Colombia shifts strategy in drug war away from coca eradication


Bogotá Colombia – After pledging to radically change Colombia’s drug policy, President Gustavo Petro’s government this month announced plans to reduce forced eradication efforts that have remained one of the country’s main strategies for decades to eliminate coca, the raw ingredient in cocaine. curb.

Illegal coca cultivation is big business in Colombia. The country is the world’s largest producer of cocaine, and cultivation of the coca plant has recently reached record levels, with the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) estimating that 204,000 hectares (504,095 acres) will be devoted to its production by 2021.

In an effort to combat drug trafficking, Colombia has traditionally deployed security forces to smoke out and manually extract coca crops. But the left-wing Petro government has pledged to change tactics, move away from policies that penalize subsistence farmers and pledge instead to prosecute drug trafficking ringleaders.

On January 10, Colombia’s National Police announced a 60 percent reduction in eradication targets for 2023, saying it will destroy only 20,000 hectares of coca crops. That’s down from last year’s target of 50,000 hectares (123,553 acres), though only 44,000 hectares (108,726 acres) were ultimately eradicated after coca farmers protested.

The government is expected to announce eradication targets for the military, which is also tasked with removing coca crops, at a later date.

The reduced eradication targets are the latest policy change in the government’s ongoing effort to turn the decades-long War on Drugs on its head, a United States-led campaign that Petro, a former rebel fighter, has been critical of. His government has instead announced plans to provide economic alternatives to coca farmers.

“We are going to give oxygen to certain activities and suffocate others: oxygen to the weakest links in the chains, to the coca farmers, and suffocation to the traffickers, to the money launderers and the mafia,” Justice Minister Nestor Osuna said. in December.

But as Petro experiments with a new anti-drug strategy, the president will face pressure, both internally and internationally, to bring in the growing coca industry.

“Petro’s point of view is completely different,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andean director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a research organization. “But it’s his views on drugs in particular that are considered utterly concerning by the upper classes in Colombia and the drug fighters in the United States.”

Petro’s predecessor, former president Ivan Duque, favored extermination tactics, believing that targeting coca crops would reduce violence and weaken armed groups.

He unsuccessfully tried to resume air fumigation with glyphosate, a strategy banned by the government in 2015 when the World Health Organization classified the herbicide as a probable carcinogen.

Duque also expanded eradication on the ground, destroying a record 130,000 hectares (321,237 acres) in 2020 through police and military operations.

“I don’t think there has ever been a greater effort for forced eradication than in the Duque administration, and it was still ineffective,” said Maria Alejandra Velez, director of Andes University’s Center for Studies on Security and Drugs. “There is concrete evidence that eradication was not the solution.”

Petro opts for a different method that stems from the idea that the Colombian drug problem is fueled by inequality. He has shunned aerial decontamination and pledged to focus eradication on so-called “industrial fields.”

In an interview with Al Jazeera, the Colombian Ministry of Justice described such fields as sprawling coca farms, where a dwelling house and crops other than coca are absent. Their size is much larger than that of a sustainable family farm, also known as a family farming unit.

“These are not small coca plantations,” said Sonia Rodriguez, a Justice Department spokesperson. “It is in these areas that it has been confirmed that we will carry out exterminations.”

Rising coca production remains a shared concern for the US and Colombia. Experts believe that the unprecedented growth of coca plantations is due to factors such as an increase in global demand for cocaine and changes in Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict.

Another factor is the slow rollout of a plan to provide subsidies and economic alternatives to coca farmers who voluntarily brought in their crops. The program was originally developed as part of the historic 2016 peace agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – the country’s largest armed group at the time – and the government.

But the subsidies to start up long-term businesses failed to materialize, causing a crisis among farmers who could no longer grow coca and could not afford to finance a new venture. The UNODC reported that by 2020, about 100,000 families of coca farmers had voluntarily eradicated their crops.

Petro has pledged to deliver on promised grants and introduce more families to the program, complementing it with investments in agrarian reform, rural infrastructure and development.

Some parts of the program will also be redesigned with input from coca growers. The first gathering of coca growers met in December in Norte de Santander, a province on the Venezuelan border with the second largest coca production area in the country. An estimated 8,000 people from across the region submitted proposals for the conference.

The government has already accepted one of the proposals: to allow coca farmers to keep their crops until their alternative businesses are economically sustainable. In the past, farmers had to eradicate their coca crops before receiving subsidies.

“I will ask officials to set up a program where the farmer can grow coca while planting replacement crops until that replacement crop works. If it works, the other is no longer needed,” Petro told a packed stadium of farmers in December.

But farmers have also called for an end to all forced extermination operations, which they say have destroyed livelihoods, displaced families, increased deforestation and sparked violent clashes between farmers and security forces.

Responding to the police’s new eradication target, Juan Carlos Quintero, leader of the Peasant Farmer Association of Catatumbo, said any attempt to forcibly remove crops “causes violence and distrust”. He added that the use of force should be regarded as a last resort.

The US State Department has also opposed the reduction in eradication targets, but for different reasons. In a statement, it said that “it is fundamental to make full use of all available means to reduce coca cultivation,” including forced eradication of crops.

Petro has had to walk a fine line between appeasing Washington and fulfilling his promises to reform Colombia’s drug policy. The US is Colombia’s main ally and the largest donor to the Colombian peace agreement.

Garzoli-Sánchez, the Andes adviser at the Washington Office on Latin America, pointed out that Petro’s policy seems to align with Washington’s priorities, at least on paper.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has touted a “holistic” approach to disrupting the drug trade, focusing on rural development, security and implementation of the 2016 peace agreement. But, Garzoli-Sánchez said, there are still sectors within the US State Department and Congress who support the use of military force.

“The problem is that [Biden’s] policy towards Colombia is still not the main opinion in Washington among anti-narcotics people,” said Garzoli-Sánchez.

A house stands next to a coca farm in the coastal town of Tumaco, southwestern Colombia, on July 20, 2022 [File: Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

Professor Velez of the University of Andes said the shift away from crop eradication means the success of Petro’s anti-narcotic efforts now depends on other measures, of which there are few details.

In October, President Petro said Colombia and the US were working together to disrupt air and sea narcotics trafficking and increase their intelligence capabilities.

But Petro’s success will also depend on consolidating deals with coca growers to ban the expansion of their crops, Velez said.

Quintero, the president of the farmer’s association, said he believes a deal can be struck, one that will allow local leaders to control farms with support from the government and the international community.

“It doesn’t have to be the army, because there is no trust in the army,” Quintero said. “Who better to do this than the farmer organizations that hold power in their communities?”

A close-up of a coca leaf.
According to a 2022 United Nations report, coca production in Colombia has grown to its highest level [File: Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

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