Coca and Cocaine: Colombia’s Iconic Export

By Joshua Dack

When you hear the name Colombia, a series of images come to mind; expansive jungles, energetic music, and unique culture. But first and foremost, what springs to mind is cocaine. From the realities of the War on Drugs, to the hit tv series Narcos, when one mentions Colombia, cocaine is the first thing on the mind. When I was first accepted the scholarship for our trip to Colombia, my parents warned me of cartels and rampant cocaine use, images created from the West’s view of Colombia. Thus, when arriving in Colombia, it was of chief interest to examine the ways in which cocaine played a part not only in the armed conflict, but also in the overall Colombian state. We had lectures from numerous individuals that commented on the realities of the cocaine trade, chiefly among them were Rodrigo Mezu, Daniel Rico, and Sebastian Bitar. Each of these lecturers covered aspects of the issue of Cocaine, but in order to present the information I have learned I will separate this information into five categories. First, the origin of cocaine in Colombia and its impact on the economy. Second, the transition of the cocaine trade from cartels to guerrilla groups involved in the armed conflict. Third, the relationship over time between coca cultivation and conflict. Fourth, how the state has been fighting coca cultivation over the last two decades. Finally, the international dimension of the cocaine market, and how that bleeds into government policy.

Cocaine and economy

While there is evidence of individual Colombians smuggling cocaine as far back as the 50’s, cocaine began to become a major trading commodity in the 70’s, as smugglers co-opted their current routes for electronic imports, and instead used them for cocaine smuggling. At the time, Colombia was at a critical junction in terms of its economic state. Up until the 70’s Colombia had a stable economy, the most stable of South America, but had no export industry, and had no significant trade partners on the international scene, which is what allowed these smuggling networks to form. It was believed in order for Colombia to modernise it would need to integrate into the global economy, and measures were taken to enact such policies, with the knowledge that in the transition period money would flow out of Colombia as Colombians began to legally import goods without significant tariffs. However, moving into the 70’s, government officials noted the opposite with currency flowing into the country, smoothing the economic transition process. The reason for this influx was of course the cocaine market. Criminal enterprises quickly discovered that while cocaine was profitable to sell within Colombia, exporting it to the US was many times more profitable. The same gram of cocaine which cost 9 dollars in Colombia, cost hundreds in the United States, and the proceeds of these transactions were flooding into Colombia. Pictured here is air and sea traffic of cocaine smugglers transmitting their cargo into North America.

As such, cocaine was not only an illicit market, but also worked positively for the Colombian states economic progress, while these positive effects would not last long, as the realities of the drug trade were brought to bear on the Colombian people, it does substantiate the idea that cocaine is intertwined with Colombia in a myriad of ways.

Cartels to Guerrillas

Throughout the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s, cocaine production and smuggling had been controlled in the domain of the cartels, notably the Medellin and Cali cartels, the former of whom was run by one of the most famous drug lords in history, Pablo Escobar, pictured below.

As noted earlier, these cartels had their beginnings in smuggling operations, however due to infighting within the drug cartels as well as military and police crackdowns, cartels found it harder and harder to operate. The government began to make use of the infighting to control the cocaine market, prioritising targets that were notably violent, and as such limiting the capacity of violence that cartels could bring to bear. However, during the 90’s guerrilla groups such as FARC began to take possession of parts of the cocaine trade, and in doing so providing funds for their fight against the government. Therefore, the government, cartels, and guerrilla groups all had obtained benefits from the cocaine market, as each represented major players in the continuing armed conflict.

Coca cultivation and violence

The next important thing to consider is the interesting relationship between violence and coca cultivation in Colombia, especially notable from the mid 2000’s to today, as we can chart seemingly contradictory trends when comparing the two. As can be seen by the below chart, coca cultivation was high in the mid 2000’s before dropping significantly to negligible levels, and then rising again to a new peak from 2014. These trends correspond to political events, notably the strength of FARC and its operations in the early 2000’s, to the expansion of military power and government success in its fight against FARC under Uribe; and finally, the start of peace talks with FARC. This final area was one used by Uribe to declare the peace agreement as being a promoter of cocaine.

What is interesting however, that this general trend of peak, low, peak is an inverse relationship to the homicide rate within Colombia. During the time of Uribe, homicides were at an extreme peak as violence gripped Colombia through a mixture of armed conflict, criminal groups and low-level violence. However, at the onset of peace talks, these rates have dropped significantly, at a similar rate that coca cultivation has climbed. This presents an interesting dynamic, as through narratives presented by the War on Drugs, cocaine has traditionally been viewed as a facilitator of violence, but the data presents the opposite conclusion. This then leads to the following conclusions. One, that the end of the armed conflict does not necessitate the end of the cocaine trade, or vice versa. Two, that there is a relationship between fighting coca cultivation and rates of death. To better understand this second conclusion, we have to account for the methods that the government has used to fight coca cultivation.

Methods to fight Coca cultivation

There are three main methods that have been used by the government to fight coca cultivation. These are manual eradication, air spraying, and rural development.

  • Manual Eradication: This involves directs boots on the ground, multiple men and a helicopter for transport to the Coca field and its eradication. This process is quite costly, costing around 15000 US dollars per field, while also being a slow and labour-intensive process
  • Air Spraying:  This method involves spraying the fields from the air using chemicals such as glyphosate, destroying the coca plants without the need for boots on the ground. This process has been stopped due to government policy as well as the health affects of glyphosate being called into question
  • Finally, is rural development, an important part of the peace agreement to build infrastructure to incentivise farmers from growing crops other than coca

Daniel Rico, presented interesting information regarding the death tolls relating to manual eradication, noting that hundreds of lives have been lost due to landmines and other hazards. In contrast, air spraying is far safer and environmentally friendly, but due to political pressure it is not being used and as such is causing the deaths of many. The need for the government to fight coca cultivation, even at human cost comes from international pressure, especially from the United States.

International Intervention

Since the 90’s, the United States has been financial supporting the Colombian government in its fight against drugs and terrorism through Plan Colombia and Plan Patriota. This stems from the US’s massive drug usage problem, as the US is the main importer of Colombian cocaine. Seen below is a chart of US assistance.

Through exertion of financial pressure, the US has pushed Colombia to continue its policy of combating coca cultivation even if it is not in the interest of Colombia’s human cost. As seen earlier, there is a link between homicide rate and coca cultivation, as well as the deaths that have occurred during eradication processes.

In this sense, the paradigm of cocaine in Colombia is not just a Colombian issue but is instead an international issue due to the demand created in their markets. While Colombia must combat the issue of coca, the rest of the world must better understand the Colombian situation in order to not make the same mistake as the US in attempting to fix the wrong problem. Destroying fields at any cost is not a feasible strategy for either Colombia or the US, and if my time in Colombia has taught me anything, it is that there is no simple quick fix solution to Colombia’s problems, it will require decades of hard work in solving economic and territorial issues to end the drug production market in Colombia.

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