A farmer cleans a coca crop in Cauca, Colombia, January 27, 2017.
Jaime Saldarriaga / Reuters

Over the last seven years, the government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has worked strenuously to dissociate the country from its image as a cocaine exporter. In 2016, Santos struck a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the guerrilla group that for years stood watch over coca farms and had become the wholesaler and arbiter of the cocaine trafficking business. Santos had hoped that the deal would not only end decades of fighting, but also paralyze the drug trade and starve other criminal groups of revenue. And yet Colombia’s cocaine production is booming. Last year, it produced its largest coca crop in nearly two decades.

Washington has looked on disapprovingly. “More coca, more cocaine, more cocaine, more security problems,” Kevin Whitaker, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, told El Tiempo, just days after the White House threatened in mid-September to decertify the country as a partner on the war against drugs. The last time that Colombia suffered such ignominy was in the 1990s, when President Ernesto Samper was accused of having received slush money from the Cali cartel, which was then the country’s biggest exporter of cocaine.

President Álvaro Uribe, a dominant figure in the Colombian opposition, said in April that the coca glut was triggered by the government’s desire to “please the terrorist FARC.” But independent experts argue that a number of factors spurred the surge in production: increased demand in the United States; the fall in the price of gold (which is illegally mined by criminal groups across Colombia); and the government’s efforts to curb the forced eradication of coca and ban outright the aerial fumigation used to kill the illegal crop, to name a few. There is also a debate over what should be done to dam the flow. Whereas U.S. officials, Colombia’s attorney general, and much of the opposition press for a tougher line based on eradicating crops, Santos is holding out for a more incremental approach that draws on the cooperation of coca-growing communities, as laid out in the peace accord with FARC.

There is no disagreement, however, about the magnitude of the problem. According to the UN, close to 150,000 hectares of coca were under cultivation last year; U.S. estimates are even higher, at 188,000 hectares. That made 2016’s output the largest since 2001, the year the UN began monitoring Colombia’s coca acreage. That year, the country cultivated 144,807 hectares as it struggled under the burden of a then-failing peace process with the FARC and a war with a number of right-wing militias. The U.S.-funded Plan Colombia and the counterinsurgent offensives of the 2000s tried to defeat or disarm these guerilla groups, fortify the state, and staunch the production of cocaine. Although Colombia and the United States made progress on the first two counts, their counter-narcotic successes were ephemeral.

Even though coca is again growing thick and fast, its effects on Colombia are less conspicuous than they were in the past. Colombia’s murder rate is now at its lowest since the early 1970s. Kidnapping is a minor if menacing criminal pursuit. Above all, the former overlords of the coca farmers, the FARC, have gathered in camps, handed over their guns, and created a political party. Their old paramilitary foes demobilized over a decade ago, while those that remain in the trafficking business have asked whether they might be allowed to surrender to the courts.

This does not mean that the violence that has often accompanied the cultivation of coca crops and that the production of cocaine has been eradicated in Colombia. Instead of disappearing, it has relocated. Following the movement of the trafficking business as a whole, the violence has been driven down from the urban highlands to the country’s rim—to its coastal deltas, border outposts, and river-bank hamlets. This is the tactic that the FARC used to survive the onslaught of the state for decades, as the group’s late founder and long-term leader, Manuel Marulanda, once said, “If they throw us off the river bank, we cross to the other side,” he said. “If they throw us out of a region, we cross the river and the mountain, and look for another region.”

There are now 42,000 hectares of coca in Nariño, a state nestled in the country’s far southwest that borders Ecuador and provides easy access to the new drug trafficking superhighway of the Pacific Ocean. The rugged and lawless frontier with Venezuela provides another passageway. In Colombia’s eastern plains, along the Inírida river, cash is so scarce that coca paste is used to buy groceries: a gram is worth a little less than a dollar. In many of these poor, long-neglected communities, small but robust armed groups and a coterie of trafficking entrepreneurs with transnational links have come together to protect their trade.

Although the government prefers to attribute the coca surge to the power of the U.S. dollar or to Mexican and Brazilian criminals’ bids to buy up leaves in Colombia to process their own cocaine—both valid claims—there is also evidence that the authorities took their eyes off the coca surge at a crucial moment. In the last stages of the peace talks, the Santos administration relaxed its policy of forcefully eradicating the crop, which had been achieving some results. What’s more, Santos did so without simultaneously implementing a program that would allow farmers to voluntarily substitute their coca crops for legal ones. Such a program had been unveiled by peace negotiators in 2014. But for two years, the state neither uprooted the crop nor incentivized farmers to give it up, setting the stage for a coca boom in a hinterland that is often starved of other options.

Arguably, the final peace accord’s coca substitution program, which offers up to $12,000 over two years for households that agree to destroy their coca plants and venture into growing legal crops, may have also perversely aggravated coca production by encouraging farmers to swap their harvest for cash from the state. As a result, some farmers began growing coca in order to have something to exchange. But now that this program is at underway, it is making some inroads. By the end of September, some 25,000 families had signed up, with many already receiving payments; and some 10,000 hectares of coca could be replaced by other crops by the end of the year.

Still, under mounting pressure from Washington, the Santos government recently vowed to forcibly eradicate 50,000 hectares this year alone. The government has already eliminated around 40,000 hectares. Yet the risks of reigniting conflict by using force in Colombia’s coca-growing heartlands during its post-conflict transition are immense. In early October, seven coca growers in Nariño were killed in clashes sparked by a police-led eradication campaign against farmers who had initially wanted to sign up for the substitution program. The incident demonstrated how the government’s militarized eradication campaign is supplanting and undermining its more benign substitution efforts, with limited coordination between the two. The effect on coca growers’ nascent trust in the state has been destructive. Meanwhile, in Nariño, as in other coca territories, armed groups such as the guerrilla National Liberation Army, the neo-paramilitary Gulf Clan, and dissident FARC offshoots have rushed to wrest control over crops, trafficking routes, and other rackets in the wake of the peace accord. Their aim is to build local support by portraying themselves as the guardians of local livelihoods.

The spread of these groups and their clashes with defiant locals are the main causes of the violence and displacement that has plagued many of Colombia’s post-conflict territories. Government military intervention may appear righteous from Washington or Bogotá’s standpoint, but it will only make matters worse. There will always be someone willing to participate in the staggeringly profitable narcotics trade. Armed groups will deploy greater violence if they need to. They will also deepen their roots in disgruntled, peripheral communities. And the peace process will most likely flounder if security conditions decline in those areas. As one mother of four, a farmer from Guaviare in the country’s east, said to us, “If I don’t have enough to pay for their school, to give them food, what can I do? I will choose the path that I shouldn’t, and I will create more violence.”

Crop substitution has its flaws, but it seeks to change the incentives that propel farmers to produce coca. It is deserving of far greater international support—which it currently lacks, thanks to donors’ unwillingness to finance coca growers or build close links with the FARC, a group that the United States still classifies as a terrorist organization. Colombia should not commit the error of cracking down on coca through security measures alone. Experience has shown that harsh repression only succeeds in pushing armed groups into new territories. It rarely gets rid of them for good.

  • IVAN BRISCOE is Latin America & Caribbean Program Director at International Crisis Group, the independent conflict-prevention organization.
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