Colombia has likely reclaimed its position as the world’s principal cocaine producer, something with profound consequences on the drug trade and the ongoing peace process with Marxist rebels.
According to a new White House report, coca cultivation in Colombia rose 39 percent during 2014, a pattern that various sources on the ground have told InSight Crime has continued, if not accelerated, this year. The increase in terms of hectares of coca was from 85,000 in 2013, to 112,000 in 2014. (See White House graphic below) For drug production that means a jump from 185 tons to 245 tons, which, as noted in more detail below, InSight Crime believes is an underestimation of the true amount of cocaine produced every year in Colombia.
In terms of geography, the provinces (or departments, as they are called in Colombia) of Nariño, Norte de Santander and Putumayo -- long centers for coca cultivation -- remain the country's principal producers. However Antioquia, which had seen significant drop over recent years, is now back in the big leagues, showing a 95 percent increase in coca crops during 2014, with 11,000 hectares under cultivation.
New figures for the two other major coca producing nations, Peru and Bolivia, have not been released, but Peru’s hectares have been steady at around 50,000 over the last few years, and Bolivia has been around 25,000 hectares of production, the White House said. Peru, with US support, has greatly stepped up its eradication efforts, while President Evo Morales, himself a former coca farmer, has had great success in containing the spread of coca in Bolivia.
The White House says Peruvian coca production translated into 290 tons of cocaine in 2012; Bolivia, meanwhile, churned out around 155 tons the same year. The reasons for the higher yields per hectare, particularly in Peru, are that the strains of coca found there have much higher alkaloid content, and the plants are older and more established. Those in Colombia, due to constant eradication, are younger and therefore yield far less.
Nevertheless, Colombia may have reclaimed its title as the foremost cocaine producing nation, a position it lost to Peru in 2013. The big reason is increased production. What's more, aerial eradiction has led to a vast underestimation of total coca production because Colombian coca growers plant much smaller fields, hide them under the jungle canopy or plant them among other crops like plantains and coffee so spotting them is more difficult.
Combined with this is the fact that Colombia coca has been crossbred with particularly potent strains like the Tingo Maria from Peru, which has increased yields per hectare. Finally, coca fields in Colombia can be harvested up to six times a year, whereas in Peru and Bolivia the average is closer to three.
Why Coca Production Has Increased
For several months now there has been talk from the local communities about an explosion in coca cultivations, not just in the four provinces mentioned above but across the country. There are several explanations for this.
The first is linked to the price of gold. When in 2010 and 2011 the price of gold reached record levels ($1,900 an ounce), many of the casual laborers who worked harvesting coca (known as “raspachines”) moved into the informal mining sector. This was particularly relevant in departments like Antioquia which have large gold deposits.
Now prices for gold have fallen to just under $1,200 an ounce and the informal mining sector, which depends on the exploitation of alluvial deposits which become quickly exhausted, is reduced once again in certain areas. The result is that the labor force has moved back towards coca and the small fields of hardy green coca bushes have once again appeared on the Andean mountainsides.
Another contributing factor has been a reduction in the drug crop eradication program. There are two types of eradication: that done manually and that by aerial fumigation. Manual eradication has been made increasing difficult thanks to the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), who place mines and booby traps in fields when eradicators arrive and use snipers against the security forces sent into protect the eradication teams.
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In places like Putumayo, the FARC have also mobilized the local communities against eradicating teams staging large scale, and often violent, protests that prevent teams from working. According to the Ministry of Defense website, 2014 saw 11,704 hectares of coca eradicated manually, down from the 2008-high of over 95,000 hectares.
However, it has been the aerial fumigation of drug crops that has been the main method of destroying coca. Indeed, the widespread, US-funded spraying program has been credited with reducing coca crops from the 2001-high of almost 170,000 hectares to the 2012 low of 78,000 hectares. But this form of eradication has also seen a steady decline, with 55,532 hectares sprayed in 2014, compared to 172,000 in 2006.
These days, the aerial fumigation program is in doubt. In March, the Colombian Health Minister, Alejandro Gaviria, moved politically off piste, calling for a ban on the spraying of the glyphosate chemicals used in the fumigation program. He cited a World Health Organization report which suggested that the chemicals are carcinogenic.
While no formal announcement has been made by President Juan Manuel Santos, it is now becoming harder and harder to defend the spraying program, which has long been under attack for the environment damage it causes and now appears to be a serious health risk. Without aerial fumigation. the Colombian government’s eradication program is in tatters and the drug trade will be allowed to swiftly recover.
The FARC Factor
The greatest single reason for the increase in coca crops, we beleive, is the FARC's increasing control over coca production. The FARC now controls up to 70 percent of the all the coca grown in Colombia. There it is sown under their patronage and protection.
The guerrillas have also persuaded peasant farmers to plant coca by evoking peace negotiations between the FARC and the government and the expected windfall that will come to coca-producing communities should the two sides come to a final agreement. To be sure, FARC elements have been telling farmers in their areas that they need to plant coca if they want to receive any post-conflict benefits.
“They told us that if we have no coca then we have nothing to negotiate with the government, and we will not receive any benefits or government subsidies,” said a member Community Action Board (Junta de Accion Comunal) in Putumayo, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
It is not just about local farmers negotiating with the government. The issue of the drug trade is one of the central points on the negotiating agenda in Havana, where FARC and government representatives have been talking since November 2012. The FARC have presented themselves as the only force able to really control coca crops, but they are against forced-eradication. The increase in coca crops has focused national and international attention on the inadequacies of the government's coca policies and strengthened the FARC’s hand at the negotiating table.
What's more, the announcement of the unprecedented increase in coca comes at a very sensitive time for the Colombian government. The popularity of President Santos stands at just 29 percent. And faith in the peace process is falling, having dropped from 69 percent to 52 percent, according to a recent poll. The government's peace plan -- which is the foundation of the Santos administration -- is under enormous pressure.
Impact on the Underworld
The increased coca cultivation is likely to give Colombian transnational organized crime a serious injection of cash. The Colombians have increasingly been playing second fiddle to the Mexican cartels, which now dominate the US market. However the Colombian mafia is now exploring alternative and more lucrative markets, such as Europe and Asia, as well as flooding booming markets closer to home, like Brazil and Argentina. Many of the biggest Colombian groups have been dismantled since the heyday of the Medellin Cartel in the late 1980s, and the reduction in coca crops has been a huge factor in the undermining of criminal profits and therefore the power of the organized crime syndicates that smuggle cocaine.
The increase in coca, and thus the rise in earnings for FARC units that have a monopoly over the cultivations, also raises the risk of elements of the rebels criminalizing either before, or after, any peace agreement is signed with the government. The Marxist rebels earn a minimum of $150 million a year from the drug trade, perhaps even as high as $500 million. This income is largely in the hands of middle-ranking guerrilla commanders on the ground, individuals often with a patchy formal education and few opportunities in any post-conflict scenario. These are the commanders most at risk of criminalization, or going into business for themselves. The increase in coca will mean a significant increase in the amount of money passing through their hands.
SEE ALSO: FARC, Peace and Possible Criminalization
There is another scenario that nobody has yet dared to voice. That of what will happen should peace talks break down. They suffered a serious wobble in March when the FARC, who have pronounced a ceasefire, attacked a group of soldiers, killing 11 and wounding more than a dozen. Should open war start again the FARC, which have been using the ceasefire to solidify and build up their finances, the increased coca and the prospect of a revival of the drug trade could provide abundant fuel for the guerrilla war machine and a new chapter in the 50-year conflict.