Security Cooperation, Coca Cultivation and Citizen Security

23 Apr 2021 – Written by Andrea Rocio Limon


  • This is part one of a series analysing European Union and Latin American and the Caribbean diplomatic relations.

  • The EU and LAC share threats of common interests and must prioritise their 2015 Security Cooperation Action Plan.

  • Peace-building and conflict resolution in the LAC region is essential to ensuring the security of citizens in Europe and Latin America.

Although there are a variety of potential risks the European Union faces from outside EU-member states, its relationship with the Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC) region should be prioritised due to the looming security threats and risks it poses to EU citizens, economic markets, and trade. The EU-LAC Security Cooperation (European Parliament, 2017) is not yet a priority for the EU despite the threats of common interest laid in the 2015 EU-CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) Action Plan (European Council, 2015). These include the following: arms trafficking, arms reduction and disarmament, corruption and money laundering, crime and organised crime, drug trafficking, human trafficking, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism. In the EU-CELAC conference, the need for a collective response to the issues was discussed as were the various ways the EU could support the region. 

The EU’s primary concerns in the region are first, the fight against drugs and narcotics, followed by crime and violence prevention, the smooth transition of peace and conflict resolution in Colombia, and finally, the crisis management of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (ISS, 2017) with the participation of some Latin American countries. In the first instalment of this series on EU-LAC relations, I will present two case studies of Latin American countries that are current security threats to the EU due to the instability in the region. It is in the EU’s interests to nurture their relations with the region as it may help prevent and deter secondary effects on the European Union. According to the 2020 Global Peace Index (GPI) (Institute for Economics & Peace, 2020) report featured below, the region experienced a deterioration in peacefulness, largely due to Mexico’s ongoing ‘War on Drugs’; Colombia’s struggle with Organised Crime Groups (OCG); civil unrest in Venezuela; and criminal gangs in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The region has sought help from external intergovernmental organisations (Schultze-Kraft, 2010) to help weak and struggling criminal justice systems and impunity.

Regional GPI Results, 2019 (IEP, 2020)

Regional GPI Results, 2019 (IEP, 2020)


Colombia’s Peace Challenge

The 2015 EU-CELAC Action Plan detailed the need for conflict resolution between the Colombian government and the guerrilla groups active in the jungles of the region. In 2016, FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Army), a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group in Colombia reached a peace agreement with the Colombian government. In this agreement, FARC-EP agreed to disarm and hand over its weapons to the United Nations. The government agreed to establish FARC-EP as a recognised political party with a guaranteed number of seats in the Colombian House of Representatives and Senate (Stanford University, 2019). FARC-EP was formed in 1964, its primary goal was to protect and advocate for the interests of the rural population with the goal of overthrowing the government. It was responsible for illicit activities such as drug trade, kidnapping, extortion, and illegal gold mining to fund its activities. However, some former members of FARC-EP have resumed their guerrilla activities due to disagreement with the newly established political party, now named, Revolutionary Alternative Common Force. The FARC-EP Mafia dissident (Posada, 2018) members continue to operate in Colombia and Venezuela and have resumed their criminal activities of Coca cultivation and cocaine trafficking.

The EU played a key role in the acceptance of the peace agreement. In contrast to the United States’ ‘War on Drugs’ with Mexico’s drug cartels, they favoured a less violent approach. The EU has focused its peace talk efforts on “soft (civilian) means, (Ioannides, 2019) favouring dialogue and cooperation for the resolution of disputes, political dialogue (at national, regional and local levels), financial aid (development cooperation and humanitarian aid), and trade relations”. In this way, the EU can decrease the criminal activity present in Colombia and avert possible spillover effects. According to the EU Drug Markets Report 2019 (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and Europol, 2019), the cocaine market is the second-largest illicit drug market in the EU, with an estimated minimum retail value in 2017 of EUR 9.1 billion. Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia are the leaders in Coca cultivation (Bargent, 2021). However, despite the disarmament of FARC-EP, other guerrilla groups have taken over the illicit market and have established more efficient methods of production.

A European ‘Way of Life’

Colombian and Italian organised crime groups have long facilitated the distribution of drugs (Europol, 2021) into Europe via entry port countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain. Recently, the UNODC has found that European OCGs have found their way to the LAC region to bypass intermediary distributors. The EU has become the connecting import point for Eastern markets in the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. In the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) briefing (European Parliament, 2017), the implementation of seven transregional programmes have helped in the detection of illicit criminal activity. These programmes include increased surveillance at airports and maritime ports; cocaine tracking programs where outside agencies such as Interpol and Transparency International hold criminals accountable and avoid impunity due to corruption; and the GAFILAT financial task force that combat money laundering, the funding of terrorist groups, and the proliferation of weapons. Despite the increased risk of drug trafficking, money laundering, and weapons trafficking on European soil, the EU has still not prioritised the coordinated security response with the LAC region despite the European Agenda on Security (European Commission, 2015) identifying their top three priorities as fighting organised crime and human trafficking, countering terrorism and radicalisation, and fighting cybercrime. This is because the focus is on European citizens and on ‘tackling’ the problem once it is on European territory (European Commission, 2020) rather than from the source.

The trafficking of drugs and narcotics has secondary security effects and interlinkages on states, such as the funding of terrorist groups (Basra, 2019) for example, the Taliban, Boko Haram, the Islamic State, and other OCGs. This occurs when terrorist groups become distributors of drugs and narcotics to fund their illicit activities. This not only creates unsafe environments for citizens, but it also undermines the government institutions in place as the OCGs will protect their interests at all costs. In the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction’s (EMCDDA) joint report with Europol (EMCDDA, 2019), they illustrated through various case studies the effects of instability in the Latin American region on Europe. These include the exchange of cocaine for weapons in Croatia, murder for hire schemes in Stockholm, and the exchange of money into virtual currencies using a Finnish bitcoin exchange. In an ever-globalising world, the facilitation of transnational crimes calls for quick adaptation to combat a changing security landscape in both the physical and virtual world.

The European Dream

Colombia’s internal security issues have caused spillover effects onto its neighbours Ecuador and Venezuela, one of those being the influx of refugees fleeing violence. The clandestine activities of the guerrilla groups have caused border tensions between Bogota, Quito, and Caracas as these governments lack the institutional infrastructure in place to place refugees and fight the incoming drug traffickers and criminal groups. The threats of common interests by both the EU and the LAC have caused many Latin American citizens to flee violence (UNHCR, 2020) and seek a more stable environment.

The ongoing severe humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has created an impossible situation for its citizens. Venezuelans are fleeing (HRW, 2020) corruption, state-sponsored violence, inflation, non-existent healthcare infrastructure, and malnutrition. These refugees differ from the traditional warzone refugee; these Latin Americans flee political instability, insecurity, and economic collapse. It is no surprise that Spain is chosen as their destination of choice. The shared language and similarities in culture allow for easier integration into society. These asylum seekers arrive into the European Union via airplanes (Benavides, 2019) but then face a long bureaucratic process to obtain legal status, often being denied due to increasing criteria. For those who can afford the plane ticket to Spain, they arrive on a three-month tourist visa, applying for asylum once they have landed. An asylum application can take up to 2 years to be processed and although they are often denied (World Data, 2021), it allows them to stay and work legally in the country and apply for another status. In the table below, one can see that Colombia and Venezuela are the top two countries with incoming asylum applications in the EU and in Spain, the top five are all from the LAC region. The EU has an influx of Latin American migrants due to security issues in the region. If their efforts were focused on the source of the issue, it could alleviate the pressure asylum offices in the EU and crackdown on transnational criminal activities.

Five main citizenships of first-time asylum applicants (non-EU citizens) to the EU (Eurostat, 2020)
Five main citizenships of first-time asylum applicants (non-EU citizens) to Spain (Eurostat, 2020)


A Joint Measure Towards More Peace and Security

The European Union’s priority is to protect its citizens and its European way of life, but its efforts to this end are focused on dealing and managing the issue when it is already ‘home’. It would be in the EU’s best interest to prioritise its security cooperation agenda with the LAC region to decrease the root of drug and weapons trafficking at the source. If the violence and insecurity in the region declines, it could improve the livelihood of citizens in both regions. Citizen security is at the core of the European Agenda on Security. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP, 2016) defines it as, “the process of establishing, strengthening and protecting democratic civic order, eliminating threats of violence in a population and allowing for safe and peaceful coexistence”. By ensuring the security of citizens in the LAC regions, the European Union is ensuring the security of European citizens. This would also result in less drug consumption – the EMCDDA (2020) found that cocaine was the second-most used drug in Europe. It also reported that Western Europe had the highest number of reported drug seizures. The Commission can strengthen its fight against organised crime, cybercrime, and terrorism through security cooperation with the LAC region. The EU cannot address these concerns on its own, and must aid other states in their fight against transnational crime to see results at home.





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Recommended citation:

Limon, A. R. (2021) Security Cooperation, Coca Cultivation and Citizen Security, IDRN, 23 April. Available at: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].