A huge percentage of Colombia's soaring cocaine production has apparently passed through a single municipality, Tumaco, over the first few months of year. What makes this region so strategic, and who has the biggest stake in its criminal bounty?
Authorities seized 32.8 metric tons of cocaine in the Pacific municipality of Tumaco, in the department of Nariño, between January and March this year, the most recent statistics by the defense ministry show. This was far higher than the seizure figures for any other Colombian municipality or even department, and represents more than a third of the national total of intercepted cocaine this year.
Given that authorities are generally believed to seize around 10 percent of total drug flow, the numbers suggest that Tumaco may have exported hundreds of tons of cocaine so far this year -- a sizeable share of Colombia's total estimated production.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Cocaine Production
Official figures state that around 17,000 hectares of coca grow in Tumaco, a remote corner of western Colombia on the border with Ecuador that is known as the "Pacific Pearl." But the official statistics are believed to be underestimates. Nevertheless, the amount of coca cultivation in Tumaco is substantial; by comparison, all of Bolivia had an estimated 20,200 hectares of the crop in 2015.
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Tumaco's unique advantages for criminals have made it one of Colombia's most hotly disputed areas. Its vast network of secluded rivers are ideal smuggling routes, while the mangroves along the Pacific coast are perfect for launching cocaine shipments to the United States and hiding cocaine laboratories. While the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) long held a monopoly over the port municipality's cocaine trade, the bulk of the rebel group's leadership has gradually pulled out of the area after signing a peace deal with the Colombian government in late 2016.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of FARC Peace
As a result, several criminal structures now strive to control the drugs departing from Tumaco's long Pacific shoreline and into neighboring Ecuador. Police sources claim that most of the territory is controlled by the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) guerrillas, who have gradually expanded their presence in the region. But as the FARC have begun to demobilize, many of the group's former fighters have shunned the peace process, opting instead to continue illegal activities like drug trafficking that sustained the rebels for so long.
In the absence of a clear hegemon controlling the regional drug trade, violent conflict has arisen. This unstable dynamic makes Tumaco a microcosm of Colombia's "post-conflict" era, albeit in its worst case scenario. As InSight Crime has long documented, it is likely that similar turf wars and FARC desertions will continue to break out in criminal hotspots across Colombia as a byproduct of the peace process; Chocó and the Eastern Plains are especially vulnerable examples.