Colombia’s drug problem is worse than ever. But she has a radical solution


When Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first progressive president, took office in August, he set an ambitious agenda.

His administration would finally make a stable peace with the multiple rebel organizations in Colombia; It will fight inequality by taxing the top 1% and lifting millions out of poverty; He promised that he would abandon a punitive approach to drug control that has cost millions of lives around the world, with little results.

Three months later, there are signs of optimism: Colombia and the largest rebel group still active in its territory, the National Liberation Army, the National Liberation Army, have signed a commitment to resume peace negotiations after a four-year hiatus. Congress has passed a fiscal plan that aims to collect nearly 4 billion US dollars in new taxes next year.

But drugs may remain Petro’s most difficult challenge.

Colombia’s drug production boomed during the pandemic.

The total area harvested of coca leaves – the main ingredient of cocaine – grew by 43% in 2021 according to a new annual survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. At the same time, the amount of potential coca produced per hectare increased by another 14%, the United Nations reported, leading experts to believe that Colombia is producing more cocaine than at any time in its history.

In many rural parts of the country, illegal drug production has become the only economic activity during pandemic lockdowns, the United Nations explains, as markets and agricultural roads closed and farmers switched from food crops to coca.

According to Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, the crop rise has become so visible that even the average traveler can see it.

“A few years ago, you had to drive for hours to see coca crops. Now it’s more common, less than a kilometer from a major highway,” she told CNN after a recent field trip to Cauca, a part of Colombia’s southwest region that saw an increase of 76% in harvested area.

On the Indigenous Reserve in Takeo, Cauca, an increase in coca and marijuana crops has caused community leaders deep concern according to Nora Taquinas, an indigenous environmental advocate who has received multiple death threats from criminal organizations.

Two signs show a more sustainable drug trade than it has been in recent years, Takenas says: unofficial checkpoints on the road to Takeo and alarming trends of school dropouts where local children are pressured into service by criminal organizations doing menial tasks related to drug production.

“Cartels pay about 15,000 cents (about $3) to clean a pound of marijuana buds. A kid can gain up to six pounds a day, and that’s a lot here. It’s hard to stop that.”

The only positive side, Takenas says, is that the increase in drug production and trafficking in her community has not caused higher levels of violence. “We’re on the lookout. But soon enough, the cartels will start competing for crops here, and their competition to death. Right now, it’s like the calm before the storm.”

The proliferation of armed groups in recent years is one of the biggest shortcomings of the Colombian peace process, which in 2016 ended more than half a century of civil war.

Prior to the deal, most guerrilla groups were disciplined like the regular army and this aided in war negotiations between government officials and rebel groups. Now, the armed actors who have not given up the armed struggle have split into up to sixty different groups that often compete against themselves, according to the United Nations.

Even if the recently announced peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army succeed, there are at least 59 other groups involved in the drug trade for the government to deal with.

Convincing farmers to stop growing coca has been one of Colombia’s biggest problems of the past 50 years.

The traditional solution was to punish farmers by destroying crops through more sophisticated and powerful measures: aerial fumigation, forced extermination campaigns, aerial surveillance, and the deployment of troops in coca-growing areas.

But this cost millions of dollars, funded mostly by military aid from the United States to Colombia, and claimed the lives of thousands of Colombian farmers and soldiers in drug-related clashes and violence. Until this year, few had dared to question her from a position of strength.

While Petro bears no responsibility for the latest production increases — the report details drug trends through December 2021, ahead of this year’s election — its message of abandoning the war on drugs is befitting of the UN’s finding that billions of dollars have been invested in blocking Colombian farmers. From coca cultivation can be used better.

“The first thing to note from the report is the complete failure of the drug war,” says Colombian Justice Minister Nestor Osuna, one of the people charged with finding a new solution to the drug problem.

Osuna told CNN the government’s plan centers around three key moments.

In the near term, the Petro administration aims to reduce the prevalence of drug-related violence immediately, even if that means allowing more increases in coca-harvesting areas in the coming years.

In order to avoid confrontation with coca-growing communities and to reduce retaliation against the cartels, Colombia’s coca eradication campaign will be curtailed, although not completely suspended, and the Ministry of Justice will embark on a series of “voluntary consultations” to persuade the communities. To replace illegal crops with legal crops in exchange for financial incentives.

In the end, crop replacement will be done on a large scale by expanding the frontiers of agriculture in Colombia, he says.

“If we offer a sustainable alternative to farmers who harvest coca, they will take it. It is true that at the moment no agricultural product can compete with coca revenues, but it is also true that coca is still illegal, and we believe that farmers have indicated to us that they would rather work By law, even in smaller margins, rather than illegal work, said the Minister of Justice.

The plan is to move the thousands of farmers currently harvesting coca to unused plantings for a fresh start with legal crops. Last month, the Colombian government agreed to buy up to three million hectares from the country’s farm association to expand farmland.

Colombia has tried to replace crops in the past, but has failed to overcome the appeal of coca. The coca bush can produce a crop up to six times a year and requires minimal care, as an invasive plant that thrives even in unfavorable conditions.

Coca buyers, the drug cartels, are willing to pay upfront for the harvest, often with cash, and will also provide transportation by picking it up at the farm—a great incentive for growers who live hours of unpaved roads away from major market cities. This is why the Petro government wants to transfer the entire cocaine workforce.

Colombian anti-narcotics police officers seize a shipment of molasses mixed with cocaine that was sent to Valencia, Spain, in Cartagena, Colombia on February 4, 2022.

Areas currently designated for coca, once abandoned, will undergo reforestation, Osuna said, thanks to a new $120 million public investment fund to pay farmers to protect the rainforest over the next 20 years. Each family will receive up to $600 per month to launch afforestation projects in areas affected by coca harvesting as well as ranching and illegal logging.

Ultimately, Petro’s ultimate goal is the decriminalization of cocaine. But Osuna insists the government would not trigger such a move unilaterally – cocaine’s criminal status is codified globally in a series of international treaties.

Petro has made a point of showcasing the failures of the war on drugs at any international forum he has participated in, from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s official visit to the United Nations General Assembly in September.

It’s a strategy Osuna has described as “disturbingly offensive,” in hopes that one day the world will have an informed debate about whether drugs should be considered banned substances.

“We have to realize that cocaine consumption occurs all over the world, it’s obvious. For many people, this consumption is harmful, which is why it would be good for countries to implement public health policies to deal with this problem,” Osuna said.

(Osuna, for his part, has indicated that his only drug experience was a marijuana binge in his twenties in Amsterdam, which left him sick for two days.)

While many world leaders have urged a global rethink on drug issues, this is the first time that the current president of Colombia – the world’s largest cocaine producer – has publicly called for abandoning the war on drugs.

According to a 2019 study from the University of Oxford, the drug trade is worth roughly 2% of Colombia’s GDP. No one can predict what Colombia will look like eventually free of the drug trade, and Osuna is well aware of the daunting task ahead: “The war on drugs has failed for the last 50 years, and it’s not like we can come and solve it in fifty days.”

Critics of the government, such as former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who oversaw the largest crop cuts in the country’s history with a sweeping and controversial military crackdown in the early 2000s, believe legalizing cocaine will only make the cartels richer, not poorer.

Osuna says the recent development in marijuana legalization around the world, with countries as far away as Germany and Uruguay, as well as more than fifteen US states passing legislation to allow recreational use, proves that it is possible to turn the tide.

Colombia is also debating legalizing weed, a move unimaginable just three years ago that, if passed, would likely legalize the employment of dozens of Takeo families.

A pilot project to produce hemp-based fabrics is already in the works, Takenas says, though the demand for the fiber is very small compared to the cartel’s demand for marijuana. “What we need is more legal outlets, not less.”

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