Why Colombia’s estimated cocaine exports went up 13% in 2018

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

Colombia’s potential cocaine production went up while less drugs were seized in 2018, resulting in a 13% increase in potential cocaine exports.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the country’s potential cocaine production went up 6% from 1,058 metric tons in 2017 to 1,120 last year.

Colombia’s defense ministry reported a 5% drop in cocaine seizures from 435.5 metric tons in 2017 to 414.5 last year.

Consequently, potential exports of the illicit drug would have gone from 623 metric tons in 2017 to 706 last year.

Colombia’s potential cocaine exports

Source: UNODC / National Police

Less hectares needed for more cocaine

The UNODC’s Colombia chief, Pierre Lapaque, last week celebrated the slight drop in hectares affected by the production of coca, the base ingredient for cocaine, but warned about the growing intensity of coca per square kilometer.

Coca cultivation in Colombia dropped slightly in 2018: UN

According to the UNODC, the potential production of coca leaves went from 1,095 metric tons to 1,150 metric tons and from 6.3 kilograms of cocaine per hectare in 2017 to 6.5 kilograms last year.

This trend isn’t new. According to the UNODC, while the production of coca increased 77% in the past three years, this only affected 4% more of square kilometers.

The UNODC additionally reported that the yield of coca cultivation continued to increase. While one hectare of coca produced 4.7 metric tons of coca leaves in 2017, this increased 21% to 5.7 metric tons last year.

This higher productivity is due to:

  1. The majority of the lots (73 %) are in age of higher productivity.
  2. Better agricultural management techniques are observed: for example, pruning of coca bushes in order to favor leaf growth, improve air flow, avoid friction between branches, as well as facilitate bush management during harvesting.
  3. There was renewal of bush, replacing existing plants with cultivars that, according to the agricultural producer with coca (PAC), have higher leaf production, are more resistance to climate or diseases, allow greater alkaloid production or facilitate their management in the extraction stage.
  4. The majority of CAPs report the implementation of agro-cultural practices of fertilization, weed control and pest control; in fact, 88% of these performs weed control through the use of chemicals, while 10 % report a combination between the manual method and the chemical method for this.

The concentration of coca and the increase in cocaine production is not necessarily bad news, but presents different challenges to the authorities, according to the UNODC.

The concentration of the area planted with coca implies that the problem becomes more and more complex in some specific territories, but also that there is less and less territory affected by coca cultivation, which creates favorable conditions for the conformation of territories liberated from this problem.


One of these challenges is the increased involvement of illegal armed group in the cultivation of coca, who historically were more lucrative element of the drug trade, moving the drugs to the country’s export points.

These groups pose a serious threat not just to the farmers, but to governability in general because of their financial capacity to corrupt local authorities and those in charge of fighting drug trafficking like the police and the military.

The communities depend on illicit activity not only at the level of the coca grower, but a good part of the economy (licit and illicit) is articulated and revolves around money of illegal origin; in addition, the illegal armed groups have a strong presence and capacity for coercion and corruption in these territories. As a consequence of the above, the sustainability of the actions constitutes the fundamental challenge in these territories, where it is very important to recover security.


The UNODC insisted in the necessity of the government to effectively guarantee state presence in historically abandoned and neglected territory in order to effectively disrupt and diminish cocaine production.

Is there hope for this year?

Colombia’s security forces have prioritized the forced eradication of coca and reported the forced eradication of 59,978 hectares of coca in 2018. Yet, at the end of the year the UN measured only a decrease in coca cultivation of two hectares, indicating how many hectares are replanted after an eradication operation or spring up elsewhere.

In the first five months of this year, the Defense ministry said it had increased the number of forcibly eradicated hectares of coca with 50.7%.

But in the same time, the authorities seem to be dropping the ball when it comes to cocaine seizures that have dropped another 20% in the first five months of this year, according to the Defense Ministry.

The hope is that the government will resume the crop substitution program that is part of the peace process with the FARC, which has a much higher success rate than the government’s repressive strategy; only 0.6% of the hectares that were voluntary eradicated saw a return of coca against 50% of the forcibly eradicated hectares.

Furthermore, with more antinarcotics resources used for ineffective forced eradication, less would be available for the interdiction of drug shipments moved from the coca fields to the export hubs.

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