Colombia seized 671 tons of cocaine in 2022, worth over $16 billion at US wholesale prices. The haul for 2023 may yet be higher due to likely record levels of production, providing the government with a huge challenge as it seeks to negotiate with the country's criminal groups.
The Colombian Ministry of Defense made the announcement of the record seizures, another ton and a half over the 2021 total.
"The security forces use intelligence and increase seizures and interdiction to achieve great results in terms of destruction of substances such as cocaine, marijuana, solid and liquid inputs, among others," said Iván Velásquez, Colombia's Defense Minister.
The departments of Nariño and Valle del Cauca, on Colombia's Pacific coast, saw the greatest concentration of seizures with 80 and 43 tons respectively. Bolívar, in the north of the country, in which sits the port of Cartagena, saw 48 tons seized. Other departments with well-established trafficking routes also registered large seizures: Norte de Santander with 30 tons, Guajira with 23, and Chocó with 20 tons, according to official figures.
The seizures come after the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) Integrated Illicit Crop Management System reported in October last year historic figures for coca plantations and potential cocaine production for 2021, following three consecutive years of decline. The UNODC report estimated a 43% increase in the area of coca plantations and a 14% increase in cocaine production for 2021.
These announcements come as President Gustavo Petro, who took office in August last year, launches his ambitious "Total Peace" project, aiming to sign peace and demobilization agreements with the last Marxist rebel army in the field, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) and a raft of criminal groups involved in the drug trade.
InSight Crime Analysis
Seizures in 2023 are likely to follow the same pattern as in previous years. They will increase not only due to increased cocaine production but also due to the government's anti-drug strategy, which prioritizes crop substitution and not eradication. This will increase cocaine production in the short term, as substitution policies can take years to come to fruition.
With historic production and markets with high demand worldwide, Colombian cocaine continues to feed the armed groups and the civil conflict, the same groups that today seek to participate in the "Total Peace."
Originally organized as a leftist guerrilla group that would later become involved in drug trafficking, the ELN has in recent years taken advantage of the Colombia-Venezuela border to move and protect cocaine shipments leaving by air and sea routes from Venezuelan soil. InSight Crime estimates suggest that around 250 tons of cocaine pass across the border each year.
With a strong presence in the Catatumbo area of Norte de Santander and northern Colombia, in La Guajira, the ELN regulates a large part of the drug trade. According to Ministry of Defense figures, more than 55 tons were seized in these departments in 2022.
The ELN’s presence also extends to Chocó, in western Colombia, as well as Nariño, in the southwest of the country, both major cocaine production areas. While in Nariño seizures are the highest in the country (80 tons), the ELN coexists with the various dissidents of the now-defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), known as the ex-FARC mafia. In the case of Chocó, the ELN's dispute is much fiercer with the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), also known as the Gulf Clan or the Urabeños.
Twenty tons of cocaine were seized in Chocó. Along the Panamanian border, an area that has been the scene of fierce confrontations between the ELN and the AGC over the region's diverse criminal economies. A faction of the AGC is trying to wrest control of the north of the area and its connections with Panama, according to a report by El Tiempo.
With Urabá as its stronghold, the group is the country's largest drug trafficking army, and following the extradition of its leader and last great old-school capo, Otoniel, it appears to be atomizing. In addition to Chocó, its fronts also dispute a percentage of the drug trade in northern Colombia, in the department of Bolivar, where authorities achieved the second-highest seizure figure of 2022 (48 tons).
For their part, the ex-FARC mafia factions have a presence along Colombia's Pacific region and involvement in the drug trade, marijuana as well as cocaine. Although they have suffered losses in recent years, and often fight each other, they still get their share of the criminal spoils.
Petro's administration does not yet have any formal agreements with the armed groups in the country with which it is discussing "Total Peace." But it has made a clear distinction between groups that are able to negotiate and those that will have to accept strict judicial consequences.
Groups that are considered to be political can enter formal negotiations. The only group which, until now, has been said to qualify for this status is the ELN. Groups associated with drug trafficking would enter a different category, where they would have to accept some form of judicial punishment for their crimes.
For one analyst consulted by InSight Crime, who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons, although many ELN factions have political motives, several may be involved in drug trafficking.
Therefore, for the ex-FARC mafia, the analyst said, the situation may be more complicated. Should its factions "recognize" their participation in drug trafficking, there is a possibility the government would include them, alongside the ELN, in the political negotiation category.
For Luis Celis, a researcher and conflict analyst, the government has already made clear differentiations on how to conduct talks with the different actors. "It is a simultaneous action on several fronts, but each front has its complexities," Celis told InSight Crime.
He emphasized that the challenge of Total Peace lay in effectively controlling territory to precisely disrupt drug trafficking. "The bet of the Total Peace policy is to control territory. The question is how much territory can be democratically controlled," Celis explained.
As InSight Crime predicted in its GameChangers 2022 series, Colombia's coca bonanza will gather pace during 2023. With billions of dollars at stake, will the country's drug trafficking organizations really be able to give it all up and leave the business forever?