While Colombia is known for its vast coca fields, the hillsides of its Cauca region are covered in another illicit crop: highly potent marijuana.
These lucrative strains of cannabis -- known collectively as “cripa,” "cripy," or “creepy” -- are being grown in vast quantities by farmers, sold by local gangs, and trafficked by powerful criminal groups that have come to control its cultivation and transport to neighboring countries.
What distinguishes creepy marijuana is its high levels of the psychoactive drug THC. Whereas normal marijuana’s THC concentrations hover in the single digits, creepy contains between 15 and 25 percent, said Juan Daniel Gómez, a professor of neuroscience at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá. And it produces a different effect: “The high is much higher but also shorter,” Gómez said.
While it’s still unclear whether such powerful strains of marijuana are harmful, it is well known that THC has the potential to aggravate psychiatric conditions. Gómez said that use of creepy has skyrocketed locally, with addiction clinics in Colombia seeing more patients abusing the drug.
“What surprises me is that you practically can’t get regular marijuana now,” Gómez said.
Colombia’s marijuana boom is largely centered in Cauca, a department that touches the Pacific Ocean and contains the colonial city of Popayán. Desolate mountain towns in its northern reaches provide fertile ground for the crop. Cauca accounted for 233 hectares of marijuana in 2016, according to the Colombian Drug Observatory (Observatorio de Drogas de Colombia – ODC).
The number, however, is likely higher, given that no survey method has been developed in Colombia for marijuana crops, the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)’s Illicit Cultivations Monitoring System (Sistema Integrado de Monitoreo de Cultivos Ilícitos – SIMCI) said in its 2016 report.
More than 6,000 farmers grow marijuana in northern Cauca. These farms can range from family-tended plots of a few hundred plants to four or five hectares controlled by drug trafficking groups, an agricultural engineer who works in marijuana cultivation told InSight Crime. The average plot has about 2,000 plants, and a pound of marijuana costs anywhere between 30,000 and 120,000 Colombian pesos ($9 to $45), depending on crop yields, he said.
Local indigenous groups were the first to cultivate cannabis in the region, and are permitted to do so under tribal law. The potent strains of what became known as creepy began arriving in the early 1980s from Europe, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that their cultivation really took off, thanks to investment from trafficking groups. “It got out of hand,” the agricultural engineer said.
The creepy bonanza has drawn criminal actors of all stripes. Small local gangs traffic marijuana to Colombian cities, while illegal armed groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), and dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) demand “vacunas,” or taxes, on the transport, sale and movement of the drug. According to Semana Rural, one ex-FARC mafia cell in northern Cauca counts some 200 men.
Large-scale traffickers fill trucks with up to 3,000 pounds of marijuana, the source said. “The narcotraffickers have almost everything bought up.”
The criminal groups have also brought with them renewed violence to the region as they battle it out for control of illicit crops, which also include coca and poppy. In 2019, more than 30 indigenous leaders have been gunned down in northern Cauca, and pamphlets -- under various names -- have disseminated threats against them.
“All of this robbed us of our peace,” an indigenous leader told Semana. “Crime, robbery, killings all shot up.”
In June, authorities in Colombia seized more than 500 kilograms of creepy marijuana, with several seizures occurring in the Caribbean city of Barranquilla. Shipped by courier, the drug was hidden in cargo consisting of shoes, clothes, and produce. Smugglers also concealed 75 kilograms of the drug within metal doorframes. The frames were stuffed with mayonnaise, ketchup and coffee to mask the marijuana’s odor, though a drug dog sniffed out the ruse.
The marijuana was largely destined for a gang known as “Los Costeños” that runs drug trafficking points in and around the city, El Heraldo reported. Similarly, in Medellín, local mafias under the criminal federation known as the Oficina de Envigado are behind the sale and distribution of creepy marijuana, according to El Colombiano.
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Massive quantities of the drug have also begun to be smuggled. In April of 2018, more than 3,500 kilograms were discovered in a tanker truck at a checkpoint just north of Cauca. The department recently saw a seizure of about 1.5 tons of the marijuana, wrapped in brown tape and stamped with the faces of Osama Bin Laden and Pablo Escobar.
The large shipments travel along established cocaine routes to other countries, including those dominated by drug trafficking groups in the Santa Marta region, on the Caribbean Coast. From there the marijuana is sent by boat to Trinidad and Tobago and Central America, where it sells for up to $4,000 a kilogram. Traffickers have even smuggled the drug with cocaine. In Bolivia, authorities discovered nearly 200 kilograms of creepy marijuana alongside some 120 kilograms of cocaine paste after tracking a helicopter to a hidden airstrip.
Up to a ton of Colombian creepy marijuana crosses into Venezuela each month, according to authorities. Often concealed in sacks of sugar or within machinery, it is smuggled aboard cargo trucks that reach Venezuela’s northern coastline, where it is loaded onto small boats heading to other points in the Caribbean.
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Marijuana destined for Brazil from Cauca moves east through the Amazon region. In July, authorities dismantled a criminal group, Los Puntilleros, that smuggled three tons of the drug each month by truck along this route, ultimately passing it along to the powerful Brazilian gang, Family of the North (Familia do Norte – FDN).
And creepy marijuana from Colombia has made it as far south as Chile, passing through both Ecuador and Peru, according to the State Department’s 2019 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. There it sells for as much as $5,000 per kilogram.
In northern Cauca, a line of four towns, about 80 kilometers apart, run along the hillsides of marijuana plantations. Together, Miranda, Corinto, Toribío and Jambaló have a population of about 100,000 people, with nearly half living in rural parts.
The agricultural engineer who spoke to InSight Crime said that in these villages, up to 70 percent of rural and indigenous families are living off marijuana cultivation.
Growing this highly potent cannabis is not simple -- but over time the Cauca farmers have become “specialists in its cultivation,” the engineer said. The rigging of night time grow lights, which increase crop yield, is now so common that when it gets dark, the hills appear to be dotted with “Christmas créches,” he said.
To stop the growth in illegal cannabis, Colombia officials have ordered the region’s electricity to be cut off at night. Late last month, however, angry residents in Corinto and Miranda protested the blackouts, blocking roads and service workers from reaching energy substations. They even confronted local police.
The engineer said he would prefer the government find a way to work with the farmers, either through the growing of marijuana for legal uses or through crop substitution programs.
Turning off the lights will do little, he said.
“The marijuana,” he said, “is everywhere.”