Resurgence of Coca in Putumayo Reflects Colombia’s Failed Strategy

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The south of Putumayo has re-emerged as Colombia’s second-largest coca producing center, following a period of demobilizations and crop substitutions that had led to a decrease in coca production. 

Putumayo, located in the southernmost part of Colombia, started to experience a growth in coca crop coverage in 2015, increasing from 20,000 hectares to almost 30,000 according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

But this situation appears to have become exponentially worse since, with a 170 percent increase in cocaine seizures in Puerto Asís municipality between 2017 and 2018. 

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The change took place within the context of the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the government of ex-president Juan Manuel Santos signing a peace agreement in 2016. 

Following the agreement, a significant part of the FARC’s 48th Front started to demobilize. The 48th Front was then the region’s main coca buyer and controlled all the links in the drug trafficking chain in Putumayo.

During the same period, rural farmers in the region signed 15 crop substitution agreements in which they promised to eradicate coca crops. However, whether due to necessity or pressure, many guerrillas and rural farmers returned to the business.

InSight Crime Analysis

The resurgence of southern Putumayo as one of Colombia’s main coca production centers demonstrates the consequences of authorities neglecting the FARC’s demobilization process and failing to support the rural farmers trying to enter the legal economy. 

Over the past few years, a large number of guerrillas participating in the demobilization process abandoned the reintegration zones in search of job opportunities. Some returned to the drug trade due in part to the government’s failure to deliver on security promises and pressure from dissidents. 

In the first quarter of 2018, “11,385 families signed agreements to uproot 7,000 hectares of coca leaf plants and take a step towards the legal economy,” Colombia’s Department for Illicit Crop Substitution reported. Community members told InSight Crime that despite this agreement, the government hasn’t fulfilled their part of the agreement. For this reason, many returned to planting coca crops. Some even used the first, and only, government payment to plant new crops. 

SEE ALSO: A Death Foretold: Colombia’s Crop Substitution Program

The same situation is happening in other departments. As InSight Crime previously reported, almost none of the 99,097 families enrolled in the national crop substitution program have received the entirety of the agreed upon payments. At least 40,000 of these families have yet to receive even the first payment. 

Putumayo’s public forces say that the transition back to illicit crops was not immediate and that the coca crops were not reported in their entirety in some areas, as rural farmers held on to them as a “guarantee.” 

The forced eradication at the hands of the army continues, and is causing confrontations with communities in Putumayo. 

In this scenario, the winners are the two organized crime groups that currently dominate the region. First, dissident elements of the FARC that on-the-ground sources say returned to reassume control of the drug trade, from coca crops to international drug shipments, and are monopolizing on the purchase of coca base at high prices. Second, La Constru, the FARC dissidents’ financial backers that reactivated drug trafficking in Putumayo and are currently considered to be the most dominant criminal actor in the department. 

Rural farmers’ fears are starting to become a reality within this panorama. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, families have denounced the forced recruitment of children. Sources on the ground say that rural farmers have been displaced from their lands in order to avoid being killed by the illegal groups that have prohibited coca crop substitution. As a result, faith in the peace process has fallen while drug trafficking has stormed back.

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