A new report suggests Colombia should pivot away from traditional drug eradication measures that have had limited long-term success in addressing the cultivation of coca, and should instead seek to create a policy framework aimed at drawing coca farmers out of the black market.
The report, published by Open Society Foundations* on May 22, argues that a lack of access to legal, regulated markets for coca has led farmers to sell their product on the black market, where it is processed into cocaine and sold for immense profit by criminal actors.
Authors Dora Lucila Troyano Sanchez and David Restrepo argue that promoting access to legal markets for coca could divert the product from the drug trade.
“One of the report’s recommendations is to give [coca] producers the possibility of selling their primary material to different types of transformers,” Troyano Sanchez told InSight Crime. “It could be an alternative to reduce conflict in [coca-growing] areas.”
The report says that international agreements and Colombian laws allow for coca to be grown and used for legal purposes, including as a nutritional and medicinal product, among other uses. But the plant and those who grow it have long been associated with the drug trade responsible for so much violence in Colombia, making it difficult to convince policymakers and the public that coca cultivation should be encouraged as a possible form of economic development.
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Decades of prohibitionist policies, accompanied by massive forced eradication campaigns, have been unsuccessful at reducing coca cultivation. Considering violence between armed groups is on the rise and that Colombia is producing more cocaine than before, the new report suggests authorities should seek to formalize this lucrative agricultural product in order to take it out of the hands of criminals.
Industrializing coca could create a market where there are other buyers for coca leaves besides drug traffickers. Providing farmers with that alternative could reduce crime and the influence of armed groups by strengthening the negotiating power of coca growers and addressing rural inequalities that have contributed to the persistence of armed groups in coca-cultivating regions.
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However, coca industrialization is likely to face numerous challenges. For one, crime groups have significant buying power and can pay a premium price for the raw material — a price that local legal businesses may not be able to compete with unless they receive substantial government subsidies.
Also, violence committed by crime groups fighting for dominance in an increasingly fragmented underworld has complicated other programs aimed at reducing the amount of coca entering the black market. In fact, a report earlier this year found that communities where crop substitution programs were implemented actually saw increases in their homicide rates.
* Disclosure: InSight Crime receives support from Open Society Foundations.