While it has imposed a stringent coronavirus lockdown, the Colombian government has come under fire for allowing coca eradication campaigns to continue largely unabated.
Colombia’s President Iván Duque ordered a nationwide lockdown, including important curfews since late March. However, it seems squads of troops responsible for eradicating coca have been spared much of these restrictions.
On the contrary, eradication efforts appear to have increased since the lockdown began. In early May, Colombia's Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo stated that eradication campaigns were behind their targets for 2020 and would move into a new phase.
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The Coalition of Actions for Change (Coalición de Acciones para el Cambio), a group of 11 non-government organizations, has reported coca eradication operations in the departments of Norte de Santander, Caquetá and Putumayo.
Coca eradication efforts during the lockdown have also been linked to two deaths. In April, Ángel Artemio Nastacuas Villareal, a member of the Awá Indigenous community, was reportedly shot dead during a clash with security forces in Tumaco, Nariño.
According to information received by El Espectador, a group of around 200 coca eradicators had arrived near the Inda Zabaleta and La Brava Awá Indigenous reserves. They were met with protests by local residents, which led to the clashes in which Nastacuas Villareal was killed.
And in late March, Alejandro Carvajal was reportedly shot dead by a Colombian soldier in the municipality of Sardinata, in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander, El Espectador reported. The army told the newspaper a homicide investigation has been opened against the soldier believed to be responsible. Carvajal was part of an effort to promote crop substitution, working with local farmers to replace their coca crops with sugarcane.
Last week, InSight Crime sources, who asked to remain anonymous and live in areas where coca eradication campaigns are ongoing, also reported being threatened by troops, who told them that the aerial spraying of glyphosate could start in May or June. The use of this controversial technique has been suspended since 2017 and is set to be reviewed by Colombia’s Constitutional Court.
In response to demands that coca eradication efforts should stop during the lockdown, Colombia’s Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo stated that no cases of coronavirus had been detected among any of the teams carrying out coca eradication efforts around the country, El Tiempo reported.
In a virtual address to congress on April 22, he admitted that while the efforts had not been stopped, the teams had entered the areas where they are operating prior to the lockdown and had not left since, according to El Tiempo.
As of May 20, Colombia had 16,935 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 613 reported deaths.
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Continuing with coca eradication campaigns during the lockdown goes beyond political recklessness. It directly endangers the lives of some of Colombia’s most vulnerable communities.
And Holmes Trujillo's claims have done little to reassure. If the coca eradication teams were in some of Colombia's remotest regions prior to the lockdown, it seems highly unlikely that any rigorous testing could have been carried out in those areas.
The Duque government has frequently been lambasted for seeming to place coca eradication statistics above the lives of those who depend on the crop. The idea that soldiers currently based in the remotest and most dangerous parts of Colombia have somehow been tested for coronavirus and do not risk spreading the disease to locals is not convincing.
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For example, the departments of Norte de Santander, Caquetá and Putumayo, where coca eradication operations have been reported during the lockdown, had no facilities which can carry out coronavirus tests as of mid-April, according to Colombia's National Institute for Health (Instituto Nacional de Salud - INS).
These eradication efforts have already been among the most controversial strategies of the Duque government, largely killing off the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito – PNIS), which was intended to provide economic alternatives to coca farmers.
In 2019, the government allegedly met its target of destroying 80,000 hectares of coca. In 2020, this goal was increased by over 60 percent to 130,000 hectares, the Defense Ministry announced. As of May 2020, however, efforts were falling far short of this target, with only 15,885 hectares eradicated so far this year.
But the efficacy of these campaigns is in serious doubt. In September 2019, Miguel Ceballos, Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace, estimated that coca replanting rates range from 50 to 67 percent.
Rural coca farmers are between a rock and a hard place, under pressure from criminal groups, from security forces and now from the coronavirus. The Colombian government could provide some relief by suspending its campaigns, as Bolivia has done. Instead, Bogotá seems to have an extended list of essential workers: doctors, nurses and coca eradicators.