Some things you should know about Colombia’s cocaine trade

(Image: US Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Connie Terrell)

Cocaine production in Colombia has never been as high as it was in 2017, according to both the United Nations and the United States.

There are three important reasons that explain the recent and unprecedented increase in the production of the illicit drug that poses a health risk for consumers and fuels violence in Colombia.

Drug use is breaking records globally

Humans have been using drugs for at least 10,000 years, often in religious rituals. However, recreational use and abuse of illicit drugs, not just cocaine, have never been higher than it is today.

Why drug use has become so popular over the past few years cannot easily be explained. The increase of cocaine use in Iceland, for example, has probably nothing to do with the opiode crisis in the United States.

Most indicators from North America suggest that cocaine use rose between 2013 and 2016. In 2013, there were fewer than 5,000 cocaine-related deaths in the United States, but by 2016 the figure was more than 10,000. Although many of those deaths also involved synthetic opioids and cannot be attributed exclusively to higher levels of cocaine consumption, the increase is nonetheless a strong indicator of increasing levels of harmful cocaine use.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Cocaine prices in the United States, the world’s largest consumption market of the drug that grows in Colombia, have been relatively stable since the 1990s.

Price of a gram of pure cocaine in the US (adjusted for inflation and street quality)

Coca cultivation is up everywhere

The United Nations Organization on Drugs and Crime believes that the most recent increase of global cocaine consumption is supply-driven.

This is supported by the claim that the price of a gram of pure cocaine in the United States dropped 22% between 2014 and 2016. The drug is now also sold in countries where it used to not be available.

Increased cocaine production broke records in Colombia, but also grew in Peru and Bolivia, indicating that it’s not just Colombia’s counter-narcotics policy that is failing.

Global cocaine manufacture in 2016 reached its highest level ever: an estimated 1,410 tons. After falling during the period 2005–2013, global cocaine manufacture rose by 56% during the period 2013–2016. The increase from 2015 to 2016 was 25%. 

Most of the world’s cocaine comes from Colombia, which boosted its manufacture by more than one third from 2015 to 2016, to some 866 tons. The total area under coca cultivation worldwide in 2016 was 213,000 ha, almost 69% of which was in Colombia.

The dramatic resurgence of coca bush cultivation in Colombia — which had almost halved from 2000 to 2013 — came about for a number of reasons related to market dynamics, the strategies of trafficking organizations and expectations in some communities of receiving compensation for replacing coca bush cultivation, as well as a reduction in alternative development interventions and in eradication.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

International cooperation hardly in sync

Because cocaine is used in so many countries, its unregulated distribution is almost impossible to figure out.

The multiple groups trafficking cocaine to Iceland, for example, are unlikely related to the group that supply Australia, where the drug is more popular than anywhere in the world.

Where cocaine is most popular

  1. Australia
  2. Albania
  3. United States of America
  4. United Kingdom
  5. Spain
  6. Netherlands
  7. Uruguay
  8. Argentina

The United States is traditionally Colombia’s primary donor when it comes to paying for the necessary law enforcement to curb the production of cocaine.

The United Nations tries to keep a global oversight of consumption and Interpol coordinates international law enforcement efforts between countries that receive drugs from Colombian exporters.

However, Colombia’s efforts to curb cocaine production are barely coordinated with the international community.

While the United Nations has long claimed that only economic development can curb the cultivation of coca, the program in place to execute this has been chronically underfunded.

The United States won’t fund the peace process’ crop substitution program because it involves former combatants of the FARC. Because most other countries also don’t donate, this program is chronically underfunded.

The United States has generally favored a more repressive approach, but can’t find international support for this policy because of the violence and human rights violations it generates.

Consequently, Colombia’s government is trying to execute two different policies, repression and development, that appear to work against the other.

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