Motivations and Effects of Coca Cultivation in Colombia

by Michael Martelle. Michael is a masters student studying Security Policy at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.

For several decades Colombia has been synonymous with “cocaine” in the minds of citizens and policymakers around the globe, and not without reason as at its peak Colombia accounted for 90% of the world’s cocaine. Colombian security forces have made serious and increasingly effective efforts to limit the narcotics trade within their borders, although their efforts have been complicated (and distracted) by the nation’s long-running conflicts. Massive amounts of Colombian territory are under the control of right-wing paramilitary groups (such as the United Self-Defenders of Colombia and more recently the Aguilas Negras) benefiting from the experience of former cartel members, and marxist guerrilla groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and, until recently, FARC. A recent peace agreement between the Colombian Government and FARC has brought an end to Colombia’s fight with it’s largest guerrilla organization and has raised hope for significant progress in counter-narcotics and internal stabilization.

Progress will be difficult, however, unless a multitude of factors can be addressed. FARC may have been politically motivated, but many of the farmers doing the actual coca cultivation in rural regions are motivated by poor economic prospects. While FARC may be demobilizing, without economic development and legal market access these farmers will still be motivated to cultivate coca. Remaining narcotics related organizations (particularly paramilitary groups) will be eager to take advantage of the coca produced on land in former FARC territory. Many of these regions have already seen an increase in violence since the signing of the peace agreement as criminal organizations attempt to gain a foothold in former FARC territory before the government can establish a security presence and administrative services. Post-peace stability and counter-narcotics will require multi-dimensional strategies to address the causes and effects of coca cultivation and narcotics-related insurgency in Colombia.

History & Motivations for Large-Scale Coca Cultivation
The history of Colombia’s coca-cultivating insurgent groups suggest both economic and political motivations to violence and coca cultivation. Colombia’s political system has historically been shared between two political parties, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. When formed in the mid-19th century, The Liberal Party principally represented merchants advocating international trade. The Conservative Party, formed at the same time, represented wealthy landowners advocating a hierarchal society with a strong role for the Catholic Church. Both parties represented citizens from the mid to upper classes and left the lower classes, the bulk of the rural population, with third-party representation. After a series of Liberal Party reforms led to extreme polarization, political violence known as “La Violencia” broke out in 1946. In 1957, after a failed attempt at military rule, the two parties agreed to form the National Front and divide political positions while alternating the office of the President. This effectively excluded any other political parties leading Marxist factions to form the FARC and ELN guerrillas.

Colombia cocaine production: In this January 7, 2016, photo, a farmer stirs a mix of mulched coca leaves and cement with gasoline, as part of the initial process to make coca paste, at a small makeshift lab in Antioquia, Colombia. Apart from gasoline and cement, ammonia, sulphuric acid, sodium permanganate, and caustic soda are some of the chemicals used to produce the paste.

Colombia cocaine production: In this January 7, 2016, photo, a farmer stirs a mix of mulched coca leaves and cement with gasoline, as part of the initial process to make coca paste, at a small makeshift lab in Antioquia, Colombia. Apart from gasoline and cement, ammonia, sulphuric acid, sodium permanganate, and caustic soda are some of the chemicals used to produce the paste.

The largest of the leftist groups, FARC, first took root in rural “Campesion” territories where small-scale coca cultivation already existed. FARC was originally opposed to coca cultivation on ideological grounds as they believed farmers were being coerced by traffickers. The need for funding, and an acceptance of the fact that farmers were more able to support themselves with illicit cultivation, led FARC to begin “protecting” farmers and charging a farm tax, or “gramaje”, on product passing through FARC territory. Under this arrangement, and assisted by exploding global demand, both FARC and Colombian coca cultivation expanded rapidly. In an attempt to consolidate vertically and avoid FARC taxes, narco-traffickers began investing profits in establishing their own control over land , bringing them in direct conflict with FARC and forming the first Colombian Cartels. After peaking in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Cartels declined in the face of Colombian counter-narcotics campaigns. This led to the formation of new coca-related organizations, as former cartel members took their expertise to paramilitary organizations such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

FARC, by comparison, was both unwilling and unable to grow its coca operations vertically. FARC leaders felt that a more obvious and visible role in coca cultivation would undermine its reputation and discredit it politically among the Colombian people. Even if they had been willing, however, the organization did not have the same level of expertise in trafficking and distribution as the Cartels and later the paramilitaries. For this reason FARC was forced to form connections with small to medium sized criminal organizations for trafficking and distribution.

Although Colombian insurgent groups were born out of political ideology, the impact of commodity prices on insurgent activity suggest strong economic factors as well. While the effect of commodity prices on civil wars is well-documented, a pattern was recognized in Colombia of labor intensive agriculture (coffee, coca) and labor non-intensive natural resources (oil) having opposite effects on the level of violence. As oil prices rose and generated more funding for state security forces, violence increased as insurgent groups tried to disrupt sources of labor non-intensive revenue. Conversely, when the prices and wages for labor-intensive commodities rose fighters were more likely to work in the fields and less likely to take violent action.

Commodity prices have had an impact on crop choices as well. In the late 1990s, improved global coffee production led to a drop in coffee prices and triggered a recession in Colombia. Colombian farmers, already barely able to cover the basic costs of business, increasingly turned to the more profitable, more reliable, and easier to grow coca. These patterns suggests that insurgent motivations, and the motivation to participate in the narcotics trade, are heavily economic. These patterns, and the fact that coca cultivation is most intense in impoverished regions, support the argument that the primary motivation for narcotics cultivation today is economic and highlights the need for the development of Colombia’s rural regions to forestall insurgency and narcotics cultivation.

Current Trends in the International Coca Trade
The coca and cocaine trade has internationally been in a state of decline, though signs suggest it may be stabilizing with a short term increase. Global production in 2014 was estimated at between 746-943 tons of 100% pure cocaine, a slight annual increase but still roughly three quarters of the 2007 peak and 10% below the late 1990s.

Known South American coca-growing regions.

Known South American coca-growing regions.

Cultivation of raw coca went through a more dramatic decrease between 1998 and 2014, dropping more that 30% (40% if measured between 2000 and 2014). This decrease in cultivation without an equivalent decrease in final cocaine production is attributed to improvements in the processing of cocaine.

Most processed cocaine is trafficked either to North America or Western Europe via Africa. North America, the largest cocaine market in the world, has seen increased prices stemming from decreased global production and narcotics-related violence in Mexico, which an estimated 87% of the cocaine supply passes through. This may be contributing to a significant decrease in cocaine consumption. Between 2006 and 2014 general population cocaine use dropped 32% with a corresponding drop in cocaine-related fatalities.

It is more difficult to obtain definitive usage statistics on the European market and its plurality of nations and authorities, though other statistics, such as interdiction, can still yield valuable indicators. It is believed that the European cocaine market peaked briefly in 2007 when 120 tons of cocaine were seized in the continent, four times the 1998 amount. 2014 saw this number stabilize at 62 tons, of which 98% was accounted for by European Union nations. Despite stabilized continental statistics, several states have seen pronounced short-term changes as the market shifts from nation to nation.

There are also signs that the Asia-Pacific region is on its way to becoming a significant market for cocaine. From 1998-2008, average yearly cocaine seizures in Asia were 0.4 tons. The period between 2009-2014 saw that number triple to 1.4 tons. Oceania saw a similar rise in the same time period, from 0.5 tons to 1.2 tons. Australia, which accounts for 99% of Oceania seizures, saw a sharp increase in cocaine use from 2004 (1% of the general population) to 2010 (2.1% of the general population) without a subsequent decrease. Reports of Sinaloa Cartel presence in Australia, China, Malaysia, and the Philippines suggest that cocaine suppliers are making significant moves to establish themselves in the Asia-Pacific region.

Global production and consumption statistics present a paradox, however. Even though global prevalence of cocaine use from 1998-2014 remained largely stable, and the number of cocaine users increased due to overall population growth, cocaine production decreased. This suggests either significant errors in global data or a global decrease in per capita consumption, possibly indicative of a shift from dependent use in mature markets to more “casual” use in emerging markets.

Impact of Coca Cultivation in Colombia
The high-water mark of Colombian coca cultivation was reached between 1999 and 2002 when Colombia produced 90% of the world’s cocaine. Colombia’s share of the global trade eventually has declined to less than half of the global supply but still produces 90% of samples seized in the United States. In 2012, Colombia’s Defense Minister priced Colombia’s narcotics market at US$6-$7 billion and attributed 40%-50% to FARC. There were disagreements over his statistics, however. Colombia’s Attorney General released a contemporary estimate valuing FARC’s income from all sources at US$1.1 billion, and the director of Colombia’s police force in 2013 claimed FARC controlled 60% of the drug trade but only made US$1 billion off of it.

Despite disagreement over the exact scope of narcotics cultivation in Colombia, it is unquestionably large enough to have an environmental impact. In an effort to escape and evade Colombian authorities, coca fields and the facilities used for cocaine production are generally moved progressively deeper into forests causing severe deforestation. Less visibly, precursor chemicals used in producing cocaine from raw coca leaves have been found to permeate the soil and water in these already threatened rainforests.

Cocaine Trade Map

Cocaine Trade Map

Because much of cocaine’s value-added occurs when it is trafficked internationally (compare the previously mentioned estimates on Colombia’s narcotics market with its global cocaine retail value of US$80-$100 billion) and traffickers generally do not bank funds in Colombia, the coca industry’s earnings at its height were equal to only 4.4% of the nation’s GDP. More difficult to quantify, however, are the economic consequences of land repatriation, development of human capital and professional skills, and the wide-reaching impact of violence and narco-terrorism.

Narco-related violence in the form of murder, kidnappings, and bombings have also had a political impact on Colombia. The military campaigns of FARC, ELN, and other Marxist insurgent groups against Colombian security forces are the most obvious example, but the most brutal and politically impactful violence began as a reaction to the guerrillas. Originally formed as a defense against FARC, trafficker and cartel self defense units quickly morphed into death squads and expanded their target list to include all leftist elements in society. This political targeting combined with the complicity of other conservative elements of Colombian society had the effect of further polarizing the political spectrum. Traffickers and cartels also used corruption and outright intimidation in an attempt to force their way into “legitimacy” within an elite-dominated power structure.

This entry was posted in Colombia, English, Michael Martelle, Organised Crime, Security Policy.

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