Colombia is now producing more cocaine than ever before, just as a new chapter in the country's criminal history begins and the government tries to implement a peace agreement with Marxist rebels.
The 2016 illicit crop monitoring data for Colombia has just been published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The report contains a wealth of data on Colombia's drug production, none of it encouraging. The top line is that annual cocaine production rose more than 34 percent to 866 metric tons. The number of hectares under coca cultivation leapt from 96,000 in 2015 to 146,000 in 2016, a 52 percent increase. This means that Colombia is producing more cocaine than it ever has.
The UN data, while often disputed, is the benchmark for those seeking to put some kind of number on Colombia's cocaine trade. In March, the US Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) unveiled its estimates for Colombia, stating that there were 188,000 hectares of coca crops in 2016. While higher than the UN estimates, the gap between the two institutions has begun to narrow.
We at InSight Crime will throw in our two cents' worth. Having visited over 110 municipalities in Colombia over the last two years mapping criminal economies, especially coca, we believe that the White House figures for coca cultivation are more accurate. So, we work with the White House figures of 188,000 hectares of coca each yielding an average of 7 kilograms of cocaine. This is slightly higher than the UN figure of 6.9 kilograms per hectare, but we base our number on detailed analysis done by the Colombian anti-narcotic police. We would therefore put annual Colombian cocaine production at over 1,200 tons. We combine this rudimentary mathematics with seizure rates (not just in Colombia, but internationally) along with what our sources in law enforcement and the underworld are telling us. While higher than the UN figure, it is not totally out of kilter, as the UNODC report works on a scale, which at the top end estimates that production could be over 1,000 tons.
When one zooms into the areas of the country where coca crops are concentrated, and where the increasing cultivation has been most marked, more criminal dynamics can be deciphered. The Pacific seaboard, long the most abandoned part of Colombia, boasts more than 57,000 hectares of the drug-producing crop, and saw a 42 percent increase in cultivation from 2015 to 2016. The Pacific province of Nariño, where InSight Crime recently conducted extensive field research, produces more cocaine than all of Bolivia, and remains the capital of the cocaine trade in Colombia. The neighboring department of Putumayo, also along the border with Ecuador, where the US "Plan Colombia" began more than 17 years ago, also saw a hefty 20 percent increase in coca cultivation, along with Caquetá.
The departments of Meta and Guaviare are home to over 12,000 hectares of coca, an increase in cultivation of 18 percent compared to 2016. This must be of particular concern to the Colombian government and the security forces, as these two departments are home to the most powerful dissident group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC): the First Front. This FARC unit pronounced itself dissident in July last year, even before the government signed the November 2016 peace agreement, which is now being implemented and has seen more than 7,000 guerrillas concentrate in special zones around the country and hand over weapons.
The FARC were the single most important players in the Colombian, and therefore the global cocaine trade. They controlled over 60 percent of the coca crops in the country, charging taxes on production and getting involved in almost every link in the drug chain. Their departure changes the dynamics of the drug trade.
The New Drug Traffickers
This takes us to the new generation of criminal groups in Colombia that are profiting from the cocaine bonanza. The first thing is to forget about traditional drug cartels along the lines of the Medellín and Cali Cartels. They are long gone as organized crime structures. Forget also the heavily-armed paramilitary army of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). While the generation of criminal groups born out of the AUC demobilization, the BACRIM (so named after the Spanish for criminal bands, "bandas criminales") has its roots in the AUC, it does not have the same military capacity nor territorial control of its paramilitary predecessors. Today it is all about networks, and the most powerful one is group under what we call the "Urabeños" franchise, although this group prefers to call itself the Gaitanista Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC). This franchise has reach across Colombia and is responsible for moving the lion's share of cocaine across the Colombian border.
The Urabeños used to work closely with the FARC. The guerrillas would sell them coca base and protect shipments going through their territory. However the departure of the FARC from the criminal scene has changed the drug trafficking landscape, just as the demobilization of the AUC in 2006 did. The new chapter in Colombia's criminal history is now unfolding as the cocaine industry adapts to the FARC withdrawal and seeks to fill the vacuum left by the rebel army. Charting this new criminal chapter is one of InSight Crime's primary aims for the remainder of 2017.
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The first threat to the peace process and an important player in the cocaine trade is the dissident First Front under the veteran rebel commander Miguel Botache Santanilla, alias "Gentil Duarte." This force is growing from the initial 100 guerrillas who declared themselves opposed to the peace process. The government is refusing, publicly as least, to recognize the scale of this problem. Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas has spoken of less than 500 dissident rebels in the whole country, while boasting of capturing 300. InSight Crime believes the number of FARC rebels outside of the peace process to be at least 1,500, not all of which retain their FARC identity. A large chunk of at least 400 to 600 operate under the auspices of the First Front, which is expanding its reach from the department of Guaviare into Meta, Guainía, Caquetá and Vichada, funded by the earnings from the drug trade.
Other FARC units and fighters have broken away and joined their revolutionary cousins of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN). This smaller rebel force, which like the FARC was founded in 1964, has refused to surrender, although there are peace talks ongoing with the government. These are getting nowhere and the ELN has assumed an expansionist and aggressive stance, recruiting former FARC combatants and expanding into FARC territory. This is the last illegal army standing. Government estimates put the ELN at 1,500 fighters. We believe that number to now be closer to 2,500. While the Urabeños like to present themselves as a fighting force, they are now a mafia network. The ELN, once averse to drug trafficking on ideological grounds, are now embracing it as their FARC cousins once did. It funds their expansion.
The record levels of cocaine production pile yet more pressure on the government of President Juan Manuel Santos. He has allowed drug production to more than double under his watch. (He assumed the presidency in 2010.) The increase in drug production, and the billions in earning it generates, is a real threat to the main, and critics might say, the solitary success of his presidency: the peace agreement signed with the FARC.
Coca Eradication Strategy
At the heart of the explosive growth in the coca crops lie two factors. The first was the peace process itself. The FARC told farmers in their areas of influence to sow coca, or else they would have nothing with which to negotiate with the government. The rebels were also desperate to generate as much cash as possible before they had to abandon their criminal activities and begin the transition to a legal political force. The second was the ending of the aerial eradication of drug crops in 2015. The practice was halted on health grounds, as there was a pile of evidence that suggested that the indiscriminate spraying of glyphosate chemicals onto coca fields, farmers' shacks and sources of drinking water was harmful to the health of citizens and the environment.
And so the government lost its principal deterrent to sowing coca. While the price of coca base, which the coca farmers themselves produce, has collapsed in some FARC strongholds like Putumayo, we believe this is a temporary crash as the market here was dominated by FARC buyers and middlemen. In place like Nariño, along the Pacific coast, the price remains constant, as there are other buyers already in place to take up the market share left by the FARC withdrawal.
While the price of coca base have fallen more than 5 percent, with the UN charting the average price at $621 a kilogram in 2016, cultivating coca remains far and away the most lucrative crop for those farmers in the more remote stretches of the country. Here transporting legal produce to market costs more than the prices the goods fetch. A good chemist can get a kilogram of crystallized cocaine from a kilogram of high quality coca base.
The government has announced plans for a new and ambitious eradication strategy.
"The government plans to eradicate 50,000 hectares and reduce the total by another 50,000 hectares in the space of a year via substitution programs," explained Rafael Pardo, the Minister for Post-Conflict. "80 percent of the coca is concentrated in 45 municipalities ... This is where we will take aim."
These numbers are pure fantasy for the time frame outlined, and are designed mainly to placate angry elements in Washington, DC, irate at the fact that after pouring billions of dollars into attempting to control cocaine at the source, production is at record levels and consumption is once again growing in the United States. In all of 2016, the Colombian government managed to eradicate just over 18,000 hectares, and so far substitution programs are still in the hundreds of hectares. Our ground research shows that manual eradication, now being carried out principally by the military, is meeting increased resistance from communities. It is not booby traps and snipers that are now blocking eradication efforts, but angry women and children preventing the eradicators from working. This has proven to be extraordinarily effective.
The New Chapter in Colombia's Cocaine Trade
The price of cocaine in Colombia, according to the UN report, fell 5 percent to $1,633. Just three years ago this number was over $2,000. But the increase in supply, combined with a rise in the value of the dollar against the Colombian peso, has pushed local prices down and raised the profits for transnational organized crime.
What is of particular note is how little violence is associated with the cocaine trade in Colombia today. The Medellín and Cali Cartels fought it out in the 1980s and early 1990s, and then the paramilitary AUC battled it out with the FARC. Today BACRIM, rebels and independents all work together as part of a network, with remarkably little conflict. In this sense the Colombians have become much more sophisticated than the Mexicans, where turf wars are still the norm.
It is likely that the 2017 dynamic will see continued growth in cocaine production, but at a much lower rate than we have seen over the last few years. What we will see is increasing sophistication of Colombian transnational organized crime, which will adopt a still more clandestine role, concentrating of the smooth flow of business and maximizing profits rather than violent control over the industry.
Law enforcement and the security forces face an even more complex challenge today in Colombia to contain the cocaine industry. The billions it generates will be invested more in corruption than private armies. Homicides may well continue to fall, but the drug trade will keep growing for the foreseeable future.