Coca crops in Catatumbo, Norte de Santander

US government figures reveal that the continuing cocaine boom in Colombia has seen the northeastern department of Norte de Santander emerge as the country's main hub for coca cultivation, revealing changing criminal dynamics with serious implications for Colombia's rapidly approaching post-conflict future.

According to US government data obtained exclusively by InSight Crime, the department of Norte de Santander now has the most coca crops in Colombia, with an estimated 30,500 hectares of the illicit crop (see table below).

The statistics show that the department -- where illegal crops are concentrated in the sub-region of Catatumbo -- saw an 84.9 percent increase from 2014, when it was in second place behind Nariño with an estimated 16,500 hectares. Reporting on similar figures, El Tiempo added that military authorities predict that 47 metric tons of cocaine are produced in Catatumbo each year.

SEE ALSO:  Coverage of Coca

Nationwide, coca cultivations increased by 42.5 percent -- or 47,532 hectares -- in 2015, reaching a total of 159,377. Compared to previous White House figures, this outstrips the 39.1 percent increase seen between 2013 and 2014. According to the White House data, the total cocaine production potential of Colombia in 2015 was 420 metric tons, up from 250 the previous year.

After Norte de Santander, the most coca crops are to be found in the western department of Cauca, the southwestern departments of Nariño and Putumayo, and the northwestern department of Antioquia (see map below).

Cauca saw the steepest increase in cultivation -- a 116 percent rise -- followed by Norte de Santander, Putumayo, and the eastern department of Guainía.

16-05-19USGovCocafinal

The only regions in which coca cultivation fell in 2015 were Arauca department, where they decreased by 78 percent, Santa Marta in Magdalena department, the Caldas/south Antioquia area, and the Vichada and Guaviare departments.

The White House statistics differ from those provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)'s Illicit Cultivations Monitoring System (Sistema Integrado de Monitoreo de Cultivos Ilícitos - SIMCI), which estimated that in 2014 the entire department of Norte de Santander had 6,944 hectares of coca cultivations (pdf). However, it is possible that the UNODC is underestimating coca production in the country.

InSight Crime Analysis

Norte de Santander's rise to top coca growing region in the world's principal cocaine producing nation signifies a shift in Colombia's drug production patterns. This could have implications for the post-conflict era if and when the government signs a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).

There are several reasons why coca cultivation is increasing in this northern region. Firstly, the government halted both aerial and manual coca eradication in Catatumbo in 2013 following violent protests by local coca growers that snowballed into a region-wide strike. Coca substitution programs have yet to be implemented, according to El Tiempo, leaving few alternatives for the population.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Cocaine Production

The increase is also part of a nationwide trend that has seen coca cultivation nearly double from 2013 to 2015.

Colombia's decision in 2015 to suspended aerial eradication of coca across the country due to concerns over the environmental and health impact of the chemicals used is probably linked to this general rise. It could also explain why estimates of cocaine production increased at a greater rate than cultivation -- as farmers do not have to replant as often their crops have the opportunity to mature, increasing their yield.

However, the upward trend predates the end of fumigations, and may be party attributable to the FARC, who control up to 70 percent of the country's coca crops. According to sources in coca growing regions, the FARC have been encouraging farmers to plant more coca throughout the rebels' peace process with the government, telling farmers that more coca means a greater chance of accessing social programs after a peace agreement is implemented.

In Catatumbo, the FARC are far from alone in maintaining an interest in coca crops and drug trafficking. There are numerous armed groups operating in the region, including guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), the small band of drug trafficking guerrillas from the demobilized Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación - EPL), and narco-paramilitary organizations descended from demobilized paramilitary counter-insurgents.

All of these groups have a stake in the drug trade and will be looking to capitalize on the increase in coca. They may also seek to take advantage of an eventual demobilization of the FARC by increasing their own control over this strategically located region. Catatumbo is not only the country's top coca producing region, it also shares a border with Venezuela. That means ready access to abundant and cheap gasoline -- a precursor in cocaine production -- and access to trafficking routes into a key transit nation for moving cocaine to both the United States and Europe. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of FARC Peace

Human rights observers have already suggested that established criminal groups and new arrivals to the area are attempting to consolidate territorial control of Catatumbo. The region has seen a worrying amount of violence recently, with police reporting that a majority of at least 50 homicides registered so far this year are related to drug trafficking. The Colombian government will need to act decisively to prevent Catatumbo from descending into further drug-trade fueled violence in a post-conflict era.

The department of Antioquia also merits special attention, as coca in the region shot up 95 percent in 2014 and continues to grow at an accelerated pace, despite a downward trend in previous years. Increased coca cultivation in Antioquia is closely linked to a decline in illegal gold mining in the Bajo Cauca subregion, with many miners swapping the falling profits and growing risks of gold mining for coca growing. With huge profits to be made from both activities, Antioquia will be a key underworld territory in a post-conflict era, and there are already signs of armed groups positioning themselves to capitalize on a demobilization of the FARC.

Traditional coca hubs Putumayo and Nariño -- where coca cultivations grew 152 percent in 2014, according to US government figures -- will also be major concerns in a post-conflict scenario. With the FARC currently exercising strong territorial control in the region, it remains to be seen whether they will relinquish power to other armed actors or defy the demobilization process to hang on to their criminal economies.

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