The drug problem in Colombia is worse than ever. But it has a radical solution


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

His administration would finally achieve a stable peace with the multiple rebel organizations in Colombia; would fight inequality by taxing the top 1% and lifting millions out of poverty; and promised to abandon a punitive approach to drug policing that cost millions of lives around the world with few results.

Three months later, there are signs of optimism: Colombia and the largest rebel group still active in its territory, the National Liberation Army’s ELN, have signed a pledge to restart peace talks after a four-year hiatus; and Congress has passed a tax plan that aims to raise nearly $4 billion in new taxes next year.

But drugs remain perhaps Petro’s most difficult challenge.

Drug production grew in Colombia during the pandemic.

The total area harvested for coca leaves, the main ingredient in 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 grew by another 14%, the UN reported, leading experts to believe that Colombia is producing more cocaine than ever before in its history.

In many rural areas of the country, illicit drug production became the only economic activity during the pandemic lockdowns, the UN says, as markets and agricultural routes were closed and farmers moved from food crops to coca.

According to Elizabeth Dickenson, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, the increase in harvests has become so obvious that even the casual traveler can see it.

“A few years ago, you would have to drive for hours to see the coca crops. Now they’re much more common, less than a kilometer from the main road,” he told CNN after a recent trip to Cauca, part of a region in southwestern Colombia that has seen a 76 percent increase of the harvested surface.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro speaks during a press conference about his government's first 100 days in office, in Bogota on November 15.

In the indigenous reserve of Tacueyo, Cauca, the increase in coca and marijuana harvests has caused deep concern for community leaders, according to Nora Taquinas, an indigenous environmental defender who has received multiple death threats from criminal organizations .

Two signs show more sustained drug trafficking than in recent years, Taquinas says: informal checkpoints on the road leading to Tacueyo and worrying trends in school dropouts as criminal organizations pressure local children into service to to domestic tasks around the production of narcotics.

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

The only positive, Taquinas says, is that the increase in drug production and trade in his community has not led to higher levels of violence. “We’re on the lookout. But soon, the cartels will start competing for crops here, and the competition between them is to the 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.

Before the agreement, most guerrilla groups were disciplined like a regular army and this helped in war negotiations between government officials and rebel groups. Now, the armed actors who did not abandon the armed struggle have split into up to sixty different groups, often competing against each other, according to the United Nations.

Although the recently announced peace talks with the ELN are successful, there are at least 59 more groups involved in drug trafficking for the government to deal with.

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

The traditional solution has been to punish farmers by destroying crops through increasingly sophisticated and forceful measures: aerial spraying, forced eradication campaigns, aerial surveillance and the deployment of troops in coca-growing regions.

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

While Petro is not responsible for the latest production increases – the report details narcotics trends through December 2021, ahead of this year’s elections – his message to abandon the war on drugs resonates with the realization from the United Nations that the billions of dollars invested in preventing Colombian farmers from growing coca could be put to better use.

“The first thing to highlight from the report is the total failure of the war on drugs,” says Colombia’s Minister of Justice, Néstor Osuna, and one of the people in charge of achieving a new solution to the drug problem .

The government’s plan, Osuna told CNN, focuses on three key points.

In the immediate term, the Petro administration aims to immediately limit the spread of drug-related violence, even if that means allowing further increases in coca-harvesting areas to occur in the coming years.

In order to avoid confrontation with coca-producing communities and reduce retaliation by the cartels, Colombia’s coca eradication campaign will be scaled back, if not completely suspended, and the Ministry of Justice will embark in a series of “voluntary consultations” to convince communities. replace illicit crops with legal ones in exchange for financial incentives.

Eventually, crop substitution will take place on a large scale by expanding Colombia’s agricultural frontier, he says.

“If we offer a sustainable alternative to farmers who harvest coca, they will take it. It is true that right now no agricultural product can compete with the income that coca makes, but it is also true that coca remains illegal, and we believe that farmers have indicated to us that they would prefer to work under the law, even if with lower margins than in illegality. “said the Minister of Justice.

The plan is to relocate thousands of farmers who are currently harvesting coca to unused agricultural land to start over with legal crops. Last month, the Colombian government agreed to buy up to three million hectares from the country’s ranchers’ association to expand agricultural land.

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

The coca buyers, the drug cartels, are willing to pay upfront for a crop, often in cash, and importantly will also provide transportation by picking it up at the farm, a major incentive for farmers who live hours away unpaved far from the main road. market towns This is why Petro’s government wants to completely relocate the cocaine workforce.

Members of Colombia's anti-narcotics police seize a shipment of molasses mixed with cocaine being shipped to Spain's Valencia in Cartagena, Colombia, on February 4, 2022.

Areas currently devoted to coca, once abandoned, would go through a process of reforestation, Osuna said, thanks to a new public investment fund worth $120 million to pay farmers to protect the rainforest over the next 20 years. Each family would receive up to USD 600 per month to implement reforestation projects in areas affected by coca harvesting, as well as illegal cattle ranching and logging.

Ultimately, Petro’s ultimate goal is to decriminalize cocaine. But Osuna says the government would not launch this move unilaterally: cocaine’s criminal status is globally codified in a series of international treaties.

Petro has been at pains to show the failures of the war on drugs in any international forum he has participated in, since US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s official visit to the United Nations General Assembly in September .

It’s a strategy Osuna called a “persistent offensive,” hoping the world would one day hold an informed debate about whether narcotics should still be considered banned substances.

“We have to recognize that cocaine consumption takes place all over the world, it’s obvious. For many people, this consumption is harmful, so it would be good if countries used public health policies to deal with this problem,” said Osuna.

(For his part, Osuna noted that his only experience with drugs was a marijuana joint in his twenties in Amsterdam that left him sick for two days.)

While many world leaders have called for a global rethink on drug problems, this is the first time a sitting president of Colombia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine, has openly called for the war on drugs to be abandoned.

According to a 2019 study by the University of Oxford, drug trafficking is worth almost 2% of Colombia’s GDP. No one can predict what a drug-free Colombia would look like, and Osuna is well aware of the difficult task ahead: “The war on drugs has failed for the last fifty years, it’s not like we can come and solve it. in fifty days,” he told CNN.

Critics of the government, such as former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who presided over the largest crop reduction in the country’s history through a controversial all-out military campaign in the early 2000s, believe that legalizing cocaine would only that the cartels are richer, not poorer.

But the recent development of marijuana legislation around the world, with countries like Germany and Uruguay, as well as more than fifteen states in the United States, passing legislation to allow recreational use, shows that it is possible to turn the direction, says Osuna.

Colombia is also talking about legalizing weed, a measure that would have been unthinkable just three years ago and which, if approved, has the potential to legalize the work of dozens of families in Tacueyo.

A pilot project to produce textile fabrics made from hemp is already underway, although the demand for the fiber is very small compared to the marijuana cartel’s demand, Taquinas says. “What we need is more legal exits, not less.”

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