from the peace process, the delegation’s primary interests were in boosting bilateral trade and investment, learning more about joint efforts to combat drugs, Colombia’s efforts to preserve its unique environment, human rights in the country and deepening our inter-parliamentary ties.

Led by Greg Hands MP the delegation members were Labour MPs John Mann and Diana Johnson, LibDem peer Baroness Miller and cross bencher Baroness Meacher. Bilingual Sophia Ostler from the IPU provided essential support, as did the UK Embassy in Bogotá and HMA John Dew as well as the Colombian Ambassador in London, who briefed the delegation prior to the visit.

The Delegation were impressed by the progress being made in Colombia. The economy is growing at a good pace (4 – 5% per annum, with economic liberalisation paying fruit), more of the country is being made secure from the long-running insurrection, cocaine exports are declining somewhat (with displacement notably to Peru and Bolivia) and there is a growing air of optimism amongst the opinion leaders we met. However, the delegation still had some concerns regarding the permanence of the peace process, the large gap between rich and poor (the 4th highest in the world), human rights (notably of trades unionists and others), deforestation and the impact of coca cultivation. Nevertheless, progress was felt to be substantial, and a strong UK presence in the country (a growing embassy, UK support for selected NGOs, large SOCA and British Council presences, and the UK being the second largest foreign investor) was felt to have assisted in key areas.

However, apart from a visit to the Colombian antinarcotics police training centre in a restricted location in Ibague, Tolima, the delegation did not have the opportunity to leave Bogotá, and our findings and impressions should come with that caveat. Our meetings in Bogotá were broadly with three groups: Government Ministries, both chambers of Congress and with NGOs.

With the Colombian Government, the delegation met the Environment Minister, Frank Pearl, the Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Monica Lanzetta, the Vice-Minister for Trade, Gabriel Duque, the Vice-Minister for Defence, Jorge Bedoya and the trade agency (ProExport). Government ministers were uniformly upbeat. Colombia is overtaking Argentina to be the third largest economy in Latin America. A Free Trade Agreement with the EU could be signed next year. OECD membership is being sought. Colombia is serious about taking action on deforestation and moving away from cattle-ranching, and has applied for UK assistance from the International Climate Fund. The country has plans for a substantial expansion in infrastructure, particularly in transport, which is seen presently as almost uniformly woeful. 50% of the cost of exporting goods from Colombia is born by domestic transportation costs. All Government ministries seem optimistic about peace; although it is worth noting the Defence Ministry has no intention of letting up on their war with the guerrillas, even whilst negotiations are ongoing.

The delegation spent a day and a half in the Colombian Congress. Greg Hands addressed each House, which was a novel experience, as standing orders are clearly a little different to those in the UK. Mobile phones can be used, and coffee is even brought round by waitresses during the plenary session! Parliamentarians are paid comparably to in the UK (although living costs are lower), but we were told that around one third are under current investigation for various alleged financial irregularities. The reaction to our visit was overwhelmingly positive, both from the Presidents of the two houses, and from Senators and Congressmen, including the party Leaders and the women’s group.

Meetings with NGOs were in many ways the most illuminating. The Lawyers’ Co-operative were often risking their lives to ensure that defendants received a fair trial. One Government Minister had told us that trade union activists were now actually less likely to face violence than other citizens, but this seemed doubtful, as the numbers dying (whist falling markedly) are still high. 2,900 have died since 1986, and the number in 2012 is so far 16. Government phone tapping remains an issue. Meanwhile, peace groups told us that the largest issue remains the 6 million displaced persons (of a total 44 million population), whilst the process needs also to involve militias, criminal gangs and other rebel groups. It was felt that the process was only just beginning, although it was hard not to be optimistic. The human cost of the continuing violence, whether FARC, paramilitary or narco-trafficking related, was dramatically and emotionally illustrated during the delegation’s visit to the children’s charity Benposta on the hills above Bogotá.

A day spent with the UK’s SOCA and the Colombian antinarcotics police and a meeting with the new Country Director of UNODC were illuminating in understanding the war on drugs at its source. Delegation members had different views on whether the ‘war on drugs’ has been effective. President Santos is proposing a debate on this issue and a different approach to tackling the enormous problems of serious crime and drug trafficking so the debate is very lively in Colombia and it was interesting for delegation members to hear it.

Members felt this to be a very successful visit, with a lot of material covered. The optimism across different sectors of society in Bogotá made a strong impression, and the UK is assisting in key areas.

Greg Hands MP