Colombia’s Coca Boom

Behind the Failure to Eradicate the Crop

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

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