NEWS

Why Colombia is still fighting its decades-long drug war

After hitting a low in 2012, Colombia's cultivation of coca, the base ingredient in cocaine, jumped 134% between 2013 and 2016, US officials said late 2017.


2016 alone saw a 52% increase in the area under coca cultivation, rising to 360,774 acres from 237,221 acres in 2015, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Potential cocaine production jumped 34%, from 712 tons in 2015 to 954 tons a year later.

The amount of cocaine seized in the country also rose by nearly half, the UNODC said, from 253,591 kilos in 2015 to 378,260 kilos in 2016. That was accompanied by a 26% increase in the number of illegal cocaine labs destroyed, from 3,827 in 2015 to 4,842 the following year. (The real amounts are likely much higher than official estimates.)

Also read: Argentina found 400 kilos of cocaine in the Russian embassy

Colombia has faced pressure from the US to clamp down on that surge, but there were a variety of factors that drove it through 2016, when the government signed a peace accord with left-wing rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Under that deal, the government has pursued crop-substitution and alternative-development programs to pull farmers away from coca.

But a lack of resources has hindered implementation of those programs, and in lieu of an alternative, Colombian growers have forged ahead with the only one they can grow profitably.

"What really happened, I think, is that the government did stop fumigating, which was a factor," said Adam Isacson, the director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America. "It also cut way back on manual eradication, and it didn't make a presence" in often-marginalized parts of the country where cultivation has been the most intense, Isacson told Business Insider.

A coca farmer worker speaks with the police during a working day of manual eradication in Taraza, Colombia. (Photo by William Fernando Martinez)

Isacson, who spent a month on the ground in Colombia in February 2018, pointed to Putumayo, a department on Colombia's southern border.

"That fringe area with Ecuador is no-man's land, and nobody's seen an eradicator or a development official, same for most of Catatumbo," he told Business Insider, referring to a region in the northwest Colombian department of Norte de Santander, where cultivation is also intense.

Related: How the Coast Guard intercepts half a million pounds of cocaine

"So if it's no-man's land and you see your neighbor's now got waist-high coca bushes, and they're two years old and nobody's messed with him, it's probably pretty tempting to grow it yourself," Isacson said.

Efforts to get farmers to grow other crops have faltered because they aren't economically viable — in part because getting those crops to market from rural, isolated areas eats away the profit margin.

"You probably often make more with almost any other crop, but it's always a different crop. Sometimes it's coca. Sometimes ... something else might be getting a better price than coca, but coca never goes down," Isacson told Business Insider. "It's just this always above-average price. It's like an insurance policy for them."

"The government has tried alternate-crop development and what have you, but it's never worked, because growing breadfruit, bananas, and other crops does not come close to fetching the prices that coca does," said Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

The value of coca increases dramatically as it is refined and moves toward consumer markets.

The ton of fresh coca leaf needed to make a kilo of cocaine costs a few hundred dollars in Colombia. After its processed and turned into power, that kilo can fetch $30,000 or more in the US. On the street, once that kilo is "stepped on" by cutting it to grams and adding fillers, its total value can exceed $100,000. (Though not all that money filters back to the source.)

More: How some special operators are turning to illegal drugs to deal with deployment stress

"Coca cultivation has always been the most marketable and the highest-priced commodity that the criminal groups have engaged in, because really there's no other crop that brings the price that cocaine does," Vigil, who worked on the ground in Colombia while in the DEA, told Business Insider.

That doesn't necessarily translate into a boon for farmers, however. Traffickers and criminal groups, as the main buyers, have outsize control at the point of purchase, often dictating the price.

"The farmers really don't have a say, because they have to be able to sell the cocaine that they produce," Vigil said. "If they don't acquiesce to the prices of the major drug-trafficking organizations, they're going to move on, and there's always somebody else that they can buy it from."

A member of an anti-narcotics police squad in front of a burning hut during a raid to destroy a coca laboratory near Tumaco, in southern Colombia, June 8, 2008. (Photo by William Fernando Martinez)

Farmers have also been left vulnerable by the Colombian government, which has forged ahead with manual eradication, which has vastly outstripped the building of roads and infrastructure that would support alternative development and cultivation of other crops, in part because of an economic downturn that has lashed the government's budget.

And while nearly 30,000 families are now receiving benefits from Colombia's Comprehensive Program for Illicit Crop Substitution, that's only about one-quarter of the families who have signed collective agreements, which is just the first step in a long process to get aid.

Also read: Cocaine bust highlights growing Air Force role in Southern hemisphere

With a lack of state support, farmers interested in moving out of the coca trade are often exposed to FARC dissidents and other criminal groups, who have rushed to fill the vacuum left by demobilizing FARC units and want farmers to continue tending coca bushes.

"They don't have the money to support us, and the pressure to continue [growing coca] is fierce," a community leader in the isolated southwest municipality of Tumaco — a global hub for coca — said in late 2016, after a deadly clash between state security forces and farmers protesting efforts to destroy their coca.

In January 2018, the Colombian government sent 2,000 troops to Tumaco to contain violence there.

"What we have seen — in Norte de Santander it's happened [and] in Putumayo to some extent — is people signing on to the crop-substitution programs [and] getting threatened or killed for ... abandoning it."

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