Deep in the Colombian countryside last week we watched the Anti-Narcotics Police train new recruits for the “war against drugs” which has cost many lives as Colombia struggles to eradicate the cocaine trade.
The previous evening we met the former President whose period in office involved the battle to end the power of the Medelin Cartel and Pablo Escobar. And earlier in the day we met the current President whose administration is succeeding in cutting the production of cocaine.
What’s that got to do with Penarth? Well, as the President reminded us gently, there would be no drugs trade but for the UK demand for cocaine. Drugs destroy lives here , but the demand and the money distort lives and destroy governments across the world as a result.
That’s why the closest allies of the Colombian authorities are officers from the UK’s Serious & Organised Crime Agency. Enormously respected, they play a key role in equipping and training the Colombian police for the immense challenge of closing down the coca-growing fields.
Colombia’s image is trapped in the time when the drug cartels seemed to be unchecked, whereas we found a country struggling to achieve stability and prosperity, with a confidence that would have been surprising even a few years ago.
We met the United Nations team – mainly funded by the Colombians themselves – who are providing alternatives like coffee and chocolate so that farmers who derive only poverty wages from coca have a real alternative in life. Easier said than done, because the coca weed grows quickly and profusely in places where growing alternative crops can be challenging.
And while cocaine production is greatly reduced, the “balloon effect” means that much of the production squeezed out of Colombia reappears in Peru and Bolivia. And Colombia remains the world’s biggest producer of cocaine.
This visit was one small part of the inquiry into the drugs trade by the Home Affairs Select Committee, looking at enforcement and drug treatment as well as the role of the police and other agencies. It’s a big topic and there’s growing agreement internationally that we need new and more effective policies. That’s what our report will be about.
In the meantime it’s a reminder of the link between the streets of South Wales and the streets of South America. And a reminder that Fair Trade, which has such strong support in Penarth, isn’t woolly liberalism – it’s about giving an alternative for the poor farmers who are driven by poverty to grow coca plants. It’s not the growers who make the profits, it’s the traffickers.