Cocaine production in Colombia broke new records in 2017, ushering in a new era of criminal violence among the many armed actors vying to control the lucrative industry as criminal dynamics continue to take shape after the departure of the FARC rebels.
Annual cocaine production in Colombia jumped 31 percent from a previous record of 1,053 metric tons in 2016 to 1,379 in 2017 and the number of hectares under coca cultivation rose 17 percent from 146,000 hectares in 2016 to 171,000 in 2017, according to illicit crop monitoring data published September 19 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Estimates released by the US White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in June of this year, however, put the number of cocaine produced at 921 metric tons and the total number of hectares under coca cultivation at 209,000 in 2017.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Cocaine Production
Colombia continues to be the world’s principal producer of cocaine with the Pacific region accounting for nearly 40 percent of the country's coca crops, followed by the Central region with a little more than 30 percent, according to the UNODC. The number of hectares under coca cultivation in the country has steadily increased each year since 2013.
The continued increase in the amount of coca being planted in Colombia can, in part, be explained by the government's struggle to meet an ambitious eradication goal that includes a coca crop substitution program threatened by criminal violence and a lack of viable alternatives for coca growers, in addition to other logistical and political obstacles.
This continued uptick in cocaine production has caused increased criminal violence. In general, the ex-FARC mafia -- networks of former fighters from the largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) -- and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) are the principal armed actors influencing Colombia’s cocaine trade. A number of other smaller groups are also fighting for control.
In response, the Colombian government has increased the presence of security forces in key drug trafficking corridors throughout the country, which has had a balloon effect and displaced criminal actors and their drug trafficking activities to key border regions in Ecuador and Venezuela.
Below, InSight Crime looks at criminal dynamics in four key areas affected by skyrocketing cocaine production in the Andean nation.
(Shifts in coca cultivation between 2016 and 2017 in Colombia c/o UNODC report)
The southwest department of Nariño along Colombia’s Pacific coast remains the country's main coca-producing area with 45,735 hectares under coca cultivation in 2017, according to the UNODC. This is also where security forces have concentrated many of their resources, forcing criminal groups to innovate and venture across the border into Ecuador.
At the heart of this dynamic is the ex-FARC mafia network known as the Oliver Sinisterra front, led by Ecuadorean national Walter Arizala Vernaza, alias “Guacho.” His network has utilized innovative strategies like subterranean drug labs near the Colombia-Ecuador border in an effort to evade authorities, and a series of violent attacks -- including the killing of three Ecuadorean press workers -- suggests they are fortifying their presence in the border region.
In response, authorities in Colombia and Ecuador have boosted security cooperation. The wounding of Guacho in a recent military operation suggests that security forces may be zeroing in on him and his network, which has already impacted criminal dynamics in this strategic region.
While south-central Guaviare department saw one of the biggest decreases in the number of hectares under coca cultivation in 2017, it hovers near Colombia’s borders with Venezuela and Brazil, two extremely important places for cocaine shipments. With security forces occupied on the other side of the country, record cocaine production is helping the 1st Front dissidence grow stronger here due to the key trafficking routes it features.
SEE ALSO: 1st Front Dissidence Profile
Brazil is the world’s second largest consumer of cocaine and has long been used as a key shipping point for international drug shipments. Venezuela is also a fundamental transshipment point for drug shipments coming from Colombia, and the country’s increasingly criminalized regime helps facilitate the safe passage of such shipments.
With the 1st Front dissidence in control of coca cultivation in all of Guaviare and the surrounding area, the laboratories where coca paste is transformed into cocaine hydrochloride and two international trafficking routes, the network looks poised to continue expanding their criminal activities as cocaine continues to flow and security forces have their hands full elsewhere.
Colombia’s Catatumbo region near the border with Venezuela consists of 11 municipalities in Norte de Santander department, which, according to the UNODC, saw a 14 percent increase in the number of hectares under coca cultivation in 2017, and is currently at the heart of a brutal battle between the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) over control of drug trade interests formerly controlled by the FARC.
However, the arrival of 1st Front dissidence leader Géner García Molina, alias “Jhon 40,” to the region in an effort to organize a growing number of former FARC rebels from the 33rd Front that have picked up arms again threatens to throw the already volatile fight for control over the region’s lucrative drug trade into further disarray.
Bajo Cauca Region
The Bajo Cauca region of northwest Antioquia department, where, according to the UNODC, the number of hectares under coca cultivation increased by 55 percent in 2017, has long been the site of criminal clashes due to its contraband routes and coca crops, among other illicit attractions.
Today, the Urabeños -- formerly Colombia’s most powerful criminal organization before being replaced by networks of FARC dissidents -- is battling it out against an ex-FARC mafia network of former fighters from the FARC's 36th Front that is aligned with a splinter group known as the Caparrapos for control over illicit economies.
Aside from its criminal economies, Bajo Cauca is prized territory due to its proximity to the port city of Turbo on the coast of the Gulf of Urabá, a strategic launching point for drug shipments heading north that will grow increasingly important as cocaine continues to pour out of the country.
*This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime’s Colombian Organized Crime Observatory.