Bogota, Colombia – Some Colombian farmers say sales of coca, the raw material used to make cocaine, have plummeted after a recent surge in illegal drug production.
“We have seen a complete collapse of buyers,” said Andrés Rojas, a coca grower in the Catatumbo region who advocates for sustainable farming practices among growers. “Entire crops are unsold and families are starving.”
Representatives of agricultural cooperatives in Catatumbo, Nariño, Cauca and Putumayo, the country’s largest coca-producing regions, have called the economic impact of the collapse a “humanitarian emergency”.
Rojas explained that many farmers in Catatumbo have abandoned food crops in recent years in favor of growing coca. One reason, he said, is that transporting crops from remote areas to sell in urban centers is prohibitively expensive and difficult due to the lack of infrastructure in rural areas.
As a result, many communities now rely on the illegal coca economy.
“The rise in coca prices in recent years means that many farmers have chosen to grow only coca,” he said. It means that you have been hit hard [by the drop in prices]Many people no longer even grow food crops. ”
President Gustavo Petro admitted that “the lack of buyers for coca paste is leading to starvation in coca-growing regions.” Twitter post March 22.
He called for the reinstatement of the government-led coca substitution program, which would pay farmers in coca-producing regions to grow alternative crops.
These programs were an integral part of the peace agreement Colombia signed in 2016 with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group at the time.
But when President Yván Duque came to power in 2018, the government shifted to more aggressive “war on drugs” tactics rather than seeking a social solution to coca production.
Coca substitution programs have been largely sabotaged and even dismantled.
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Colombia is the world’s largest producer of cocaine, and 2021 was a record production year.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that 204,000 hectares (504,095 acres) will be devoted to coca cultivation in 2021, with production trending upward since 2012.
But coca prices began to fall in early 2022, according to Daniel Parra, border coordinator for the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (PARES).
“By the end of the year, prices had bottomed out and buyers for coca paste were in short supply,” he explained.
Para suspects that a combination of factors may have contributed to the collapse. One might be the impact of the 2022 arrest and extradition of drug lord Dailo Antonio Usuga David, who used the moniker “Othoniel.”
Othoniel, now in the United States, pleaded guilty in January to running a criminal organization in his role as leader of the Colombian Self-Defense Forces Gaitanista Self-Defense Force (AGC), also known as the Gulf Clan. He admitted to smuggling cocaine, possibly hundreds of tons, into the United States.
While Othoniel awaits a prison sentence, Parra said AGC had begun reorganizing and diverting attention from the international cocaine trade, resulting in lower demand.
“We believe AGC may have begun to focus on other illicit sources of income such as illegal mining, extortion and domestic sales of illegal substances rather than transnational smuggling,” Parra said. .
Keeping the business away from large-scale cocaine production could help AGC as it tackles peace talks with the Petro regime. But it could also be a form of retaliation, he added.
“They may also be trying to punish those in the coca industry who they see as partially responsible for Othoniel’s arrest,” Parra explained.
Another important factor in the fall in coca prices could be the rise of other drugs that are less difficult to manufacture. After all, the ingredients needed to refine coca paste can be easily traced by Colombian security forces, Para explained.
“Buying ammonia, sulfuric acid and sodium permanganate in bulk sets red flags for law enforcement,” he said. “Some laboratories may be switching to other drugs that are less risky to manufacture.”
Fentanyl, on the other hand, has “increased in popularity and may have curtailed some cocaine production on the illicit market”.
Coca farmer Rojas also pointed to another factor driving coca prices down. It’s violence.
In Catatumbo in particular, much of the territory is controlled by an armed rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). It also monopolizes the sale of coca paste, using violence when necessary.
According to experts, this could allow ELNs to significantly reduce the price of a few kilos of coca paste. Rojas said the group is now offering “less than half” what he was paying a year ago. “And buyers no longer come to us. We go to them and hope they buy.”
According to UNODC, as cocaine production expands regionally in South America, so does competition.
Coca cultivation in Peru will surge 30.6% to 76,158 hectares (188,191 acres) in 2021. In Bolivia, the government ended his cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in November, and coca cultivation increased by 4% to 30,500 hectares (75,367 acres). same year.
Search for solutions
Experts and coca growers have welcomed the current president’s calls to re-implement the Alternative Crop Program and invest in alternative economic opportunities for coca growers.
Despite this, “there is a lack of trust that the government will deliver on its promises,” Rojas said.
“Governments need to show that they have the will and ability to keep their promises,” said Jimena Sánchez Garzoli, director of the Andes Department at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
She explained that most of the farmers who signed up for previous crop replacement programs were stymied when they eradicated their coca crops on promises of non-delivery of payments from the government.
“Petro needs to show that his regime can move from rhetoric to action,” she said.
Rojas himself has seen how alternative crops can thrive. His coca yields are declining in value, but his food crops are becoming more profitable. Producing fruits and vegetables There are very few local farmers, so most of the fresh produce in the area is imported.
“Maybe we should grow platano instead of coca,” he said, referring to a type of banana crop. I got
“We are not drug lords,” he said. “We are the rural poor. We are farmers. We are the bottom of this industry pyramid.
“But this dependence will continue as long as governments refuse to encourage the development of other options.”