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March of the white powder

A cocaine boom could derail Colombia's peace process

A cocaine boom could derail Colombia’s peace process

After over two hundred thousand deaths, five million displacements, and countless war crimes on all sides, Colombia’s 52-year war with the Marxist guerrillas of the FARC has finally ended. In Nov. 2016, the government and the FARC signed a final peace agreement and thousands of guerrillas have started to disarm, emerging from the jungles and mountains to rejoin society.

However, despite receiving over $10 billion in US anti-narcotics aid to wipe out the drug trade that paid for this war, Colombia is currently producing more cocaine than ever before. Hectare after hectare of bright green coca bushes have sprung up around the country, and hundreds of tons of the white powder they produce are pouring out of Colombia in speedboats, cargo ships and homemade submarines.

Early hopes

In an old news report from August 2000, President Bill Clinton, dressed for the Caribbean heat in a baggy short-sleeved shirt, stands in front of a Colombian flag by the stone walls of of Cartagena. He is flanked by Andres Pastrana, the former Colombian president whose reputation would soon be shredded by the violent collapse of the peace process he had initiated with the FARC.

That day, Clinton told the assembled journalists that the U.S. had pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to target the drug trade that finances Colombia’s conflict with the FARC and other armed groups,

“The civil conflict and the drug trade go hand in hand to cause great misery for the people of Colombia,” he intones. “Our program is anti-drugs and pro-peace.”

Defying Clinton’s hopes, Colombia has managed to make peace while the cocaine trade booms. But the government’s ability to turn the 2016 peace accords struck in Havana into a reality could now hinge on Colombia’s capacity to reign in the coca trade.

“As long as there is a coca plant, someone is going to buy the leaves, someone is going to process it into cocaine and that someone will be part of an armed group or a mafia,” Post-Conflict Minister Rafael Pardo told the United Nations commission on narcotic drugs in March. “Both the Colombian government and the FARC understand that while this extent of coca crops exists, peace is not going to be sustainable.”

A former coca-leaf picker (raspachin) demonstrates his harvesting technique. Like other seasonal harvesting work, raspachines are paid for the number of sacks they can fill per day. Credit - Camilo Mejia.

A huge increase

Figures released in March estimate that in 2016 there were 188,000 hectares of coca in Colombia – used to produce 710 tons of cocaine. The cocaine production figure represents a 238% increase from 2012 – the year peace talks with the FARC began.

According to a recent report by the Washington office on Latin America (WOLA), Colombia’s coca boom is a result of the convergence of several factors.

Macroeconomic conditions have made coca more profitable at a time when eradication efforts have been shackled by guerrilla landmines and snipers, community protests and the suspension of aerial fumigations after the chemical used was declared carcinogenic. Meanwhile, the promises in the peace agreement of incentives for farmers that substitute their coca for other crops has led to farmers planting as much as they can in order to later extract as many benefits as they can in exchange for ripping it up.

“There isn’t one overarching reason, but boy put those together and you get a perfect storm,” Adam Isacson, WOLA’s senior associate for regional security policy, told VICE News.

Coca farmers in the remote Amazonian plains of Putumayo, on the Colombia-Ecuador border, transport the necessary ingredients to produce coca paste — the raw extract from the coca leaf. Credit - Camilo Mejia.

While the peace process likely played a part in the coca boom, it has also offered the Colombian government an unprecedented opportunity to attack the trade, since around 70 percent of Colombia’s coca crop is in territories that until recently were controlled by the FARC.

The guerrillas’ departure leaves a hole in the coca trade at the same time as granting the state access to these long abandoned regions.

Winning over the farmers

According to the terms of the peace agreement, the state should militarily secure coca growing areas while introducing state services and economic development. The coca farmers, meanwhile, will be offered a choice; a voluntary eradication and crop substitution program or the security forces ripping up their crops. It will be, according to Minister Pardo, “the final battle against coca crops.”

But so far, the state shows little sign of winning that battle. The government has launched several pilot substitution schemes in coca hotspots, but what little progress has been made has been undermined by protests and strikes that erupted after the army began ripping up plants in communities that had signed up to the program.

“This is causing a lot of uncertainty among the farmers and creating a lot of distrust because the government is operating with double standards,” said Arnovi Zapata, a peasant farmers leader and part of the newly established national coca, marijuana and poppy growers network (COCCAM) told VICE News. “Instead of generating peace this is going to generate more violence because we’re going to see direct confrontations between the farmers and the security forces.”

A jornalero, or day laborer, mixes liquid extracted from the coca leaf that has been sitting for hours in a bath of diesel. Credit - Camilo Mejia.

While the government stumbles, armed groups and mafias have moved quickly to position themselves at the forefront of the new Colombian underworld taking shape. Smaller guerrilla group the national liberation army (ELN), the paramilitary mafia the gaitanist self-defense forces (AGC) and rogue FARC units are already moving on these territories – and on each other.

While some coca farmers report these groups have arrived offering money to ignore the accords and keep planting coca, others have reported heavily armed men marching into town and announcing they are taking over the business, along with threats and assassinations of community leaders, and turf wars between a multitude of armed actors.

“[These groups] are already taking over the business that the FARC is leaving behind,” Leon Valencia, director of conflict watchdog the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, told VICE News. “Organized crime always moves more quickly than the state, it is always more agile when it comes to making decisions and taking territory.”

Big promises

Ahead of the release of the latest damning cocaine trade figures, Colombia announced its coca strategy for 2017. The state will eradicate 100,000 hectares of coca, half through forced eradication and half through the voluntary program. The ambitious objective is a 400 percent increase on the 2016 target – a goal it fell short of by 12 percent.

The army, meanwhile, has promised to deploy 80,000 soldiers to secure ex-FARC territories from guerrillas, paramilitaries and whoever else wants a share of the coca bonanza.

This small-scale coca leaf processing lab, one of many dotting the jungles of Putumayo, is family run and employs a number of young men from nearby communities during harvest time. Credit - Camilo Mejia.

While these pledges are high in ambition, they fall short on implementation. And grand promises that never materialize are all too familiar in Colombia.

“[The government is] great at making a big PowerPoint presentation and selling it to the world,” says Iscacson. “But once the party is over and they have to actually get to work, that never seems to happen.”

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the war in Colombia. But unless his government actually delivers on its pledges to tackle the coca trade, then his legacy could not only be the end of the FARC’s insurgency, but also the start of Colombia’s next generation of cocaine fuelled conflicts.

Cover: ASSOCIATED PRESS

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