Colombia will deploy an extra 5,000 men in a pilot campaign to eradicate coca, the crop used to produce cocaine, while kick-starting crop substition programs that seek to curb an explosive growth of illicit cultivation.
Minister Luis Carlos Villegas made the announcement while in Tumaco, Nariño, one of Colombia’s municipalities most affected by the illegal cultivation of coca.
The government had already warned about an estimated 50% increase in coca cultivation compared to a year ago.
According to the minister, the increase is partly due to poor farmers taking up coca cultivation in anticipation of a peace deal with leftist FARC rebels that includes a crop restitution program.
Additionally, said the minister, because the Colombian peso has lost much of its value amid a global oil price slump, the profit margin on cocaine trafficking to the United States and Europe has increased immensely, creating more incentives to grow coca.
Colombia is currently also suffering a drought, which in general affects legal crops more than the relatively drought-resistant coca.
To curb the recent explosion of coca cultivation, the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos wants the armed forces to focus their attention on Tumaco and nine other municipalities where, according to the minister, more than 40% of Colombia’s coca is cultivated.
Additionally, the government will begin pilot crop substution programs in these areas to make sure coca farmers maintain their livelihood.
Meanwhile, President Juan Manuel Santos promised improved access to infrastructure and public services, all of which are part of a comprehensive strategy to counter drug trafficking.
The president spoke of his optimism regarding the initiative, claiming the new policy gives the government “some instruments, tools that will give us permanent results in terms of crop substitution.”
This move comes amid growing concern in Colombia regarding the increasing figures for coca cultivation in the South American country and weeks or months ahead of a possible peace deal with the FARC.
According to the United States, the illicit crops in Colombia almost doubled in just two years, from 80,000 hectares in 2013 to 159,000 today.
Coca cultivation in Colombia
This would mean that the 2015 levels of coca cultivation would only be 6.4% below the levels when Plan Colombia, a $10 billion US-funded counter-narcotics operation, kicked off in 2001.
As Colombia’s government enter the final stages of peace negotiations with the left-wing guerrilla group, the FARC ahead of the March 23 deadline, the removal of illicit crops throughout the country will be a feature of the implementation of the deal.
The head of the Defense Ministry spoke about the emphasis of the new drug policy and said it will “great importance to the negotiations with the FARC.”
Likewise, the Head of State brought up the agreement on the problem of illicit drugs signed in Havana between the national government and the FARC guerrillas, and recalled that the group outside the law “committed in the agreements to cooperate in the substitution of illicit crops.”
Luis Carlos Villegas said the pilot plan for replacing illegal crops will focus on the 10 municipalities with 42% of all coca crops in the country and in the 97 municipalities that have, each, less than 100 hectares planted.
In addition to the increased number of troops, the plan aims to provide farmers with the opportunity to make the transition towards the production of other crops that are both profitable and legal such as cocoa, rubber, coffee, palm, avocado, among others.
In this regard, the head of the Defense Ministry said that for farmers it may have “long-term technical support,” enabling them to access “the most advanced technological packages.”