Colombia’s Radical New Approach to Cocaine

Colombia’s Radical New Approach to Cocaine

TUMACO, Colombia—Along a muddy, unpaved path, 42-year-old María Céspedes trekked in rubber boots toward her remote home in Tumaco, a municipality in southwestern Colombia. On each side of the path, coca—the plant used in cocaine production—extended for miles. “The truth is that coca employs a lot of people here,” said Céspedes, who has cultivated the plant for more than a decade. “It’s really the only livelihood available in these rural parts.”

There are more than 8,500 hectares (or 33 square miles) of coca planted throughout Tumaco, according to a 2021 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report. That makes Tumaco the second-biggest producer of coca in the country. In Céspedes’s community of 100 families, virtually everyone lives off the illegal coca economy—whether they’re involved in farming, harvesting, or selling the crop, which is trafficked northbound in the form of a thick white paste. Business continues to thrive even as Colombians risk arrest and jail time.

In late July, as Céspedes walked toward her home, she pointed at a thin track connecting the community to a main road. “That was paid for with coca,” she said. The same was true of a recently constructed soccer field and cultural center nearby as well as Céspedes’s own home.

“Everything I have I owe to coca,” Céspedes said.

María Céspedes stands in her coca farm.

María Céspedes stands in her coca farm.

María Céspedes, 42, stands next to the 2-hectare farm of coca that has sustained her family for the past decade in Tumaco on July 20.Christina Noriega for Foreign Policy

Almost 40 years after the U.S.-led war on drugs reached Colombia, the country remains the largest coca cultivator and cocaine producer in the world. In that time, Colombia has sought to curb the supply of drugs headed north, largely by criminalizing farmers at the lowest rungs of the supply chain. But even Plan Colombia—the $10 billion U.S.-backed strategy to crack down on drug trafficking and organized crime that ran from 2000 to 2015—failed to eradicate the industry. Meanwhile, Colombia is producing more coca and cocaine than ever before.

Now, Colombian President Gustavo Petro, the country’s first leftist president, is pursuing a new strategy. The newly inaugurated leader, who has called the war on drugs a “categorical failure” that has “left a million Latin Americans dead,” has advocated for alternatives to the country’s drug policies. “If we continue to repeat the same policy, the only thing that we will harvest is more failure,” Felipe Tascón, head of Petro’s transition team on drug policy, told Foreign Policy.

Petro plans to tackle the country’s drug problem at its root by investing in rural communities. Although his plan is still being developed, Petro seeks to center dialogue with farmers and help them substitute coca with legal crops. It’s an ambitious policy, but many coca farmers are hopeful that Petro will succeed in finally overhauling the country’s approach to drugs.

Céspedes and her granddaughter visit a new community center.

Céspedes and her granddaughter visit a new community center.

Céspedes and her granddaughter visit the new community center, built with income made from farming coca, in Tumaco on July 19.Christina Noriega for Foreign Policy

Coca is difficult to replace because it is lucrative. In many remote areas, Colombians see coca as the only commercially viable crop. As Tascón pointed out, coca is unique in its ability to provide employment for large numbers of people. Around 120,000 families grow coca in the country today, said María Alejandra Vélez, director of the Center for Studies on Security and Drugs at Bogotá’s University of the Andes. It only takes seven months to produce the first harvest, it can adapt to various altitudes and climates, and it yields three to four harvests a year.

By comparison, pineapple, another popular cash crop, is sensitive to cooler climates and takes 16 months until the first harvest. Coffee, a top export, can take up to four years and produces two harvests annually. Meanwhile, climate change is reducing the areas suitable for coffee farming, and in some cases, farmers have swapped out coffee for coca to adapt to harsher summers.

The government’s methods to eliminate coca, from criminalizing farmers to forced eradications, have fallen short. Notably, in the mid-1990s, as Colombia became the world’s top coca producer, the military began using aerial fumigations with the herbicide glyphosate to kill the crops. This intensified under Plan Colombia. More than 1.7 million hectares (or 6,600 square miles) of land were fumigated before the government halted this method in 2015 after the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic.”

But even glyphosate was ineffective in curbing cultivation. Fumigations succeeded mostly in moving production, not eliminating it. Coca found a footing in Tumaco and elsewhere in Nariño province by the early 2000s after fumigations displaced thousands of coca farmers from the neighboring province of Putumayo.

“These types of strategies don’t tackle the problem at its root,” Vélez said. “The question we should be asking is: Why are there [so many] families dedicated to farming coca? And that’s an issue that has to do with rural development and lack of opportunities.”

María Alicia Guanga attends a meeting for former coca farmers.

María Alicia Guanga attends a meeting for former coca farmers.

María Alicia Guanga, 49, attends a meeting for former coca farmers in Tumaco on July 18.Christina Noriega for Foreign Policy

In 2016, when a peace deal was signed between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group, and the Colombian state, about 216,000 families cultivated coca. A chapter of the agreement was dedicated to “solving the drug problem” since negotiators recognized that drug trafficking had fueled the bloodshed by financing armed groups on all sides of the conflict. The chapter outlined a plan for a substitution program that invested in rural development and supported legal businesses, such as coffee cultivation, for former coca farmers. Farmers who voluntarily removed their coca plants would receive subsidies in a two-step process—first to maintain their livelihoods in the short term and then later to start a new long-term business.

Almost 100,000 families signed up for the substitution program, including around 14,500 families in Tumaco. But some families, like Céspedes’s, were skeptical. Her entire community abstained from the program; years of forced eradications had taught them to be wary of the government.

They had a reason to be cautious. By 2020, the year the subsidies were designed to end, only 1 percent of Colombia’s coca-farming families that participated in the program received subsidies to start a new long-term business. Maria Alicia Guanga, a 49-year-old single mother of five children, cultivated coca for 14 years in a farming community in Tumaco before deciding to join the substitution program in 2017. She yanked the crops from her farm but never received the promised investment.

“We’ve been left to our own devices, and with the violence here, it’s been difficult,” said Guanga, a member of Asociacion Porvenir Campesina Asoporca in Tumaco, a coalition of more than 6,000 families who formerly grew coca.

In the wake of the peace deal, new and old illegal groups have taken the FARC’s place in the drug business. Clashes continue among armed groups as they vie for power. More than a dozen groups linked to drug trafficking now operate in Nariño province, according to local news reports, and sometimes, community leaders advocating for coca substitution are targeted. Between 2016 and 2020, 75 of them were murdered across Colombia, according to human rights group Somos Defensores.

Guanga, who lives amid this violence, was forced to find work in the city when her subsidy checks to help her get by in the short term arrived late. She landed a job in a hospital but said she makes only about 800,000 pesos (around $163 at the current exchange rate) every two months—about half of what she earned cultivating coca.

One study showed that throughout Tumaco, farmers who joined the substitution program saw their wages reduced by more than half. Some farmers have resorted once again to growing coca, even if it means risking expulsion from the substitution plan.

“Because the government failed to keep its promises, there are a lot of people here that have gone back to growing coca,” Guanga said. “People lost hope.”

A Colombian police officer hugs a dog.

A Colombian police officer hugs a dog.

A Colombian police officer hugs a dog during an operation to eradicate illicit crops in Tumaco on Dec. 30, 2020.JUAN BARRETO/AFP via Getty Images

Now, coca-growing families are looking to Petro, who has advocated for a radically different approach to government intervention. On the campaign trail, Petro promised to continue the ban on fumigations and reform the substitution program. His pledges to support rural families contributed to him winning 74 percent of the vote in Tumaco.

Since Petro’s election, drug policy reform has continued to be a key part of his platform. After using his inaugural address in August to advocate for a “new international convention that recognizes the war on drugs has failed,” Petro called on Latin America to end the war on drugs during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly the following month.

New legislation on drugs is likely to be introduced in a year, Tascón said, once administrative reforms are made that change how drugs are institutionally tackled. According to Tascón, these reforms include transferring the office of the future drug czar from the justice ministry to the presidency, which would reflect the administration’s view of drug policy as a human rights, rather than criminal justice, issue.

At the center of Petro’s drug policy will be a program to substitute coca with legal crops, building on lessons learned from the failures of the previous program. According to Tascón, Petro’s transition team, which included drug policy experts and coca-farming leaders, recommended a new program that would implement a gradual, rather than abrupt, eradication of coca. Such a provision was originally outlined in the peace deal but was later removed in the final agreement.

Petro has also said the substitution program enshrined in the peace deal will be “revived” and “fortified.” Details on the program are still unclear; it’s also not known where the funding will come from given that the peace deal’s substitution program was underfinanced.

“The objective became eradicating the plants when the original objective was to create development projects,” Tascón said. “The emphasis has to be on providing technical assistance [to farmers] and finding groundbreaking projects.”

Men pull coca plants out of the ground.

Men pull coca plants out of the ground.

Men pull coca plants out of the ground in Tumaco on Feb. 26, 2020.RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images

Petro’s transition team has thus identified profitable crops that could replace coca in various parts of the country, such as oyster mushrooms, açaí palm, essential oil crops, and medical marijuana. (The cultivation and export of medical marijuana has been legal since 2016, but the government has granted only a limited number of licenses.) Meanwhile, three bills have been introduced in Colombia’s Congress seeking to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana, which stand a good chance of passing now that the legislature is controlled by a pro-Petro majority.

The government has also recognized that the old substitution program was hindered by land-use problems. In some coca-growing areas, farmers have never owned the titles to their lands, which prevented them from participating in the program. While Petro has not directly addressed this issue, he has previously called for an agrarian reform that would allot lands to coca farmers.

Most radically, Petro has cracked open a debate about decriminalization. He has said that as long as cocaine is illegal, it will continue to finance organized crime in Colombia. While he has not openly proposed decriminalizing cocaine, he told the Washington Post in September of his plans to decriminalize the coca leaf but did not expand further.

Petro has also said his administration will target high-ranking traffickers over poor coca farmers. “We have to remove our focus on characterizing this as a criminal issue and instead emphasize the human rights of farming families,” Tascón said. 

Drug prohibition in Colombia has increasingly come under question by experts, including Colombia’s Truth Commission, created out of the 2016 peace deal, which concluded that the war on drugs had exacerbated the country’s armed conflict and recommended regulating the drug market.

Tascón, for one, predicts that cocaine will be legalized in the next 10 years. But any path toward cocaine legalization appears unlikely for now. Petro has acknowledged the limits in decriminalizing cocaine when international treaties criminalize the drug and the U.S. government staunchly opposes the move. “Cocaine is prohibited and not … even the president of the republic can say that it will be legalized because this depends on the centers of world power,” Petro said in September.

A farmer fumigates fields of coca in Colombia.

A farmer fumigates fields of coca in Colombia.

A farmer fumigates fields of coca in a remote community in Tumaco, Colombia, on July 20.Christina Noriega for Foreign Policy

Petro faces domestic pushback as well. In 2020, a bill proposing to legalize coca leaf and cocaine saw heavy criticism from conservative legislators. The bill has stalled for the last two years. In August, when asked whether the administration would legalize cocaine, Petro’s minister of justice, Néstor Osuna, said the move was off the table. “Cocaine will not be legalized in Colombia,” Osuna told local media outlet W Radio, adding that Colombia could regulate specific uses of the coca leaf and marijuana.

For Céspedes, whether change comes down to legally growing the crop or substituting it for a new one doesn’t seem to matter. She just hopes that the state will be genuinely present in her community for the first time—not through police intervention but by providing jobs and rural development.

“The only thing we and our community want … is guarantees that we will have a dignified life and alternative projects,” Céspedes said. “We hope that this government will be different.”

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