The department of Nariño in southwest Colombia is the main coca-producing area in the country and in the world. It is a place scarred by poverty and years of armed conflict between guerrillas, the state and paramilitary groups. Perhaps nowhere else in the country are the challenges of a post-conflict Colombia more evident, and perhaps no other part of the world is more indicative of how an economy can be fueled by the production and trafficking of cocaine. With villages that are dependent on the transformation of coca leaf into base paste, a port that connects local and international criminal actors, and rivers that serve as unguarded transportation routes for coca going north, Nariño truly is at the heart of everything.  

In Olaya Herrera, cows are butchered on the streets, in the open air. There is no slaughterhouse here. Before sunrise this past February 2, two men were busy at work near one of the small piers populating the town outskirts all the way to the Patía, Satinga, and Sanquianga rivers, the main entryways into this Nariño town, in the Colombian Pacific.

The two men, Afro-descendants like the majority of people here, took shifts working. While one passed the knife through the stripped-down meat, the other gathered the innards and guts scattered to the side. A boy then approached with a wheelbarrow and took the guts a few meters over, where another group was put in charge of them.

Everything smelled like blood and new meat, like dead and butchered cows.

A few hours later, the meat from that cow, and from all the others unfortunate enough to meet the same fate in Olaya Herrera that morning, was served at the local market in some of the stalls frequented by visitors near the piers, only a few meters away from the streets populated by the town’s hotels, pool halls, bars, and clubs.

Olaya Herrera looks like any other poor town in Colombia or Latin America – but it is not. The municipal waste services may barely function and the streets may be dirty and cluttered with trash, but there is money here. The type of money that comes from the business of cultivating and processing coca leaves into cocaine.

Olaya Herrera is one of the municipalities close to Tumaco, the second-biggest city in the department of Nariño and the second most important port in the Colombian Pacific.

According to official figures, Nariño is the biggest coca-producing department in Colombia: 29,755 hectares were cultivated in 2015 as measured by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Calculations performed by InSight Crime show that about seven kilograms of cocaine can be extracted per hectare, which means that Nariño would have produced approximately 208 metric tons that year. A military source in Tumaco assured us that in 2016 350 tons of cocaine left Nariño, in addition to the 120 tons that were seized in the department.

With an estimated 2,173 hectares dedicated to coca cultivation in 2015, Olaya Herrera was the third-largest coca-producing municipality in Nariño. However, in reality these numbers could be even greater. According to a municipal official in charge of agricultural projects in the region, 60 percent of its rural land is used for the cultivation of coca leaves.

About 200 meters from the pier where the two men butcher cows in the morning, there is a small park that was constructed after the river Satinga overflowed its banks, flooding streets and houses along it. This is a park full of life, with fruit sellers, two grocery stores, a pharmacy, small trees where students gather around, and, most striking of all, an open bar full of shelves lined with Johnnie Walker whiskey. If it were viewed outside of its immediate context, this spot might even pass as a small hangout in the capital, with its nickel-plated bar, exposed bottles on shelves, and neon lights shining in broad daylight.

At 10 in the morning on a Wednesday, there are already rowdy drunks in front of the whiskey bar, including one who is already swaying and about to faint between his chair and the table in front of him.

A doctor from the town’s health center, who is not named for security reasons, said that in 2016, 52 sex workers were registered in the clinic, a number not seen in months or years prior.

“In December, during Christmas vacation, the number dropped, but by the last week of January it was back up to 30,” he said.

Several of these women — originally from Colombian departments north of Nariño like Antioquia or Valle del Cauca, and even from Venezuela in some instances — told the clinic’s doctors stories about a place where prostitution was a growing business.

One of them, for example, spoke about groups of armed men who took prostitutes during the weekends to rural zones known as “veredas” where they exercised control.

“They were paid half a million pesos up to 800,000 pesos [close to $300] for the weekend,” the doctor said.

Who in this town lacking in any working infrastructure would be able to pay for shots of whiskey, or stay in hotels for up to 120,000 pesos a night (about $40, which in this town seems like a lot)? Who feeds the growing business of prostitution? The simple answer: coca.

Olaya Herrera is also known as Bocas de Satinga (“Mouth of the Satinga”). It is a strategic site for the trafficking of coca paste and cocaine, not only because of the convergence of three waterways, but also because of its close proximity to coca cultivation in the rural areas of the municipality to which it belongs, as well as those in neighboring Roberto Payán, Barbacoas, or El Charco.

Additionally, this town has direct access to the mangrove forests downstream. According to members of the Colombian security forces in the area consulted in February, this is where manufacturing laboratories exist to transform coca base paste into the cocaine that supplies North American and world markets; here, these are called “cristalizaderos,”  or “crystalizers.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Cocaine Production

There is no doubt that coca rules here. Other economic activities are precarious and almost exclusively dedicated to supply the food consumption needs of the town and its neighbors. Such is the case of the cows that are butchered in the open air in the docks of Bocas de Satinga.

A municipal official from Olaya Herrera, whose name has been omitted for security reasons, estimates that in this municipality about 4,330 families out of 32,000 inhabitants dedicate themselves to coca cultivation in a total area of 6,362 hectares. This number is slightly above the 2,000 hectares listed in the official census, possibly signifying that in this municipality alone enough raw material was processed to produce about 14 more tons of cocaine than the number reported by Colombian authorities in 2015.

In fact, it must also be noted that production has skyrocketed between 2014 and 2016. As InSight Crime previously reported, production in Nariño increased by 52 percent between 2015 and 2016, based on figures published by the United States last March.

During a field investigation conducted in several municipalities of Nariño in the last week of January and the first week of February this year, InSight Crime spoke with dozens of officials, peasants, indigenous people, and members of the security forces about the fragile economic situation of those who cultivate coca leaves. That includes everyone from collectors of coca to the small landowners who are the first links in the coca production chain of converting the leaf into cocaine. In Nariño, the lives of these growers coexist with those of the armed criminal groups that have attempted to fill the vacuum left by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) as the main intermediaries between small producers and larger drug trafficking groups that transport cocaine to northern markets. In this report, most of the interviewees are not identified to ensure their safety.

How Coca Destroys the Peace

Few restaurants remain open past 8:00 p.m. in Olaya Herrera on weekends, when night has already fallen. According to an official, towards the end of January a curfew was enacted and the National Police sent a special mobile battalion unit to “reestablish public order.” By February 1, there was no longer a curfew, yet on that night everything in Olaya Herrera still closed early. The community, plagued by a significant recent increase in homicides and other forms of violence, remained suspicious and fearful.

Officials and residents told InSight Crime that day that the increase in violence could be attributed to the FARC’s departure from the area as a result of the negotiated peace process between the guerrilla and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos last year. For a decade, since they settled in several Colombian Pacific municipalities in the mid-2000s and gained control of the cocaine production process, the FARC had served as a kind of de facto government in this area.

Today, the FARC’s exit has generated new criminal dynamics marked by attempts by other armed groups to take over control of the coca market. Here, it is the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), the other historic Colombian guerrilla group, which tries hardest to fill this space.

This issue is at the heart of post-conflict Colombia: the economies of important rural sectors that depend almost exclusively on the cultivation of coca leaf. The major challenges the Colombian state will face in trying to convince tens of thousands of peasants in the coming months to give up coca cultivation is very evident in Nariño as well as in the neighboring department of Putumayo.

One municipal officer said that the situation in Olaya Herrera worsened in August, when the ELN and FARC dissidents engaged in a settling of scores with one another, and acts of common crime related to drug trafficking.

FARC flag in Olaya Herrera, Nariño

“In August there were harassment and threats against the Marine Infrantry, then selective killings. In November a body was discovered in the river, followed by another four later the same month,” said the official, whom we will refer to as James here for security reasons.

James speaks sporadically, in the moments when he is not busy attending to the victims or their families who arrive in his small office on the second floor of the city hall. Today, on February 1, the heat suffocates, but the air-conditioning is not working, nor is the internet or even the computer system in which James registers the complaints and fears of those that speak to him.

“I don’t have the computer system. I will return in a while and perhaps then it will be operating,” he said.

James rises from his chair to explain himself to a woman who has come for a funeral matter. She apparently does not understand his explanation about the system; she goes on to tell the official that a relative died in a nearby area and she cannot afford the coffin.

Offices like this one in these Pacific towns appear to be one of the few connections between the suffering caused by violence in the community and the state services that are supposed to address it. Everything, however, is very precarious — like James’ air-conditioning, like the internet, like the nonexistent slaughterhouses in Olaya Herrera.

After the woman left, James said that by the end of January 2016 more bodies had been discovered in the town of Olaya Herrera and washed ashore on the river banks.

In January 2015, only three or four murders were reported by the local medical center. The January 2016 numbers, however, reflect a stark increase in the homicide rate from 12.5 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 to a projected rate of 375 per 100,000 inhabitants by 2017 if the pattern holds. The first month of this year alone saw the same number of homicides as there were during the whole of 2016, according to data provided by the municipal authority.

One security force officer interviewed in the town summed it up: “There will be a war between groups competing for control of the territory.”

The situation is so deadly that in December the National Police sent out a special unit of 30 men from the Carabineros and Rural Security Mobile Squads to “reestablish public order.”

Additionally, a curfew was decreed until January 31 of this year. But the increase in foot patrols does not appear to have had lasting effects on the area’s security situation.

The new police officers arrived in the dedicated barracks located on the town’s outskirts. But a lack of police vehicles has meant that their effectiveness in the town’s center has been limited.

Without the state, the area is vulnerable to armed groups like the ELN, which are beginning to show strength on the ground. The prize, as previously mentioned, is a portion of the million-dollar business of transforming coca leaf into kilograms of cocaine that are then transported to northern markets using the lands and rivers in these municipalities.

The Plantations Are Here

To get from Olaya Herrera to Roberto Payán you have to sail a little over two hours upstream through Patía River in a twin-engine speedboat. Along the way, wooden hamlets on both sides of the river bank serve as silent testimony of the transition the peace process has already brought to Colombia and of the attempts by armed groups to fill the power vacuum left by the FARC. Further upstream from Patía, there are FARC flags that flutter defiantly in these small hamlets, as well as signs of ELN presence in some cases.

The coca is there, visible. The bright green tint of the leaf if unmistakable, and in some cases, the plants are less than 10 meters from the river banks. It seems the owners do not fear that the authorities will destroy their plants — their only source of income.

ELN flag in Roberto Payán, Nariño

It is noon and the sky looks cloudy on this Wednesday in February. A small eatery located next to the only dock in Roberto Payán, Olaya Herrera’s neighboring town, is being frequented by several municipal officials. Among them is a Colombian military officer, who in less than a day here had already faced a couple of incidents involving men under his command that were working to manually eradicate coca in local rural areas.

“Eatery” might be too generous a label to describe this open wooden terrace, which marks the entrance to the small estuary formed by the Patía River in front of the town. A menu of rice, bananas, chicken and sometimes lentils and fish are served up on the six plastic tables, much like the majority of eateries in the towns of the Colombian Pacific.

Several days earlier, 80 peasants crowded around the captain’s men to stop them from eradicating the coca plantations upstream from Patía. The official said this matter hasn’t been repeated, but that tensions are increasing.

Hours after that lunch, we met a municipal officer in another cafe on the outskirts of town. He talked about the issues related to the manual eradication of coca — the method of crop destruction implemented by the Santos administration following the halting of aerial eradication, which was popular in the 2000s under the US-financed security program known as Plan Colombia.

Victor fills a bag with water as he waits for the rain to pass. One of the things that seems to give him joy when he speaks is his professional career. Thanks to hard work from his parents, he was able to leave the town to study economics in Tumaco. After his studies he came back to find a job in the only career available in this area: municipal government. Other than that, few employment opportunities exist besides coca.

“We heard that there are people in the surrounding areas preparing to come to the town center to protest against the eradications,” said Victor (not his real name).

It was a kind of premonition over what would happen next in Tumaco. The port city is located in the far southwest of Nariño and Colombia, and the rivers and criminal dynamics feeding the coca economy in the surrounding municipalities converge there. Since late last March, peasant coca growers from Tumaco and other municipalities have closed the road that connects the city with Pasto, Nariño’s capital to the east.

The road closure and protests are part of the broader conflictive relationship the Colombian state has had with peasant communities in the region. For at least two decades these communities have preferred cultivating coca leaf over other crops because it provides greater profits in less time. But the government has kept trying to encourage the use of substitute crops, such as cacao or rice, to no avail.

Ever, a resilient Afro-descendant in his fifties, is a member of one of the largest community councils in the region. His comments explain a little more about the conflict between the state and coca growers.

“Most people here live off of coca. In the council … in Roberto Payán … there is no other source of income … There were sprinkling operations of eradication with Plan Colombia, but in this area [the cultivation of coca leaves] was never reduced,” Ever said.

Community councils such as Victor’s, administrative entities formed by indigenous or Afro-descendant populations, have been at the center of the post-conflict Colombia conversation. According to national law, these councils have special administrative rights over the exploitation and agricultural use of the land.

In 2007, Ever participated in one of the crop substitution programs sponsored by the Colombian government since 200. His experience, he says, was not good.

Ever began to cultivate rice using money he had saved up and funding provided by a national program. He grew about 3 hectares of rice in a rural area close to the town of Roberto Payán that extended all the way to the shores of the Patía. The first problem he encountered, he says, was that the seed did not take properly to the land; even worse, however, was when the river flooded and destroyed about half of what he had sown.

“Cocoa cultivation also increased slightly, but illicit [crops] remained steady,” Ever says, before reiterating his conclusion about crop substitution in Nariño: the cultivation of coca “never decreased.” Official figures confirm Ever’s statement.

Maps in the UNODC’s report on coca cultivation in Colombia for 2015-2016 show the Pacific municipalities in Nariño covered by a large red stain. That means that in these area the cultivation of illicit crops, which began over ten years ago, has not decreased despite the aerial eradication strategy associated with Plan Colombia in the 2000s.

According to these figures, as well as those reported by the United States, the area of land cultivated for coca in Nariño increased by 47 percent between 2015 and 2016. In Roberto Payán there were 1,938 hectares covered by  coca by the end of 2015. However, InSight Crime discovered that in reality, the total amount of hectares cultivated with coca could be more like 4,000 — coca is present in 72 settlements, according to calculations by municipal officials.

Legal Crops Do Not Pay

Between April and May, InSight Crime also visited Putumayo, another coca department in southwest Colombia, bordering Nariño. Putumayo is yet another region marked in red by the UNODC maps due to the prevalence of coca cultivation and its connection with narcotrafficking routes through the Andes via two roads and rivers.

(Map courtesy of UNODC)

In Orito, members of an indigenous council of Awá, the majority of which are coca growers, warned that Tumaco’s protests against the government’s eradication efforts could be replicated and may worsen if authorities insist on intervening against coca cultivation in this area.

“These are parallel situations, like in Tumaco … they did not give them money, nor did they allow them to keep growing coca. Communities in Barbacoas and Tumaco signed letters of intent with the government and they were left like that,” says an indigenous leader in Orito in reference to negotiations the government carries out with coca growers to create substitution programs.

Another indigenous member of the town council in Putumayo reiterated with more emphasis echoes of conflicts that had happened in Roberto Payán in February: A good part of the coca growers will not give up the cultivation of a crop that produces, by far, larger profits than those produced by legal crops. In his words one can clearly feel the intention of communities like these to keep fighting for the cultivation of coca to the end.

“We do not plant coca because we are members of a mafia, but because the state of the economic system is sad, not because we like to snort it either … Legal crops do not pay, and here eradication will not only ruin the indigenous [communities], but everyone. When coca is finished, everything here is finished as well,” he says, as he points in the direction of the town center and to all the food, billiard, bar, hotel, and boutique businesses that, according to him, are possible only because of the coca business.

He also accepts that in communities such as his own, participation in the chain of coca production is not limited to cultivation. In the jungle area where his community lives there are also kitchens, or “chagras,” — makeshift laboratories that use gasoline and other chemicals to separate the alkaloid from the leaf in order to reduce it to coca pase. This is the raw material later used in the so-called “cristalizaderos” to extract cocaine.

The most sophisticated and expensive “cristalizaderos” are generally in the hands of Colombia’s large drug trafficking groups. In places like Putumayo and Nariño, nevertheless, there are also growers that are often in charge of making the coca paste. Such is the case of the previously mentioned indigenous Awá group of Putumayo, who admit that members of their community have already had clashes with Colombian security forces not only because of their manual eradication efforts, but also because of seizures of coca paste.

“The issue is that the police do not search for those that are stealing, they search for the peasant with his two or three kilos of coca,” a source said.

In the end, simple arithmetic based on the calculation of prices obtained in several municipalities of Nariño and Putumayo can explain the devastating logic behind the coca economy.

According to the UNODC, by the end of 2015 one kilogram of coca paste could sell for 2 million Colombian pesos (about $700) and one kilogram of cocaine, the final product sold in consumer markets, could be worth 4.7 million pesos (about $1,700). Prices have dropped throughout the last year, however — mainly due to the FARC’s exit from these territories and the realignment of buyer groups — to $560 per kilogram of coca paste and $1,000 per kilogram of cocaine.

“We do not plant coca because we are members of a mafia, but because the state of the economic system is sad, not because we like to snort it either … Legal crops do not pay, and here eradication will not only ruin the indigenous, but everyone.”

Nevertheless, even with the drop in prices, coca continues to be much more profitable than any other crop substitute. For one “pacha” (15 kilograms) of chontaduro — a tropical fruit native to Nariño and Putumayo whose cultivation has been encouraged by various substitution programs — about 25,000 Colombian pesos were paid as of last April, or about $0.60, per kilogram. In periods of high demand prices can climb up to 90,000 pesos per 15 kilograms, as it did November and December of 2016. According to growers in the area, they earned as much as $2.2 per kilogram of chontaduro.

Given these figures, the economic logic is clear. Moreover, coca has a production cycle of between three and four months, much less than any other crop and, in general, has guaranteed market access via the larger drug trafficking networks that operate in the Colombian Pacific.

Until 2015, when negotiations between the FARC and the Santos government were well under way, the guerrilla controlled most of the coca production processes. According to several Colombian military sources interviewed, the FARC also had a good working relationship with the drug traffickers that shipped cocaine to northern markets.

Since the FARC’s withdrawal, other actors — criminal groups, remnants of paramilitary organizations, FARC dissidents, or another one of the main Colombian guerrilla groups, the ELN — have fought to fill the power vacuum left in places like Nariño, which has resulted in an increase in violence, such as in Olaya Herrera, and/or in the temporary slowing of markets. The post-conflict Colombian government has responded with a dual policy: encouraging substitution away from coca via new financial support programs implemented through the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos Ilícitos – PNIS), while at the same time maintaining the authorities’ manual eradication campaigns. These two strategies have already provoked incidents like those that occurred in Tumaco and similar reluctance in Putumayo.

For now, coca remains the main economic activity in Nariño’s Pacific wetlands, as well as in the mountains and plains of Putumayo’s Amazon rainforest. It is in these rivers and settlements that the multimillion-dollar cocaine business continues to find a home.

The ‘New Capital of Coca’

The twin-engine speedboat left Roberto Payán early. Its driver said that he did not want to risk low waters on the Patía river on the way to Tumaco. This is a dangerous river, with too much coca on its banks, and too many armed people protecting the plantations.

The driver of the boat is right to be cautious. On the morning of February 3, the entire waterway between the small municipality of Nariño and the port city of Tumaco is marked by reminders of the pervading influence of coca in the region. In addition to the plantations along the banks, two uniformed guerrilla militants armed with rifles were keeping watch on top of a small canoe on the Patía river.

Today in Olaya Herrera, Roberto Payán, and other Pacific municipalities in Nariño, you can see the social and economic conflict inherent in the early stages of coca production. In the port city of Tumaco, you can find the criminal groups that are fighting for control over the international drug trafficking routes where tons of cocaine that have been crystalized along the banks of the river are moved. And in the Patía, Tapaje, Iscuandé, Satinga, Sanquianga and Telembí, you can find the main tributaries of the river network that runs through the municipalities of Nariño and on which coca leaf is grown and coca base paste is produced.

These are the same rivers that drain into the mangrove swamps near the Pacific coast, to the northwest of the department, and which are connected to the port city of Tumaco through poorly monitored maritime routes. It is in these mangroves where several “cristalizaderos” that convert paste into cocaine are hidden.

From there, the cocaine is either shipped northward via the ocean or southward to Tumaco where it sometimes stops or is shipped via land or sea towards the porous border with Ecuador. Judging by recent seizures in the past several months, there is more and more cocaine being transported down this latter route. In the first few days of May alone, Panamanian and Ecuadorean authorities seized about 8.2 tons of cocaine originating from Colombia.

In Nariño’s port city of Tumaco, one police officer explained the situation.

“There are recycled groups, militants or dissidents of the FARC … that are saying ‘we will take possession of this market … to fill the vacuum … to take control of these routes and export the drug,’” the official said. “We also see these groups begining to form alliances. They seek out the patronage of narcotraffickers in Cali or in other places. [These narcotraffickers] then finance them to take control of the routes.”

As in Olaya Herrera, the rearrangement of criminal groups around the coca business in Tumaco has resulted in an increase in homicides in the first few months of 2017. In 2015 and 2016 there a 13 percent increase in homicide rates. In September of last year alone there were 15 killings, a 400 percent increase compared to the same month in 2015 when there were only 3 killings. This pattern was the same for October and November. According to a police source, these months coincided with the periods in which police and military intelligence discovered criminal groups’ realignment around the coca business in the region.

Today, Tumaco is usually present in the official discourse and never far from officials’ lips. At the end of April, the prominent newspaper El Tiempo, citing military sources, published an article with the title, “Tumaco, the New Coca Capital.”

“It is a laboratory of the peace process,” a police official in the city said last February.

These days very few things in Nariño, in Tumaco, and in these coastal municipalities and rural towns can be explained without referencing coca and the effects the Colombian peace process is having on the cocaine business. For now, these towns and rivers are the origin of much of the drug the fuels the continental coca business. According to US figures, 350 of the 1,000 tons of cocaine circulating throughout Central America in 2016 came through the rivers and roads of Nariño.

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