Fall in Colombia coca cultivation deceptive: experts

Coca cultivation in Colombia has fallen dramatically over the past two years, but experts say smarter drug trafficking strategies may account for the decline.

  • Published: 22/08/2013 at 02:49 AM
  • Newspaper section: news

A farmer walks along a trail in a coca plantation in the mountains of the department of Cauca, Colombia, on June 21, 2012. Coca cultivation in Colombia has fallen dramatically over the past two years, but experts say smarter drug trafficking strategies may account for the decline.

The latest UN drug report found that land under coca cultivation in Colombia, along with Peru the world's top producer of cocaine, dropped 25 percent from 2011 to 2012.

And over the past decade, there has been a deep and steady decline -- from 140,000 hectares under cultivation in 2001 to 62,000 in 2010 and 48,000 in 2012.

But rather than signal a huge success for coca eradication programs, analysts here say it reflects changing regional patterns of cocaine production and better methods of growing coca.

They say varieties of coca found to be resistant to aerial spraying with herbicides have been isolated and used to develop more potent hybrids.

"There has been a constant increase in yield," said researcher Ricardo Vargas, author of the book "Drugs, Armed Conflict and Alternative Development."

"The crux of the matter is the pursuit of new technologies and new varieties," he said.

"Our reports indicate that the yield per hectare under cultivation could be double what it was ten years ago," said Vargas.

Drug traffickers have also rearranged their cocaine producing networks, as they come under pressure from local authorities.

When Colombian authorities targeted the traffickers' production chain, destroying laboratories and seizing precursor chemicals, drug traffickers simply got out of the way.

"Drug traffickers' base of operations moved to Mexico and Central America," said Daniel Mejia, who heads a study center on security and drugs at the Universidad de los Andes.

"At the same time over the past five years Peru has had a strong increase in coca cultivation and Bolivia has seen a slight increase also," he said.

"This would indicate then that we are being successful at the local level, but the problem persists regionally," he said.

Before becoming a major grower of coca, Colombia was until the 1990s mainly a processor of coca leaves imported from Peru.

Vargas says that pattern is now repeating itself.

"The security agencies have once again found coca that comes from Peru. Part of the coca paste produced in Peru is being processed in Colombia. The borders are very active," he said.

Adding to the overall picture, demand for cocaine has fallen in the United States while the use of synthetic drugs, heroin and marijuana is on the rise.

Crop eradication programs have also taken a toll on Colombia's coca production.

But the head of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime in Colombia, Bo Mathiasen, says eradication programs tend to be short-lived.

"After eradication, the planting of coca surfaces in new areas," he said.

Mathiasen argued that Colombia news to pursue strategies that broadly improve the quality of life of rural populations to have a long term impact on the drug problem.

But in rural areas, coca growing is deeply intertwined with Colombia's long running armed conflict.

The FARC and other armed groups have combined with drug traffickers to protect coca growing operations.

But lately, said Vargas, they have been turning to another source of income: illegal mining.

"There is a mining boom that is playing in favor of the decline of the coca growing areas," he said.

The rural labor that armed groups uses to pick coca is now being shifted to mine metals.

In the meantime, he said, "there is no solid crop substitution policy by the state and the living conditions of people subjected to a war economy has not changed."

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