In Colombia, coca cultivation is no longer successful
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In Puerto Asis (Putumayo, Colombia).
Bordering the bumpy roads of the Puerto Vega-Teteyé corridor, the coca fields are still there, interspersed with a few plantain and sugar cane plants. In some of them, the raspachines are at work, hats on their heads under the blazing sun, methodically tearing off the precious leaves which will then be transformed by the field cultivator into cocaine base, a product halfway between coca and cocaine hydrochloride (which drug traffickers finish manufacturing).
At first glance, everything seems normal in this area, one of the densest in coca in Colombia. In reality, nothing is. Like the main regions concerned in the country, the department of Putumayo, bordering Ecuador and the Amazon, is experiencing a serious crisis: “Since November, the narcos no longer buy the base”says Ivan Narvaez, cocalero who sees the goods accumulating in his barn. “The leaves spoil in two weeks while the base lasts for a year, so we continue to produce.”
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Depending on the region, the crisis manifests itself differently. “In the Catatumbo, it has been going on for eighteen months”says Salomon Majbub, a specialist in drug policy. “There, coca is selling a little, but the price per kilo has plunged from 2.8 to 2.2 million pesos [de 571 à 448 euros, ndlr].” Result, the peasants, when they sell, “lose money, especially since production costs have skyrocketed in recent years with inflation”adds Pedro Arenas, associate of Viso Mutop, an organization that analyzes anti-drug policies.
“I can’t make it anymore”
Crises, the Colombian cocaleros have experienced others, but rarely as long. A sign of the seriousness of the situation, base cocaine is no longer even used as barter currency. “The first months, the coca growers could still pay in dough for basic necessities”continues the analyst. “From now on, the butcher, the cheese maker, refuse to receive it. Because they are no longer guaranteed to resell it”notes Ivan Narvaez.
On the other side of the Putumayo River, in the town of Puerto Asís (Putumayo), Diana rides her two-wheeler, next to the small port where the shuttles connecting the two banks dock. At the stop, she despairs. In a few months, this motorbike taxi driver, mother of four children she is raising alone, has seen her activity plummet. “I was earning 110,000 pesos a day [22 euros, ndlr], now it’s barely 50,000. The cost of gasoline is only increasing and passengers are asking me to lower my prices. I can’t take it anymore.” Carolina, meanwhile, was fired from the clothing store where she worked after the Christmas holidays. “Usually it’s the time of year when we sell the most, but this year sales have plunged”she laments.
In this city, the economy is in fact almost solely driven by coca. “There are some crops and livestock, but the engine is coca”, underlines Ivan Narvaez. Like many other researchers, Pedro Arenas does not believe in a “structural crisis”. Because the international demand for cocaine has continued to increase: former transit countries, such as South Africa, have become major consumers. Europe is also seeing its consumption grow, and in the United States, “despite the opioid crisis, cocaine does not yield”.
A multifactorial crisis
In this context, the Colombian crisis seems at first glance surprising. The reasons for its existence are in fact multiple and vary from region to region. One of them goes beyond the Colombian borders: other countries in the region have been experiencing an increase in their coca cultivation areas for five years, such as Peru and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia, creating competition new. “With the ongoing political crisis for two years, the Peruvian state has lost control over parts of the territory.”
Other countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador or, in Central America, Honduras and Guatemala, “have also started producing”. But the overproduction first concerns Colombia, where the exit of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas after the 2016 peace agreement with the state led to the massive arrival of other illegal actors. in its territories, encouraging campesinos to expand their crops – in 2021, they reached 204,000 hectares, compared to 143,000 in 2020, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In some areas, “the quality would also have dropped, pushing the narcos to reclaim the production chain to the detriment of small producers”adds Salomon Majbub.
The agreement with the FARC, by reconfiguring the armed conflict, has also generated other territorial disputes – FARC dissidents, National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, paramilitary groups – which, in some regions, generate insecurity for the narcos: in the Puerto Vega-Teteyé corridor where Ivan Narvaez lives, for example, the two dissidences of the FARC, remnants of the guerrillas demobilized in 2016, clash. “If the control is not clear, entry into the territory is not safe: the illegal armed group that rules the area guarantees the safety of drug traffickers and the purchase price.” The capture of “Otoniel”, a major capo of Colombian drug trafficking, at the end of 2021, could also have disrupted the market in the north of the country.
The political context has also changed, with the election in 2022 of leftist President Gustavo Petro. “His approach against drug trafficking is different: he wants to prioritize the fight against big narcos to the eradication of the crops of small producers, to whom he prefers to provide a social response”, details Pedro Arenas. The focus is on seizing goods, destroying drug routes and investigating money laundering.
The choice of the new Colombian Minister of Defense to replace the senior military officers present in the areas cocaleraswould also have, for the moment, slowed down certain circuits of corruption essential to the traffic, because “the majority of cocaine takes legal routes by container”, emphasizes Pedro Arenas. Finally, Gustavo Petro, who aims to negotiate “total peace” with all illegal actors, would have asked them to slow down drug trafficking and deforestation in the territories they control. “It would be a proof of goodwill”comments Solomon Majbub.
These dangerous “get by” economies
Terrible in the short term, the current situation nevertheless offers the Colombian State “the possibility of building, with the communities, an alternative economic development”notes Pedro Arenas. “Not lukewarm substitution programs where they have to switch coca for another plant.” But, worries the analyst, “in ten months of mandate, the implementation of the substitution programs – provided for by the peace agreement but never applied by the former government – does not take off: it would be a shame to miss this window of opportunity”.
This is the reason why Ivan Narvaez refuses to turn away from coca: “It is our weapon of negotiation with the State so that it comes here with real proposals.” Roads, public services and a territorial development project consisting…
In the meantime, to feed their families, the campesinos adapt. Some, without uprooting their coca fields, leave them abandoned and turn to survive, when possible, towards more or less profitable legal crops. In Puerto Asís, underlines Ivan Narvaez, “there is a big oil company, some have gone to work there”.
In other regions, the transition is more worrying: armed groups migrating to other illegal, environmentally disastrous economies, such as gold and coal mining, part of the cocaleros are going to work there. “The Colombian peasant is pragmatic, he goes where there is enough to meet the need to feed his family”, notes Pedro Arenas. As long as armed groups seek to finance themselves and the state is absent from these territories, these so-called “get by” economies will continue to prosper.