Latin American illicit drug business

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Colombia hopes for cocaine anti-narcotics win

On 12 August, Colombian President Gustavo Petro shared some of his thinking on his country’s evolving anti-drug policies on X (formerly Twitter). He argued that market geography and cocaine smuggling routes are beginning to change as a result of the rise of fentanyl consumption in the United Sates. In the past, he said, the geography of coca cultivation and the location of cocaine laboratories was primarily defined by patterns of US demand. As a result, the main drug-trafficking routes lay to the north of his country, leaving Colombia either through the Pacific or the Caribbean. The president said these were now “progressively changing” and up to a point swinging around to the south. The cartels, he claimed, “are abandoning the coastal areas and instead penetrating the eastern slopes of the Andes and into the Amazon”.

As result, Colombia’s main coca cultivation areas were no longer to be found in Tumaco (on the Pacific coast of Nariño department) or in Catatumbo (near the frontier with Venezuela). Instead, Petro asserted, “the world’s top cocaine production area is now located in a 10km strip of land on the Colombian side of the Colombia-Ecuador border”. Cocaine produced there is shipped southward through the river network. Some goes through Brazil as a gateway to Europe and Africa, and some goes to Ecuador and Peru, seen as gateways to reach central Asia, Japan, and Australia.     

Petro went on to argue that the shift in supply routes had been a major factor in the dramatic spread of violence in formerly peaceful Ecuador, where Mexican and other top international cartels are fighting a proxy war for control of territory. This was the background to the August assassination of the Ecuadorean anti-crime presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio. The Colombian president said the “shift to the south” might see Paraguayan and Uruguayan criminal groups fighting to secure control of cocaine production in Bolivia. For him, a related and major driver of change is the sharp drop in global cocaine prices.

Crucially, Petro suggested the “shift to the south” might be beneficial to Colombia in the long term. As he put it, “Colombia, a country that lacks the manufacturing capacity to produce fentanyl, might escape from this narco-trafficking geography: that escape, for us, would mean peace”. However, the recent fall in cocaine prices does not simply reflect demand-side factors, such as the rise of fentanyl. Colombia is the world’s dominant cocaine producer, accounting for about 60% of global supply. In Cauca, in Colombia’s southwest, the price of a bushel of coca leaves (12.5kg) has nearly halved, from 70,000 pesos (US$17.30) to 38,000 pesos (US$9.40) in the year to August 2023. Similar drops have been seen in Nariño, Cauca, and Catatumbo. Various factors explain the price drop. In broad terms supply has gone up, both in Colombia and in neighbouring countries like Peru and Bolivia while international demand remains broadly stable.

Coca cultivation in the Andes, 1987-2021 (U.S. government estimate)

Source: WOLA

In Colombia the coca cultivation area has expanded sharply (up by 43% in 2021 to 204,000 hectares). Partly because of the change of administration last year government eradication efforts have been paused. Coca cultivation and laboratory processing has meanwhile become more efficient. The UN estimates that cocaine hydrochloride yield has increased from 6.5kg to 7.9kg per cultivated hectare over the last four years. A further factor may be the fragmentation of criminal cartels which has led to more competition between them and increased supply. Ana María Rueda of lobby group Fundación Ideas para la Paz told The Economist: “Now there are more than 500 criminal groups across the country. Gangs who buy cocaine wholesale can pick and choose which regions they purchase it from and drive prices down locally.”

There are also suggestions that the crop eradication policies of Petro’s predecessors may have been counterproductive. Poor families were paid to switch away from coca leaf production, but in some cases they appear to have responded by actually planting more coca bushes, so as to be able to claim more of the subsidy for substituting them. The Petro administration has in any case said it wants to focus its efforts more on cocaine interdiction than on coca leaf eradication.

What is clear, however, is that the cocaine market is going through a global ‘bust’ that is creating real hardship in some areas of Colombia. It is estimated, for example, that around 230,000 farming families depend on coca cultivation to earn a livelihood. The government has begun an emergency programme of cash payments in 181 municipalities to help.

The Petro government has taken some time to develop a detailed anti-narcotics policy, partly because it has been eager to do so in consultation with local communities in some of the areas most affected by drug trafficking and violence. At the end of August – when the new government had been in office for a year - Camilo Umaña Hernández, Deputy Minister for Criminal Policy and Restorative Justice, outlined some of the key points of a draft 10-year drugs policy covering 2023-2033, which he said included inputs from 2,700 social leaders and 274 “national organisations”.

The deputy minister said the overall policy had three major priorities. One, to break up the large criminal cartels; two, to encourage economic alternatives for community development; and, three, to promote protection of the environment. Speaking at a community meeting in Puerto Asís, Putumayo department (on the border with Ecuador), Hernández said the aim was for government intervention in areas of conflict to come in two forms, to be known as “suffocation” and “oxygen”.

“Suffocation” measures would be designed to reduce the influence and organisational capacity of criminal organisations responsible for drug trafficking and human rights violations. Under this heading the deputy minister said the objective was “to break up these organisations and create conditions for peace and security in the communities”. Under the “Oxygen” heading, on the other hand, the aim was to transform communities through the promotion of alternative and legal economic activities. This would involve presenting the communities with development options, creating a climate of co-existence, safety, and respect for human rights.

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