Are Crime Groups Behind Colombia Coca Eradication Protests?

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Authorities in Colombia are accusing organized crime groups of fueling protests against coca eradication efforts, but the government may also bear some blame due to its inability to successfully implement crop substitution programs.

The head of the Colombian police’s antinarcotics squad, General José Ángel Mendoza, said that organized crime was paying 100,000 pesos (approximately $35) to each farmer who took part in ongoing demonstrations against the government’s coca eradication efforts in the city of Tumaco in the western department of Nariño, reported El Tiempo.

More than 1,000 coca growers have participated in the recent protests and attempted to block the government from destroying coca fields in the area. The social unrest, mainly concentrated in rural areas, has led to sporadic outbreaks of violence.

Reports have emerged of isolated incidents involving the use of explosives and a shot fired at a helicopter. A police officer was shot dead on April 1 amid protests that broke out in the village of Llorente near Tumaco.

Eleven police officers were kidnapped by coca growers on April 12 amid protests in the hamlet of El Porvenir, in Tumaco’s rural area. The agents were freed a day later, reported El Tiempo

According to El País, the farmers argue that authorities have not come through with the crop substitution programs planned by the peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). Instead, coca growers claim that the army is relying solely on the forceful destruction of coca plantations.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of FARC Peace

General Mendoza, however, insisted that organized crime was behind the protests that have come to paralyze certain areas of Tumaco.

The general indicated that the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) rebel group had joined with other criminal organizations, such as the Urabeños, with the aim of protecting the “industrial cultivation” controlled by organized crime in the area.

Although Tumaco appears to have been particularly impacted, other municipalities and departments such as Cauca have also witnessed protests from coca growers, reported Verdad Abierta. Once again, protestors accused authorities of not complying with the peace agreement by focusing solely on forceful eradication.

InSight Crime Analysis

While organized crime may have financed the recent protests, the demonstrations are largely rooted in the inability of Colombia’s government to efficiently and coherently offer alternative economic opportunities to coca growers.

Colombia is under significant pressure to show results in the fight against coca production, which reached record-breaking levels in 2016 despite many years and many billions of dollars spent on coca eradication efforts. In addition, cocaine seizures and overdose rates in the United States are increasing, a trend that US authorities blame on Colombia’s cocaine boom. The South American country is estimated to supply more than 90 percent of the drug available in the United States.

Moreover, the Colombian government has set its 2017 coca eradication target at 100,000 hectares. The figure is considerably greater than the one set for 2016, when the government aimed to eradicate 20,000 hectares, but only succeeded in eradicating 18,000.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Cocaine Production

During a field investigation in Nariño, InSight Crime was told by an army officer speaking on condition of anonymity that the soldiers in charge of destroying coca crops are under enormous pressure to show results, but they have not recieved any guidance or specific instructions regarding how to coordinate and conduct the eradication efforts. 

The absence of a comprehensive strategy from the government and the overreliance on forceful eradication has fueled the farmers’ mistrust of the state, as evidenced by the brief kidnapping of nearly a dozen police officers this week. And the use of forced eradication also seems to have united organized crime groups and local coca farmers around a common cause. 

In the absence of efficient substitution programs, the coca crop remains the most economically viable solution for many small farmers. Meanwhile, widespread eradication cuts directly into the criminal profits of drug trafficking organizations by diminishing the availability of the raw material used to make cocaine. As a result, criminal groups may have opted to fuel social unrest as a means of blocking eradication rather than confronting authorities directly.

This dynamic is particularly strong in Nariño, which is thought to be Colombia’s top coca-producing department and which has repeatedly suffered from coca-related protests allegedly encouraged by criminal groups. InSight Crime was warned by several mayors in Nariño that this may develop into a serious issue, and the violence may spill over to urban areas.

* Leonardo Goi contributed reporting to this article.

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