Jan 27, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

5 mins read

Colombia’s Drug Growers Get Organized

Colombia’s Drug Growers Get Organized

After decades of operating outside the law, Colombia's largest insurgency is coming in from the cold. The government in Bogota is racing against the clock to implement its peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) jockeys for a deal of its own. Meanwhile, other criminal groups in the country are taking heed of the changes unfolding, particularly those that produce the drugs underpinning Colombia's thriving black-market economy. 

In 2015, Colombian drug cultivators formed their own loose confederation: the National Coordinator of Coca, Marijuana and Poppy Growers of Colombia, more widely known by its acronym, Coccam. The organization will convene on Jan. 27-28 for its first national meeting in Popayan, Cauca department. The FARC-aligned political movement Marcha Patriotica is heavily promoting the event, and Coccam has representatives who belong to the National Association of Campesino Reserve Zones, a group also likely linked to the FARC.

Coccam's primary objective is to persuade the Colombian government to end the forceful eradication of illicit crops. Instead, the organization wants to seek a negotiated destruction of these crops — and the government's pledge to fund their substitution with legal cash crops. Coccam's demands echo those made by the FARC in its recent agreement with Bogota, and it is no coincidence that the group draws its membership from areas under the insurgency's heavy influence. In fact, Coccam's main purpose may be to serve as a base of support for any political party the FARC forms once its peace talks with the government are complete and the militants have demobilized.

Coccam's demands are rooted in the long-standing feud between coca producers and the Colombian government, a dispute that has evolved alongside the country's insurgencies. Colombia has been the world's leading producer of cocaine for most of the past five decades. The country's cocaine industry is located in its rural hinterland and is a major employer for poor communities living in remote areas. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the FARC began to move into the cocaine trade, and many farmers became more closely aligned with the leftist rebels. In addition to ideological beliefs, farmers in some areas shared deep business ties with the FARC, which served as their main link to the global cocaine supply chain. Over time, the insurgent group came to depend more and more on cocaine revenue to fund its war against the government, and it concentrated its operations in Narino, Putumayo, Caqueta, Arauca and Norte de Santander.

In the late 1980s, coca destruction became a much higher priority for the governments in Colombia and the United States, a major export destination for Colombian cocaine. This was, in part, a reaction to the growing strength of transnational drug trafficking organizations, including the FARC and various cartels. But as the FARC became more deeply involved in cocaine production, eradicating coca and seizing drugs also became a major national security concern for Bogota. The United States and Colombia hoped that targeting cocaine producers and coca growers would weaken the insurgency, and they launched aggressive eradication programs in the 1990s that sprayed herbicides on Colombia's coca crops. Though these initiatives succeeded in shrinking coca supplies, they also had the unintended side effect of alienating impoverished locals who had come to rely on the crops for their livelihoods. 

The establishment of Coccam was notable, given its aim to redirect these enduring eradication policies. But the Colombian government will not halt its crackdown on coca, partly because of pressure from Washington but also because of its own security concerns. Eradication programs are critical to undermining the country's largest remaining left-wing insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as the powerful Clan del Golfo criminal organization. Bogota's continued attempts to cut off coca supplies to these groups will almost certainly put it at odds with Coccam in the near future. Moreover, Coccam cannot rely on the tactics that have worked for other coca growers in the region. Producers in Bolivia and Peru have exacted concessions from their governments by pointing to coca's cultural and medicinal role in the traditions of indigenous communities. Coca use is not as prevalent in Colombia as it is in Peru and Bolivia, where it is more widely permitted and regulated by the government. Virtually all of the coca produced in Colombia is funneled into the cocaine trade. Coccam's efforts to lobby for a more gradual eradication process will be made all the more difficult if Colombia's conservative, security-focused Democratic Center comes to power in 2018.

Nevertheless, Coccam has some means of influencing Colombian politics. If the FARC's peace deal is implemented as planned, the insurgency intends to formally establish a political party in May. Because Coccam's position on coca eradication aligns with that of the FARC, the growers' group might someday form a significant national constituency for this political party. The FARC, however, would not be able to take the 10 seats it has been guaranteed in both houses of the legislature until 2018 at the earliest, and with so little representation, it will not be able to steer Bogota's counternarcotics policy. Of course, Coccam could resort to direct action, particularly if the next government targets coca plantations more aggressively. A Democratic Center government, for example, could resume the aerial spraying programs that President Juan Manuel Santos ended in 2015 citing environmental damage and health risks. If it does, it might prompt Coccam members to attack those tasked with eradication or stage disruptive protests to blockade roads in the countryside.

Colombia's political leadership could change in the next few years, but the government's mission to quash drug production will not. This will set Bogota at odds with the country's increasingly organized coca growers, fueling unrest in rural areas even as the FARC threat diminishes.

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