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The End of the War on Drugs: Petro’s Key Foreign Policy Agenda

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

The initiatives and rhetoric of the first five months of Gustavo Petro’s government have clearly indicated that one of the key objectives of the Humane Colombia party is to redirect Colombia’s foreign policy away from the “North Star” doctrine (Respice Polum) and toward the Respice Similia doctrine, as defined by president Alfonso López Michelsen back in the 1970s when the Colombian government pursued an autonomous position toward the emerging U.S.-driven War on Drugs.[1] Petro’s move away from the dominant status quo parallels the initiative of López Michelsen, insisting, as Michelsen did, that the problem of narcotics trafficking must be tackled from the angle of consumption and demand and not production and supply.[2]

The return to the short-lived sovereignty-based doctrine of four decades ago sheds light on the subordinate role defended by all other past governments, with the exception of Michelsen’s, as well as the willingness of the current government to redefine their relationship with the United States, the Western-dominated global market system, its multilateral institutions and power structures, and the ultimate pursuit of new partnerships, regionally and globally, in order to establish a foreign policy that will guarantee peace for Colombians while at the same time securing a more sustainable and self-sufficient regional economic development model. Within this initiative, the redefinition of Colombia’s role in the War on Drugs has become a key agenda item and a key pillar of Petro’s foreign policy. Without this policy shift the country and the world, says Petro, will not be able to achieve peace; this objective will not be reached “without social, economic, and environmental justice.”[3]

From his perspective, and the perspective of many Colombians, the War on Drugs must be terminated because it has only led to death, violence, human rights abuses, economic degradation, political corruption, and environmental catastrophes. This policy, imposed on Colombians by foreign interests wanting to turn their back on their own internal social and health problem, has impeded the country from achieving peace and internal political stability. Forty plus years of failed policy initiatives and billions of dollars wasted is all there is to show for this policy initiative. The “irrational war against drugs” pushed by the United States “has failed.”[4]

Forty plus years of drug enforcement policies across the Western Hemisphere and the world, yet nothing to show. This on its own should justify a policy revision or for that matter policy termination.

That was the message Petro channeled to the world in September of 2022 at the United Nations General Assembly’s 77th session. There, he accused the West, and particularly the United States, of being “hypocritical” for demanding that the countries of South America protect the Amazon while at the same time allowing its own representatives to facilitate the conditions and supply Colombian authorities with the means to carry out the massacres, the burning, and poisoning of the Amazon on behalf of the War on Drugs.[5]

By tying the future of the Amazon to the War on Drugs, Petro not only brought Peru and Brazil into the mix, but he also redefined the agenda establishing an intertwined and interdependent connection between environmental issues and the future of the War on Drugs. He emphasized that the winning formula was to focus on society, since reducing drug use “did not require wars.”[6] He suggested instead that the West focus on building better societies, more supportive and affectionate societies that hold more value in “giving” and less on consuming.[7]

His pivot away from Western dependency and control, and his idea of tying the end of the War of Drugs to the future of the Amazon, is supported by Brazil’s president Lula, another champion and emblem of the progressive left agenda.[8] If Petro is able to lead a regional coalition toward greater autonomy on this foreign policy issue, then the redefinition of the War on Drugs or even its termination could become a reality. The outcomes would be structurally transformational for Latin America and the Caribbean, ultimately redefining social, political, economic, and environmental realities in the region.

His public comments of the first few months in office have revealed that his macro foreign policy vision is to reunite Latin America and the Caribbean under a same cause; sovereignty and regionally integrated sustainable economic development centered on social and environmental justice. From Petro’s perspective dismantling the War on Drugs is the only way to move forward, it is the only road to “peace.”[9] The end of the U.S. policy would bring to a closure violence, economic dependency, environmental degradation, political corruption, and social displacement across the Americas.[10]

The end of the War on Drugs and the implementation of a regionally integrated and sustainable economic development model would end the problem of illegal migration in the U.S., considering that the top reason why hundreds of thousands of humans have journeyed to the southern U.S. border is to escape the violence generated by the policy itself. The end of the policy would bring peace to the region, thus his eagerness to push for “a dialogue with Latin America to end the war.”[11] Without the end of the War on Drugs there will be peace, the region’s social, economic, and environmental justice rest on this premise.[12]

It is all to be seen, it is too early to start drawing conclusions or speculating about the end of the War on Drugs, but there are clear signs that if Petro’s initiative sticks and catches momentum across the region, then this could become a reality. On the other hand, Alfonso López Mechelsen’s attempt to shift foreign policy doctrines only lasted while he was in office (1974-1978), the same could happened to Petro’s regional initiative.

The difference is that this new political force is here to stay. Perhaps the outcome will be different this time around, but only if Latin America and the Caribbean unite and establish a road-map for greater political and social integration, and strategic economic development cooperation that ultimately leads to market integration. Our decaying influence in the region, their loss of leadership and credibility, the lack of a clear Hemispheric vision or a long-term strategic plan, the debilitating character of the Organization of American States (OAS), and the increasing influence of other key stakeholders, such as China, shed light on favorable temporal conditions for the termination of the policy and the consolidation of sovereignty and autonomy across the region.



[1] For more information on Colombia’s two foreign policy doctrines see, for example, Juan Gabriel Tokatlián “La mirada de la política exterior de Colombia ante un nuevo milenio: ¿Ceguera, miopía o estrabismo?,” Colombia Internacional, 48 (2000):35-36; Arlene Tickner, “Tensiones y consecuencias indeseables de la política exterior estadounidense en Colombia,” Colombia internacional, 49-50 (2001): 40-41; Fernando Cepeda y Rodrigo Pargo, “La política exterior colombiana (1930-1946), (1946-1974).” Alvaro Tirado Mejía ed. Nueva Historia de Colombia, vol. III. (Bogotá: Editorial Planeta, 1989).

[2] Juan Gabriel Tokatlían, ed. Colombia y Estados Unidos: Problemas y Perspectivas. (Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores, 1998): 37.

[3] United Nations Affairs. “Irrational war on drugs, destruction of the Amazon, expose humanity’s failure, Colombia’s Petro tells UN.” United Nations, September 20, 2022. Accessed January 6, 2023.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Peru’s position is less clear, resulting from its recent political instability, the dissolution of Pedro Castillo’s government and the rise to power of Dina Boluarte.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.


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