In Colombia, the surprising coca crisis
Nothing is going well in the country of Pablo Escobar. Colombia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine, has experienced a steep drop in the price of the raw material, the coca leaf, in recent months, which is hitting small farmers hard.
Hands scratched by the work and skin burned by the sun, Carlos, a fictitious name for fear of reprisals from the armed actors who operate in the area, exploits two hectares of the precious leaf in his farm in Llorente, a municipality in the department of Narino, in the south of the country.
Its teams of pickers, nicknamed “raspachines”, tear off the leaves of the surrounding shrubs with their bare hands.
They are then crushed, dried, mixed with several chemical products, then everything is “cooked” on a small gas stove, until it is transformed into a sort of white pebble; the coca paste which will later, in another laboratory of traffickers, be transformed into powder.
Carlos, 36, used to find lots of buyers for his dough. But this time, he did not find a taker for the eight kilos transformed. And out of the $660 it cost him to care for the fields, the harvest, and the processing, he has so far only sold $154 worth of pulp. So, while waiting for prices to improve, he piles up plastic bags filled with coca paste in his wooden farmhouse.
“The prices are really (very) bad,” he laments in his little makeshift laboratory. “The only option is to keep her,” he adds, saying he is worried about his family’s livelihood.
– Overproduction –
The rise of synthetic opiates such as fentanyl, the overproduction of coca and the blows to drug traffickers are some of the hypotheses put forward to explain this price collapse, which comes to an end to years of “coca boom”. in Colombia.
The income of at least 250,000 families depends on this culture, or 1.5% of the 50 million inhabitants of the country, according to official figures, while the money from drug trafficking represents 2 to 3% of Colombia’s GDP. And Colombia broke the record for the number of hectares planted with coca two years ago.
The crisis affects all this Pacific coast, a poor region, dominated by dissidents from the FARC guerrillas, who rejected the 2016 peace agreement. Nearly 44% of Colombia’s 204,000 hectares of drug crops are planted there , according to a 2021 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
In the municipality of Olaya Herrera, the farmer Nilson Solis is also feeling the crisis hard: “at the moment, coca does not give much, barely enough to survive, the prices were more or less good (… ) but for some time they have been falling”.
Felipe Tascon, director of the government’s voluntary substitution program, suspects that “non-aggression pacts” between armed groups have been broken, disrupting the movement of coca from the region by the cartels. He too believes that there is “overproduction”.
For Julian Quintero, director of an NGO fighting against drugs “Echele Cabeza”, coca has more and more “alkalinity and yield”, so that it takes fewer leaves to produce cocaine.
– “Tastes” that change –
On May 13, the left-wing president Gustavo Petro visited Olaya Herrera, where the kilo of dough went from an average of 695 to a maximum of 440 US dollars, according to the leaders of this community.
It is “probable that the low demand for coca paste” is linked “to the fact that North Americans have changed their consumption, their tastes”, advanced the president, who poses as a defender of these small farmers whom he sees above all as victims of international trafficking and narcos.
In the United States, where 97% of cocaine is of Colombian origin, synthetic opiates such as fentanyl pills, which are more addictive than white powder, are now proliferating. For Mr. Quintero, cocaine has become a drug for “wealthy” consumers.
In the meantime, the crisis settles in the Narino, the store shelves empty.
For some peasants, the fall in prices would have coincided with the extradition in May 2022 to an American prison of “Otoniel”, leader of the largest cartel in the country, the “Clan del Golfo”.
Nilson says he is already looking for alternatives, such as illegal logging. “When we take stock (of the crops), we have nothing left. Barely enough to buy a pound of rice and a little oil.”