The unsuspected crisis of the cocaine business in Colombia

Since the drug traffickers disappeared, Carlos can’t find anyone to buy the lumps of coca paste that are piled up in his house at a good price. Before, he would have received a lot of money for them, but an unsuspected drop in the drug economy has these peasants in Colombia in crisis.

The 36-year-old cocalero speaks quietly and uses an assumed name for fear of reprisals from armed groups operating near his farm.

In conversation with AFP, he explains that all the calculations show him losses: growing two hectares of the cocaine base plant cost him around 660 dollars, but he estimates that with luck he will be able to recover 154 dollars as part of an unprecedented phenomenon of low prices and few customers. It was the first of four harvests for the year.

With half-naked and scratched hands, gangs of “raspachines” or expert leaf removers advance in the middle of a green sea of ​​drug crops in Llorente, a municipality in the department of Nariño (south).

Coca leaf sacks arrive at the hands of Carlos, who “cooks” them crushed with a mixture of chemicals, cement and gasoline in a small stove until he obtains white stones.

Before, he was flooded with buyers from drug trafficking, but for more than a month he has not found a market for eight kilograms of coca paste that he keeps in plastic bags under his bed.

“The prices are re (very) bad,” he says from his small and improvised laboratory. “The only option is to keep it,” he adds, worried about the future of a 15-year-old daughter who wants to go to college and another 10-year-old.

The rise of synthetic opiates such as fentanyl, the overproduction of coca and blows to the cartels are some of the hypotheses of experts, growers and authorities in the face of the apparent collapse of the so-called “cocalera bonanza” in Colombia, the world’s leading producer of cocaine. .

The finances of at least 250,000 families depend on this crop, that is, 1.5% of the 50 million Colombians, according to official figures.

“Fell”

The crisis is spreading along the Colombian Pacific coast. In this impoverished region dominated by dissidents of the FARC guerrilla who departed from the 2016 peace agreement, 44% of the 204,000 hectares of drug crops in Colombia are planted, according to the latest United Nations balance (2021).

Bags with coca leaves in a coca paste laboratory near the municipality of Olaya Herrera, department of Nariño, Colombia

Bags with coca leaves in a coca paste laboratory near the municipality of Olaya Herrera, department of Nariño, ColombiaAFP

In the Olaya Herrera municipality, the grower Nilson Solis feels the crisis: “At the moment the coca economy is not giving much to survive, previously coca had a price more or less well (…) but for a while to here it fell”, he says in the middle of a plantation next to his house.

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The authorities try to find answers to a contradiction. Colombia broke a record for hectares planted with coca two years ago, but at the beginning of 2023 the collectors are experiencing hardships.

Felipe Tascón, director of the government’s Voluntary Substitution Program, assumes that “non-aggression pacts” prior to the disarmament of the FARC were broken and put an end to the order established by the cartels. He also thinks there is “overproduction”.

For Julián Quintero, director of the NGO on the consumption of psychoactive substances Échele Cabeza, coca has more and more “alkalinity and yield”, so fewer leaves are needed to produce cocaine.

Change of “tastes”

On May 13, President Gustavo Petro visited Olaya Herrera, where a kilogram of pasta went from costing an average of $695 to a maximum of $440.

It is “probably that the low demand for coca paste” has to do “with the fact that North Americans have changed their consumption, their tastes,” said the president.

In the United States, where 97% of cocaine is of Colombian origin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl pills proliferate, more addictive than white powder.

For Quintero, cocaine became a drug for “high purchasing power” consumers, executives who seek to endure long working hours and older adults. Instead, stimulants such as ecstasy are gaining ground in “younger populations” attracted by “sensations associated with affection, love, dancing,” he specifies.

Petro has even gone so far as to ensure that the devaluation of the local currency is partly due to the lack of circulation of dollars from drug trafficking. According to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, mafia money represented 2 to 3% of GDP.

Hunger grows in coca-growing areas and store shelves are empty, with no clear answer to the enigma. Peasants on the border with Venezuela assured AFP that the crisis coincided with the extradition to a US prison of “Otoniel”, leader of the largest cartel known as Clan del Golfo.

Solis is already beginning to look for alternatives such as illegal logging. “When we take stock (of the crops) we have nothing left,” he says. He barely has enough “to buy a pound of rice and a little bit of oil,” she concludes.

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