One year after Colombia's decision to halt the aerial fumigation of coca crops, eradication levels have plummeted at the same time that coca production continues to soar, a trend that is sure to strengthen the criminal groups involved in this illicit activity.
Since Colombia stopped using one of its main coca eradication methods -- the aerial fumigation of crops using the herbicide glyphosate -- the government has uprooted a far smaller amount of coca, according to government statistics published by the Justice Ministry's Drugs Observatory. Colombia suspended aerial fumigation operations in October 2015 due to public health concerns.
Between January and September 2016, manual eradicators removed 13,565 hectares (ha) of coca in the country. Last year, manual eradication totaled 13,473 ha, while aerial spraying destroyed 36,494 ha.
For 2016, the Defense Ministry has set an eradication target of 20,000 ha -- an area similar in size to total coca cultivation in Putumayo department alone.
The number of hectares eradicated manually has been falling since a peak of nearly 100,000 ha in 2008, according to government figures.
At the same time, coca growing has doubled from 48,000 ha in 2013 to 96,000 ha in 2015, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). A UNODC representative has previously told InSight Crime this pattern is likely to continue this year.
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Colombia's eradication ambitions are surprisingly low given the country's recent explosion in coca crops. In comparison, neighboring Peru has already eradicated over 22,000 ha in 2016, despite having less than half of the amount of coca as Colombia.
Colombia is redesigning its anti-narcotics strategy to target cocaine production and trafficking rather than the lower rungs of the illicit drug trade. This shift has been attributed in part to the difficulties and dangers of manual eradication efforts, which have been hindered by hundreds of blockades by coca farmers.
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The government is nonetheless taking steps to address the relatively small amount of coca that it's eradicating. Beginning in 2017, police will use aircraft to monitor coca cultivation in real time rather than relying on the previous year's data, El Tiempo reported. But without an effective eradication strategy, this measure is unlikely to have a major impact.
This trend is sure to keep the criminal groups involved in coca production well-financed for the foreseeable future. For now, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) guerrilla organization control an estimated 70 percent of crops, but the lion's share may be transferred over to other groups should the rebels demobilize as part of an eventual peace deal. If the rebels do not demobilize, they will be well-positioned to reap the financial benefits of the ongoing coca surge.