Anti-drug authorities in Colombia announced they will increasingly focus on locating and destroying drug laboratories while placing less emphasis on coca crop eradication figures, raising questions about whether such a strategy can yield intended results.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, with the support of his post-conflict and defense ministers, is re-conceptualizing the measurement of "success" of anti-drug efforts, shifting emphasis from the number of hectares of coca crops eradicated to the number of cocaine laboratories destroyed, reported El Tiempo.
Authorities estimate there are some 700 large laboratories throughout the country, known as "cristalizaderos" in Spanish, where cocaine production is concentrated. The laboratories are considered intermediary points between rural coca farmers and large narcotics trafficking operations.
The strategy shift is being billed as a way to cut into drug traffickers' profits by attacking cocaine production further along its value chain when it is being converted from raw coca leaf into much more valuable cocaine base.
While the government will not completely abandon crop eradication efforts, authorities told El Tiempo the move was in part a response to the challenges of manual eradication, including crops protected by land mines and community blockades.
"Hitting cultivators generates major problems for the state in terms of legitimacy. Rural farmers end up seeing the state as an aggressor and ultimately align with the guerrillas or criminal band that have the crops," one unnamed expert told El Tiempo.
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By most conventional measures the Colombian government is losing its battle against illicit coca cultivation. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Colombia saw a more than 40 percent increase in coca crop production between 2013 and 2014, a trend US authorities expect to continue. This is partly due to Colombia halting aerial eradication efforts in May 2015 in response to public health concerns -- something manual eradication efforts have struggled to compensate for given the laborious task of uprooting coca crops by hand and the dangers involved for eradicators.
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However, a shift to targeting laboratories may not prove the silver bullet authorities are hoping for in tackling drug structures. For one, drug networks typically have sufficient financial capital to absorb the loss of any one lab. Moreover, any decrease in Colombia's local cocaine production capacity is likely to be absorbed by producers in neighboring countries. Indeed, cocaine laboratories have previously been discovered in Argentina, Bolivia, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela.
The mobile nature of the makeshift laboratories will also pose challenges for authorities. Laboratories are generally sealed during any given production cycle (lasting up to two weeks) meaning no one enters or leaves the lab, after which point workers disband and the laboratory is generally moved, making it very hard to track and locate.
The new laboratory-focused strategy comes as President Santos returns from the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem in New York, where he joined several other Latin American heads of state in calling for a more humane re-visioning of drug policy.