Colombia has reached its highest-ever levels of coca production and potential cocaine production according to a new UN report, which pointed to the profitability of coca crops and greater agricultural efficiency as being partially responsible.
In 2021, coca cultivation increased by 43% and potential cocaine production by 14%, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) Integrated Illicit Crop Monitoring System (SIMCI) report, presented on October 20.
Coca cultivation reached 204,000 hectares in 2021 from 143,000 hectares in 2020, reversing the downward trend seen during the previous three years. Potential cocaine production, meanwhile, continued its recent upward trend to reach 1,400 tons in 2021 against 1,228 tons in 2020.
Almost two-thirds of coca crops were found in the departments of Nariño, Norte de Santander, and Putumayo.
UNODC director for the Andean Region and Southern Cone, Candice Welsch, explained that the historic increase was primarily driven by more productive coca fields and improved cocaine production techniques. Economic uncertainty in cultivation zones and heightened international demand for cocaine also helped cultivation flourish.
The findings arrive as the government of President Gustavo Petro attempts to establish a drugs policy based on the 2016 Peace Accords, signed by the now-disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).
Here, InSight Crime reviews the most striking takeaways from the UNODC report.
Coca Cultivation Brings Economic Bonanza
The report found that residents of coca cultivation zones implicitly accept drug trafficking groups due to the economic stability brought by cocaine production, said Leonardo Correa, coordinator of SIMCI. Cultivation then grows further.
"The [economic] ’security' provided by the IAGs [Illegal Armed Groups] facilitates the negotiation of large volumes of cocaine," the report noted.
Increased investment into cultivation and production has been reflected in the growth of licit commercial activities like entertainment, specialized services, and the buying and selling of cars in local areas.
Eradication efforts would therefore have a notable impact on the livelihoods of these communities, the report found.
"There is an economy that will be affected if coca disappears," Correa explained.
The official also remarked on the spread of coca cultivation and cocaine production outside of the traditional enclaves. While coca cultivation grew by 32% in traditional cultivation enclaves, it also grew by 33% in the immediate 12 square kilometers surrounding those core areas, as well as 10% in other areas. This was due to a lack of intervention from authorities, socioeconomic changes brought about by the pandemic, and the position of criminal groups. If this continues, these areas are expected to increase in the next two years.
"We are losing the fight inside [the enclaves] and outside," Correa concluded.
Improved Processes and Networks
The report found that armed groups are using more and higher-quality agricultural products during the cultivation process, enabling them to obtain enhanced alkaloid yields from the coca leaf and leading to improved extraction efficiency.
"The use of agricultural products is better and more efficient," said Correa. He added that coca fields found in the most consolidated cultivation zones in 2021 were at their most productive ages and were 2.4 times more productive than those outside of the zones.
Added to this is the fact that 12 of the country's 14 productive enclaves are located in border areas or have maritime access, facilitating the movement of coca or cocaine for drug trafficking. This also explains the entrenched nature of cultivation and the improved cocaine production techniques in these areas.
According to Correa, these "are the drug trafficking sites where they want to keep the coca.”
Both Correa and Welsch pointed out that these results were also contrasted with the high expectations of the peace agreement signed by the government and the FARC in 2016.
During the presentation, Colombia's Justice Minister Néstor Osuna explained that the government sees the Accords as a "road map" and that it wishes to implement the crop substitution policy included in this agreement.
He acknowledged that residents in coca-production zones continue to experience a high level of poverty, which has allowed coca cultivation to flourish.
Osuna said that the previous government's policies were "unsuccessful" and that the new administration would transition coca cultivation to a legal economy. However, cocaine would not be legalized, he said.
"To seek an alternative for coca growers and cultivators that allows them to live better ... to continue with coca cultivation in order to create an industry with the licit uses of coca leaf that already exist ... It is not about eradicating the plant, it is about having a secure economy," he said.