Despite President Santos’ promise to rid Colombia’s natural parks of coca crops, a news report argues that the country’s ecologically-rich protected areas remain safe havens for criminal groups looking to produce cocaine and develop other criminal economies.

A total of 17 out of Colombia’s 59 natural parks are home to illegal groups including the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the Urabeños and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), reported El Colombiano on February 25.

Julia Miranda Londoño, the director of Colombia’s National Natural Parks agency, insisted that only certain areas of the reserves were of concern. Still, a total of 5.6 million hectares could be under criminal influence, according to an official report accessed by El Colombiano.

In July 2017, after announcing that the government had successfully rid Colombia’s most extensive natural park, the Chiribiquete reserve, of its coca fields, President Juan Manuel Santos promised that all natural parks would be coca-free by the end of the year. By December 2017, authorities announced that 5,400 hectares of coca had been eradicated in these natural reserves during the course of the year — more than 10 percent of the national total that then stood at 50,100 hectares.

Courtesy of El Colombiano. See full-sized map here.

In addition to the problematic cultivation of coca crops in nine of the parks, the reserves also host an array of criminal economies that damage the areas’ ecological systems, including mining, logging, or the shipment of weapons and contraband gasoline. Colombia’s Minister for Environment, Housing and Territorial Development Luis Gilberto Murillo said that these illegal operations and government attempts at crop substitution were the motive for recent threats and attacks against “Guardabosques,” the country’s volunteer forest guards, in several parks.

InSight Crime Analysis

Colombia is not the only country in the region suffering from the criminal exploitation of its natural parks and reserves. These protected areas are often difficult to access, offering strategic cover for smuggling of all kinds, and are additionally attractive to traffickers when located along international borders, as are several of Colombia’s parks.

These areas also often overlap with indigenous reserves in the Andean nation, which can further complicate anti-narcotic and security efforts even as the issue of the park’s criminal exploitation has grown in importance on the government agenda due to increased coca growing activities.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

The number of coca hectares jumped by 27 percent in natural reserves between 2015 and 2016 to reach an all-time high of 7,900 hectares — most likely a low estimate — in 17 national parks, according to the latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) crop monitoring system in Colombia. This figure stands as 5 percent of the country’s record total of national coca hectares that year, but it also represents more than a third of Bolivia’s entire 2016 coca cultivation area, more than half of which was legally sown.

While government claims late last year that more than 5,000 hectares of coca were destroyed in natural reserves would suggest that the problem is nearly resolved, El Colombiano’s latest report serves as a reminder that the issue of coca crops — and criminal operations more broadly — in Colombia’s natural parks remains.

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