The drug problem in Colombia is worse than ever. But there’s something to do

Bogota (CNN) — When Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first progressive president, took office in August, he set an ambitious agenda.

His government would finally achieve a stable peace with the many rebel organizations in Colombia; he would fight inequality by taxing the top 1% and lifting millions out of poverty; and he would abandon a punitive approach to the fight against drugs that has claimed millions of lives around the world with little to no avail. That was what he promised.

coca fields colombia drugs

Coca crops in the municipality of Tibú, department of Norte de Santander, Colombia, on October 29, 2022. Credit: Schneyder Mendoza/AFP/Getty Images

Three months later, there are signs of optimism: the Colombian government and the largest rebel group still active in its territory, the National Liberation Army (ELN), signed a commitment to resume peace negotiations after a four-year hiatus; and Congress approved a tax plan that aims to raise nearly $4 billion in new taxes next year.

But drugs remain perhaps the most difficult challenge for Petro.

There is more cocaine than ever

Drug production skyrocketed in Colombia during the pandemic.

The total area harvested for coca leaves, the main ingredient in cocaine, grew by 43% in 2021, according to a new annual survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. At the same time, the amount of potential coca produced per hectare grew by 14% more, the UN reported. What makes experts think that Colombia is producing more cocaine than ever in its history.

In many rural areas of the country, illicit drug production became the only economic activity during the pandemic lockdowns, the UN explains, as markets and agricultural routes were closed and farmers switched from food crops to those of coke

According to Elizabeth Dickenson, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, the increase in harvests has become so evident that even the casual traveler can notice it.

“A few years ago, you had to drive for hours to see coca crops. Now they are much more common, less than a kilometer from the main highway,” he told CNN after a recent field trip to Cauca, part of a region in the Colombian southwest, which has registered an increase of 76% in the harvested area.

Petro Colombia drugs

Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro speaks during a press conference on his government’s first 100 days in office, in Bogota on November 15. Credit: Chepa Beltrán/Long Visual Press/Abaca/Sipa USA/AP

In the indigenous reserve of Tacueyó, Cauca, the increase in coca and marijuana crops has caused deep concern among community leaders, according to Nora Taquinas, an indigenous environmental defender who has received multiple death threats from criminal organizations.

Two signs point to a more sustained drug trade than in recent years, Taquinas says: the informal checkpoints on the highway leading to Tacueyó and worrying trends in school dropouts, as local children are pressured by criminal organizations to carry out tasks related to the production of narcotics.

“The cartels pay about 15,000 Colombian pesos (about $3) to clean up a pound of marijuana buds. A guy can do up to three kilos a day, and that’s serious money here. It’s hard to stop that.”

The only positive aspect, says Taquinas, is that the increase in drug production and trade in his community has not led to increased levels of violence. “We are watching. But very soon, the cartels will start competing for crops here, and the competition between them is to the death. Right now, it’s like the calm before the storm.”

The proliferation of armed groups in recent years is one of the biggest flaws in the Colombian peace process, which in 2016 put an end to more than half a century of civil war.

Before the agreement, most of the guerrilla groups were disciplined like a regular army, and this helped the war negotiations between public officials and rebel groups. Now, the actors who did not give up the armed struggle have splintered into as many as 60 different often competing groups, according to the United Nations.

Even if the recently announced peace negotiation with the ELN proves successful, there are at least 59 more groups involved in drug trafficking with which the government must deal.

Compete with cocaine

Convincing farmers to stop growing coca has been one of Colombia’s biggest problems in the last 50 years.

The traditional solution has been to punish farmers by destroying crops with increasingly sophisticated and forceful measures: aerial spraying, forced eradication campaigns, aerial surveillance, and deployment of troops in coca-growing regions.

But all of this has cost millions of dollars, financed largely by US military aid to Colombia, and has claimed the lives of thousands of Colombian farmers and soldiers in drug-related clashes and acts of violence. Until this year, few dared to question him from a position of power.

Although Petro is not responsible for the latest increases in production, the report details drug trafficking trends up to December 2021, before this year’s elections, its message to abandon the war on drugs coincides with the United Nations conclusion of that the billions of dollars invested in preventing Colombian farmers from growing coca could be put to better use.

“The first thing that emerges from the report is the total failure of the war on drugs,” says Colombian Justice Minister Néstor Osuna, one of those in charge of proposing a new solution to the drug problem.

The government’s plan, Osuna told CNN, focuses on three key moments.

In the immediate term, the Petro administration intends to limit the spread of drug-related violence immediately, even if it means allowing further increases in coca-growing areas for years to come.

To avoid confrontation with coca-growing communities and reduce retaliation by the cartels, the coca eradication campaign in Colombia will be scaled back, though not completely suspended, and the Ministry of Justice will embark on a series of “voluntary consultations” to convince communities to replace illicit crops with legal ones in exchange for economic incentives.

Over time, crop substitution will take place on a massive scale, expanding Colombia’s agricultural frontier, he says.

“If we offer a sustainable alternative to the farmers who grow coca, they will accept it. It is true that right now no agricultural product can compete with the income that coca produces, but it is also true that coca is still illegal, and we believe that farmers They have told us that they prefer to work under the law, even with lower margins, than illegally,” said the Minister of Justice.

The plan involves relocating thousands of peasants currently growing coca on unused agricultural land to start anew with legal crops. Last month, the Colombian government agreed to purchase up to 3 million hectares from the country’s ranchers’ association to expand agricultural land.

Colombia has tried crop substitution in the past, but failed to overcome the lure of coca. The coca bush can produce a crop up to six times a year and requires minimal care, as it is an invasive plant that grows even in unfavorable conditions.

Coca buyers, the drug cartels, are willing to pay in advance for a crop, often in cash, and, importantly, will also provide transportation by picking it up at the farm, an important incentive for farmers who they live hours away from the main commercial cities, on unpaved roads. That is why the Petro government wants to completely relocate the cocaine workforce.

Colombian cocaine

Members of the Colombian anti-narcotics police seize a shipment of molasses mixed with cocaine that was to be sent to Valencia in Spain in Cartagena, Colombia on February 4, 2022. Credit: Sebastian Barros/Long Visual Press/Universal Images Group/Getty images

The areas that are currently dedicated to coca, once abandoned, would go through a reforestation process, Osuna said, thanks to a new public investment fund of US$120 million to pay farmers to protect the jungle for the next few years. 20 years. Each family would receive up to US$600 a month to carry out reforestation projects in areas affected by the coca harvest, as well as illegal cattle ranching and logging.

Ultimately, Petro’s ultimate goal is to decriminalize cocaine. However, Osuna insists that the Government will not undertake this measure unilaterally, since the status of cocaine as a crime is codified worldwide in a series of international treaties.

Petro has been determined to show the failures of the war on drugs in all the international forums in which he has participated, since the official visit of the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to the General Assembly of the United Nations last september.

It is a strategy that Osuna described as a “persistent offensive”, in the hope that the world will one day hold an informed debate on whether narcotics should continue to be considered prohibited substances.

“It must be recognized that cocaine use occurs throughout the world, it is evident. For many people, this use is harmful, and that is why it would be good for countries to use public health policies to address this issue,” said Osuna.

(For his part, Osuna noted that his only experience with drugs was a joint of marijuana at age 20 in Amsterdam that left him feeling sick for two days.)

Can it be achieved?

Although many world leaders have called for a global rethink on drug issues, this is the first time that a sitting president of Colombia, the world’s largest cocaine producer, has openly called for an end to the war on drugs.

According to a 2019 study by the University of Oxford, drug trafficking accounts for almost 2% of Colombia’s GDP.

No one can predict what a drug-free Colombia would eventually look like, and Osuna is well aware of how difficult the task ahead is: “The war on drugs has failed for the last 50 years, it’s not like we can come to solve it in 50 days,” he told CNN.

Critics of the government, such as former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who presided over the largest crop reduction in the country’s history through a controversial military campaign in the early 2000s, believe that legalizing cocaine would only make the cartels richer, not richer. poor.

But recent developments in marijuana legislation around the world, with countries as far away as Germany and Uruguay, as well as more than 15 US states, having passed laws to allow recreational use, show that it is possible. reverse the trend, says Osuna.

Colombia is also debating the legalization of marijuana, a measure that just three years ago would have been unthinkable and, if approved, has the potential to legalize the work of dozens of families in Tacueyó.

A pilot project to produce textile fabrics from hemp is already underway, although demand for the fiber is very small compared to the cartels’ demand for marijuana, Taquinas says. “What we need is more legal outlets, not fewer.”

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