Colombia's Trouble Uprooting the Cocaine Trade

3 MINS READAug 26, 2016 | 09:00 GMT
Colombia's Trouble in Uprooting the Cocaine Trade
Members of a Colombian anti-drug squad set a processing lab ablaze in the jungles of Guaviare department in an operation targeting cocaine production. The illicit drug trade will continue to drive instability in some regions of the country.

By the time Colombia's next president enters office, politically motivated violence in the country may have become a thing of the past, thanks to the government's recent peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). But even if voters approve the final deal with the FARC, the end of the insurgency will eliminate only one of Colombia's security concerns. The manufacture and trade of illegal drugs, a major driver of instability in some areas of the country, will continue unabated.

The illicit drug business, specifically the production and sale of cocaine, has troubled Colombia for some time. And though the FARC, which gets some of its funding from the drug trade, may demobilize, that aspect of the country's vast illegal economy will stay in place. Moreover, a recent shift in the government's strategy has made its fight against the illegal coca trade more difficult, raising the risk of regional unrest.

Last year, Colombia began phasing out aerial eradication of coca bushes, whose leaves are the main ingredient in the production of cocaine. In making the decision, the government cited the health risks of spraying glyphosate, the herbicide it had used to target coca crops for roughly two decades. The government switched to a program of manual eradication, employing teams of people to uproot the bushes, a lucrative crop in some regions of the country, by hand. This slower, more laborious process has brought with it the prospect of greater resistance from local growers, which would hamper attempts to destroy illegal coca plantations. Statistics from the Colombian government appear to confirm that this is already happening: Eradication teams on the ground have been prevented from conducting their work nearly 400 times in so far 2016, compared with 163 times in 2015.

Because multiple criminal groups finance themselves through the production, taxation and sale of coca, destroying the bushes is an integral part of Colombia's public safety strategy. The criminals' practice is unlikely to soon change, and so, despite the problems that manual eradication efforts could spawn, they are likely to continue. The elevated difficulties of destroying the illegal crops portend a rise in the production of coca and cocaine — something the United States will likely seek to counter. But at a regional level, the Colombian drug fight also poses a risk to local business activity. Despite the relative isolation of coca-growing areas from the country's population centers, the government's strategy for dealing with the crop could stoke social unrest capable of interfering with energy exploration and production in certain areas.

For example, demonstrations by coca growers in Putumayo, a department that, together with Narino, is home to about half of all coca plantations in Colombia, have significantly interfered with oil exploration and production activities there since early August. The protests have mainly centered on residents' discontent with the state's eradication of coca, although concerns about pollution created by energy activities are also feeding the demonstrations. Areas in Caqueta department with high concentrations of coca production, such as El Paujil and El Doncello, have also been the sites of unrest in August. Most notably, an Aug. 18 arson attack incinerated residences rented to oil contractors.

Attacks on energy companies' assets or disruptions to their business activities, like those seen in Putumayo and Caqueta, so far have been a relatively minor security issue, limited to the companies targeted. Wider disruptions in oil production are not imminent since protesters have not presented more serious threats, such as damaging oil pipelines or blocking access to work sites. The links, however, between protest activity and coca eradication raise the risk of more serious demonstrations in the future.

The Colombian government is unlikely to soon change its eradication efforts, considering the issue is deeply intertwined not only with domestic security but also with diplomatic ties to the United States. Although the Colombian government has promised to negotiate its eradication strategy with local farmers and offer compensation for crops, it is plausible that renewed efforts to destroy coca will drive further protests in Putumayo and Caqueta and in other areas of the country where coca growing and energy production overlap. 

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