Colombia shifts drug war strategy away from coca eradication | Drug News

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Bogotá, Colombia – After pledging to overhaul Colombia’s drug policy, President Gustavo Petro’s administration announced plans this month to scale back forced eradication efforts that, for decades, have been a of the country’s main strategies to ban coca, the raw ingredient in cocaine.

Illegal coca farming is big business in Colombia. The country is the largest producer of cocaine in the world, and recently the cultivation of the coca plant has exceeded the highest levels, with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) a ‘ estimated that 204,000 hectares (504,095 acres) were dedicated to production in 2021.

In an effort to combat drug trafficking, Colombia has historically sent in security forces to uproot coca crops and remove them by hand. But Petro’s leftist administration has promised to shift tactics, moving away from policies that disadvantage subsistence farmers and vowing instead to go after drug-trafficking leaders.

On January 10, Colombia’s National Police announced a 60 percent reduction in their eradication targets for 2023, saying they will only destroy 20,000 hectares (49,421 acres) of coca crops. That’s down from last year’s target of 50,000 hectares (123,553 acres), although only 44,000 hectares (108,726 acres) were eventually cleared after coca farmers protested.

The government is expected to announce military eradication targets, also responsible for the removal of coca crops, at a later date.

The reduction goals are the latest policy change in the administration’s ongoing effort to end the decades-long War on Drugs, a U.S.-led campaign led by Petro, a former rebel fighter. , has been criticizing. His administration has instead announced plans to offer economic alternatives to coca farmers.

“We are going to give oxygen to certain activities and suppress others: oxygen to the weakest links in the chains, to the coca farmers, and asphyxia to traffickers, to the money launderers and mafias ,” said Minister of Justice Nestor Osuna. in December.

But as Petro tests a new anti-narcotics strategy, the president will face pressure, both domestically and internationally, to reel in the expanding coca industry.

“Petro’s opinion is completely different,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a monitoring group in the Andes. “But especially, it’s his views on drugs that the upper classes in Colombia and the drug lords in the United States find absolutely disturbing. “

Petro’s predecessor, former President Ivan Duque, had favored eradication tactics, believing that targeting coca crops would reduce violence and weaken armed groups.

He tried unsuccessfully to restart aerial fumigations with glyphosate, a strategy banned by the government in 2015 when the World Health Organization declared the herbicide a possible carcinogen to be there

Duque also expanded eradication on the ground, destroying a record 130,000 hectares (321,237 acres) in 2020 through police and military operations.

“I don’t think there has ever been more effort in forced eradication than in the Duque administration, and it still hasn’t been effective,” said Maria Alejandra Velez, director of the Center for Security and Drug Studies at the University of the Andes. . . “There is hard evidence that eradication is not the solution.”

Petro has chosen another approach that comes from the idea that Colombia’s drug problem is fueled by inequality. He has avoided aerial fumigations and promised to eliminate the targeting of so-called “industrial areas”.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, the Ministry of Justice in Colombia described areas such as large coca farms, where there is no residential home and crops other than coca. Their size far exceeds that of a stable family farm, known as a family agricultural unit.

“These are not small coca farms,” ​​said Sonia Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice. “It is in these areas that we are proven to eradicate.”

Increasing coca production remains a common concern for the US and Colombia. Experts believe that the unprecedented growth in coca farms is the result of factors including an increase in global demand for cocaine and changes in Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict.

Another factor that has been in the distribution of rocks is a plan to offer subsidies and economic options to coca farmers who voluntarily pull up their crops. The program was originally developed as part of the historic 2016 peace deal between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – the country’s largest armed group at the time – and the government.

But the subsidies to launch long-term businesses did not succeed, causing a crisis among farmers who could no longer grow coca or make money for a new venture. The UNODC said that by 2020, around 100,000 coca farming families had voluntarily eradicated their crops.

Petro has promised to deliver the promised subsidies and bring more families into the program, complementing it with investments in agricultural reform, rural infrastructure and development.

Some parts of the program will also be redesigned with the support of coca growers. The first convention of coca growers gathered in December in Norte de Santander, a region on the Venezuelan border that has the second largest coca production area in the country. About 8,000 people from across the region submitted proposals for the conference.

The government has already accepted one of the proposals – to allow coca farmers to keep their crops until their other businesses are economically sustainable. In the past, farmers had to get rid of their coca crops before they received a subsidy.

“I will tell the officials to create a program in which the farmer can grow coca while planting another crop so that substitute crop will work. If it works, the other one won’t be needed,” Petro told a stadium full of farmers in December.

But farmers have also called for an end to forced clearing operations, which they say have destroyed their livelihoods, uprooted families, increased deforestation, and fueled violent conflicts between farmers and security forces.

In response to the goal of the new removal of the police, Juan Carlos Quintero, director of the Catatumbo Peasant Farmers Association, said that any attempt to forcefully remove crops “creates violence and mistrust”. He said the use of force should be considered a last resort.

The US State Department has also pushed back against the reduction in elimination targets but for different reasons. In a statement, they said it is “fundamental to make full use of the tools available to reduce coca cultivation”, including the elimination of forced crops.

Petro had to walk a fine line between attacking Washington and keeping his promises to reform Colombia’s drug policies. The US is Colombia’s most important ally and the largest donor to Colombia’s peace deal.

Garzoli-Sánchez, Andes adviser at the Washington Office on Latin America, pointed out that Petro’s policies seem to align with Washington’s priorities, at least on paper.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has called for a “holistic” approach to combating drug trafficking, with an emphasis on rural development, security and the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement. However, Garzoli-Sánchez said, divisions remain. within the US State Department and Congress that support the use of military force.

“It’s the problem [Biden’s] policy on Colombia is still not the main point of view in Washington among anti-narcotics people,” said Garzoli-Sánchez.

A wooden house on stilts stands next to a coca field in Colombia.
A house stands next to a coca farm in the coastal city of Tumaco, in Colombia’s southwestern region, on July 20, 2022 [File: Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

Professor Velez from the University of the Andes said that the move away from crop eradication means that the success of Petro’s anti-narcotics efforts now depends on other measures, and there is little detail about them.

In October, President Petro said Colombia and the US were working together to prevent narcotics trafficking by air and sea and to boost their intelligence capabilities.

But Petro’s success will also depend on securing contracts with coca growers to limit the expansion of their crop, Velez said.

Quintero, the president of the farmers’ association, said he believed an agreement could be reached, one that would empower local leaders to oversee farms with the support of the government and the international community.

“He doesn’t have to be in the army because the army is not trusted,” Quintero said. “Who better to do this than the farming groups who have the power of the communities?”

A close-up of a coca leaf.
Coca production has grown to record levels in Colombia, according to a report from the United Nations in 2022 [File: Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]
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