Drop in Coca Crops, Increase in Colombian Cocaine

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A drop of 15,000 hectares of coca crops in Colombia made no difference in reducing cocaine production in 2019 — instead it increased compared with the previous year.

Coca crops covered 154,000 hectares in 2019, a drop from the 169,000 hectares recorded in 2018, according to the latest report by the Illicit Cultivations Monitoring System (Sistema Integrado de Monitoreo de Cultivos Ilícitos — SIMCI) of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The nine percent drop was the largest reduction in coca crops in six years, according to the report.

When presenting the report, UNODC representative Pierre Lapaque called the figures “good news” for Colombia, praising the efforts of the government and farmers who abandoned coca crops for helping break a growth trend that began in 2014.

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Yet despite the decrease in coca, production of cocaine increased 1.5 percent, to 1,136 metric tons in 2019.

Meanwhile, the UNODC’s drop in coca crops is at odds with figures published in March by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which indicated an increase of 4,000 hectares of coca last year. The ONDCP reported 212,000 hectares of coca crops in Colombia in 2019, a slight jump from the 208,000 in 2018. The White House also reported an increase in cocaine production from 879 metric tons to 951 metric tons.

Strangely, the White House tallied 58,000 more hectares of coca crops than the UNODC but recorded 185 fewer metric tons of cocaine.

The UNODC attributes the increase in cocaine production to a trend that began in 2015. Coca crops have largely been concentrated in territories favorable to the “complete production cycle,” the report reads, which included “the cultivation of coca leaves, transformation to base or cocaine chlorohydrate and traffic to centers of consumption in Colombia and abroad.”

InSight Crime Analysis

The increase in cocaine production despite a reduction in coca cultivation underscores that merely eradicating crops cannot solve Colombia’s cocaine problem.

Since the beginning of President Iván Duque’s administration, Colombia has made reducing coca cultivation and cocaine production top priorities. That remains true, though US President Donald Trump has said Duque “has done nothing” to reduce the flow of cocaine to the United States.

Duque recently touted drops in coca crops in several departments. For example, Caquetá has recorded a decrease of 50 percent, Antioquia 30 percent, Nariño 12 percent and Bolívar 7.5 percent.

But certain zones, which are conducive to not only growing coca crops, but also producing and smuggling cocaine, are seeing increases in coca. These include Valle del Cauca and Norte de Santander departments, which, according the UNODC report, saw increases in land used to cultivate coca by 82 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

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Valle del Cauca, in Colombia’s southwest, is strategically placed to grow coca and produce cocaine along remote banks of the Naya river. The drugs are then smuggled to the Pacific coast. Norte de Santander’s location provides smuggling routes to neighboring Venezuela, which serves as a launchpad for cocaine shipments to Central America and the Caribbean.

Lapaque, the UNODC representative, acknowledged that organized crime groups have increasingly been able to obtain more cocaine from fewer crops.

“They use better chemicals, so the transformation of the coca leaf has become more professional, and they have achieved a better quality,” he told El Tiempo.

Enormous laboratories requiring infrastructure and massive manpower are the past. Strategic points and technical ability are what matters now.

When it comes to cocaine, even victories come with defeat.

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