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



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

His government would finally reach a stable peace with Colombia’s many rebel organizations; it would fight inequality by taxing the top 1% and lifting millions out of poverty; and it would dispense with a punitive approach to drug policing that has cost millions of lives around the world with little result, he promised.

Three months later, there are signs of optimism: Colombia and the largest rebel group still active in its territory, the National Liberation Army ELN, have signed a commitment to restart peace negotiations after a four-year hiatus; and Congress has approved a fiscal plan aimed at collecting nearly $4 billion in new taxes next year.

But drugs may remain Petro’s biggest challenge.

During the pandemic, drug production in Colombia boomed.

The total area harvested for coca leaves – the main ingredient for cocaine – will grow 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 a further 14%, the UN reported, leading experts to believe Colombia is producing more cocaine than at any time in its history.

In many rural parts of the country, illicit drug production became the sole economic activity during pandemic lockdowns, the UN explains, as markets and agricultural routes closed and farmers switched from food crops to coca.

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

“A few years ago you had to drive for hours to see coca crops. Now they are much more common, less than a kilometer from the highway,” she told CNN after a recent excursion to Cauca, part of a Colombian southwestern region where the area under harvest has increased by +76%.

In the Tacueyo Indigenous Reservation, Cauca, the increase in coca and marijuana crops has caused great concern among community leaders, according to Nora Taquinas, an indigenous environmental advocate who has received multiple death threats from criminal organizations.

Two signs point to a more sustainable drug trade than in recent years, Taquinas says: informal checkpoints on the road to Tacueyo and worrying trends in school dropout as local children are employed by criminal organizations for menial jobs around narcotics production.

“The cartels pay about 15,000 COP (about 3 USD) to clean a pound of marijuana sprouts. A child can do up to six pounds a day, and that’s solid money here. That’s hard to stop.”

The only positive aspect, Taquinas says, is that the increase in drug production and trafficking in her community has not led to more violence. “We are wary. But soon the cartels will start competing for the crops here, and the competition between them is life and death. At the moment it is like the calm before the storm.”

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

Before the deal, most guerrilla groups were disciplined like a regular army and this helped war negotiations between government officials and rebel groups. According to the United Nations, the armed actors who have not given up armed struggle are fragmented into as many as 60 different groups that often compete with each other.

Even if the recently announced peace negotiations with the ELN are successful, there are still at least 59 groups involved in the drug trade that the government is dealing 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 the farmers by destroying crops through increasingly sophisticated and forceful measures: aerial fumigations, forced extermination campaigns, aerial monitoring and the deployment of troops in coca-growing areas.

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

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

“The first thing that stands out about the report is the total failure of the war on drugs,” said Colombian Justice Minister Nestor Osuna, one of the people charged with coming up with a new solution to the drug problem.

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

In the short term, the Petro government is aiming to limit the spread of drug-related violence immediately, even if it means further expansions of coca harvesting areas in the coming years.

To avoid confrontations with coca-producing communities and reduce retaliation from the cartels, Colombia’s coca eradication campaign will be toned down, though not completely suspended, and the Justice Department will begin a series of “voluntary consultations” to persuade communities to stop illegal crops replace it with legal crops in exchange for financial incentives.

Eventually, large-scale crop replacement will occur by expanding Colombia’s agricultural frontier, he says.

“If we offer the farmers who harvest coca a sustainable alternative, they will accept it. It is true that at the moment no agricultural product can compete with the income that coca brings, but it is also true that coca remains illegal, and we believe that the farmers have informed us that they prefer to work under the law, even at lower rates. margins, then in illegality, ”said the Minister of Justice.

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

Colombia has tried crop substitution in the past, but failed to overcome coca’s appeal. The coca bush can harvest up to six times a year and requires minimal care as it is an invasive plant that grows even under adverse conditions.

Coca buyers, the drug cartels, are willing to prepay for a crop, often in cash, and, crucially, will also provide transportation by collecting it from the farm – a major incentive for farmers who live for hours on dirt roads from the main market towns. That is why the Petro government wants to completely relocate the cocaine workforce.

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

The areas currently devoted to coca, once abandoned, would undergo a process of reforestation, Osuna said, thanks to a new $120 million public investment fund to pay farmers to protect the rainforest for the next 20 years. Each family would receive up to USD 600 per month to start reforestation projects in areas affected by coca harvesting, illegal ranching and logging.

Petro’s ultimate goal is ultimately to decriminalize cocaine. But Osuna is adamant that the government would not launch such a move unilaterally — the criminal status of cocaine is globally codified in a series of international treaties.

Petro has made it a point to showcase the failures of the war on drugs at every 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 labeled a “nagging offensive,” hoping that one day the world would have an informed debate on whether narcotics should still be considered banned substances.

“We have to recognize that cocaine consumption is happening all over the world, that is clear. For many people, such consumption is harmful, so it would be good if countries had public health policies in place to address this problem,” Osuna said.

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

While many world leaders have pushed for a global rethink of the drug problem, this is the first time that a sitting president of Colombia – the world’s largest cocaine producer – has publicly called for an end to the war on drugs.

Drug trafficking accounts for nearly 2% of Colombia’s GDP, according to a 2019 study by the University of Oxford. No one can predict what a Colombia free from drug trafficking will ultimately look like, and Osuna knows very well how difficult the task before us is: “The war on drugs has failed for the last fifty years, it is not so that we can fix this. it in fifty days,” he told CNN.

Government critics, such as former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, who in the early 2000s presided over the largest crop reduction in the country’s history through a controversial large-scale military campaign, believe legalizing cocaine would only make the cartels richer , not poorer.

But recent developments in marijuana law around the world, with countries like Germany and Uruguay, as well as more than 15 US states, passing legislation to allow recreational use, prove that it is possible to turn the tide, says Osuna .

Colombia is also discussing legalizing weed, a move that would have been unthinkable just three years ago and, if passed, has the potential to legalize the work of dozens of Tacueyo families.

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

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