Despite decades of counter-narcotics efforts, Colombia potentially produced a record 1,379 metric ton of cocaine in 2017, the United Nations said Wednesday.
The production is more than 10 times the estimated production of 1993, the year in which drug lord Pablo Escobar was killed and the year before the country began fumigating coca, the base ingredient of the illicit drug.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), some 171,000 hectares or 660 square miles were used for coca cultivation last year.
Like potential cocaine production, coca cultivation reached a level never measured in the country before. The previous record was set in the year 2000 when 163,300 hectares were used to grow coca.
Coca cultivation in Colombia
Coca thrives where the state fails
The growth was highest in regions previously controlled by the FARC, the guerrilla group that demobilized last year, particularly in northern Colombia where the 2016 peace deal with the disarmed rebels received most resistance.
Colombia’s government and security forces have been criticized for failing to assume control over these areas that have traditionally been neglected or even abandoned by the state.
It is estimated that the total amount of coca leaf produced in the 10 municipalities, which have most of the coca crops, has a value in the local market of COP890,232 million ($302 million). As a reference, the aggregate value of annual official municipal budget for these 10 municipalities, is COP577.000 million ($196 million).
The reasons farmers resorted to growing coca didn’t go away as a result of $10 billion in US aid.
Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) expert Adam Isacson via Bloomberg
“The way forward”
While Colombia and its main counter-narcotics sponsor, the United States, want to resume aerial fumigation of coca and continue the forced manual eradication of crops, the UN stressed the importance of a voluntary crop substitution and development programs that were part of the peace deal with the FARC.
Monitoring data indicates that crops decreased 11% in areas where coca control activities (forced or voluntary eradication) were carried out. However, such interventions were only achieved in 14% of the territory with coca crops. Reaching higher impact rates requires not only improvements in coordination and coverage, but also designing strategies adapted to the different local and regional conditions.
The country’s new government said last month it would end the voluntary substitution program undersigned by more than half of the families that live off coca.
But according to the United Nations, the program that kicked off in May last year has yet to produce visible results, and ought to be accompanied with development programs that would allow farmers to take part in Colombia’s legal economy.
Transformation of the territory is key to achieving sustainable peace and development of the areas with coca crops. This is possible if the efforts are not only focusing on illicit activities, but also on understanding the complexities and challenges of these territories. This process should consider and include non-coca cultivating neighbors, the neighboring populated villages and the market centers that can support and reinforce legal activities. Identification of realistic and feasible alternatives for isolated areas where there are challenges for their integration with populated centers is of key importance.
According to the UNODC, “the consolidation of peace must be accompanied by institutional presence capable of providing conditions for security and the rule of law. The main objective will be to facilitate and reinforce the role of the state and promote integrated rural development activities, reduce vulnerabilities and transform the territories of Colombia.”