Colombia justifies why no coca was eradicated in January

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in Taraza , ColombiaTuesday, June,17, 2008. (AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez)

Colombia ground to a halt during the month of January in its decades-long efforts to manually eradicate coca. According to the country’s Ministry of Defense, not one hectare of the illegal cash crop was eradicated, despite an estimated 220,000 hectares of coca growing in Colombia.

In comparison to the same month in 2022 – during the presidency of Iván Duque – Colombia’s National Police manually eradicated 2,419 hectares. The comparison is even more dramatic taking into account, that between August and December, 23,596 hectares were destroyed, and part of the previous administration’s annual target.

Colombia’s National Police Chief, General Henry Sanabria, explained the reason why the Anti-Narcotics division could not eradicate one hectare citing contractual delays in sending qualified personnel to remote regions. According to Sanabria, in February, his specialized division has so far manually eradicated 420 hectares of coca.

But Colombia’s anti-drugs policy is shifting toward decriminalizing the coca harvest and the many small-scale farmers who grow the main crop used in cocaine production. President Petro had suggested last year that the national government should create a program that would permit coca farmers to plant legal alternative crops alongside coca, until they grow and become profitable for communities.

Petro’s drug-transition scheme was included in the National Development Plan, and is also a cornerstone of his “total peace” agenda.

To pave the way for “total peace” Petro ordered five criminal organizations financed by narcotics trafficking, including the Marxist National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla, to adhere to a bilateral ceasefire. Four groups, including the powerful drugs-financed Gulf Clan, accepted the ultimatum, except ELN, currently holding peace talks in Mexico with the government.

Petro’s promises of political immunity, reduced sentences, and no-extradition of cartel bosses who commit to the all-encompassing policy, is viewed by the opposition as a way of erasing decades of Colombia’s key role in the U.S-led War on Drugs. Critics also point out that “total peace” will not end a host of criminal activities associated with the coca harvest, among them deforestation.

Opposition leaders base their arguments on the fact that after FARC demobilized under the 2016 Peace Accord, coca production soared, as did attacks against human rights defenders and vulnerable civilian populations. According to the NGO Earth.org land clearance for coca cultivation also increased significantly after 2016, with over 171,000 hectares of forest loss.

More than half of deforestation occurs in Colombia’s Amazon basin.

In a move to halt deforestation to the coca harvest, President Petro requested Congress grant him “super powers” to modify the country’s drug policy. These so-called “super powers” would permit the government to buy directly the coca leaf from subsistence farmers, and thereby guarantee a state income. By offering subsistence farmers regular cash payments, President Petro believes he can “industrialize the illicit harvest” and create legal coca byproducts.

“Our purpose is to stop applying the criminal prosecution apparatus to poor peasant farmers who grow coca and start the criminal prosecution where the big numbers are: cocaine and exports. Money laundering in the hypermillion-dollar figures,” affirmed Minister of Justice Néstor Osuna. “Farmers must be given alternatives: different crops, a different activity, and possibly different land from the one they have traditionally settled,” he said.

It remains to be seen how Washington will react with Petro’s sudden shift in drugs policy, and the future U.S certification of the country in reaching manual eradication targets in 2023.