Inside Colombia’s (New) Cocaine Explosion

What looks like a strategic defeat for a major U.S.-backed attack on drug production could also prolong Colombia’s civil war.

01.03.16 6:15 AM ET

TORIBÍO, Colombia — Steep hills rise out of the morning mist like a junky’s dream of paradise: the slopes teeming with lush, illicit vegetation. Palm and banana trees only half conceal the towering coca bushes. Coffee plants can’t entirely camouflage rows of marijuana shrubs the size of prize hydrangeas. 

Over the last couple of years, Colombia has replaced Peru as the world’s top exporter of cocaine. Nose-candy production levels shot up by more than 32 percent in 2014. The Andean nation now grows more leaves than the next two coca-producing nations combined. And the number of acres used to farm coca is expected to go up again this year.

All this after years of the U.S. State Department bragging up Plan Colombia, a controversial program that has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $10 billion since 2000—and was often praised as flag-ship policy in the war on drugs, because it had, for a while, curbed coca cultivation.

At the head of this valley in the remote Central Cordillera, near a thatch house surrounded by seedlings, a dozen members of the Nasa tribe pass around a bag of shiny, tart-smelling coca leaves. 

The farmers have come together on this Saturday in mid-December to discuss, among other concerns, how to deal with hostile patrols of Colombian government troops, who are still on the offensive, even if the numbers show they’re losing the war. 

“We would never let the army in here,” says Nasa leader, Carlos, who asks to have his surname withheld for security reasons.  

“We’ve been growing in this valley for six years, working to cultivate the sacred plants,” says the 45-year-old campesino as he pops a yellow-green leaf into his mouth. “The soldiers could destroy all we’ve built here in just a few hours.”

Government eradication efforts aimed at coca fields here in the fertile, southwestern state of Cauca have led to several recent clashes between soldiers and indigenous farmers, who are known to barricade narrow access roads to prevent military vehicles from reaching their fields. 

On Nov. 19, in the nearby community of Argelia, one coca grower was killed and five more wounded when soldiers stormed their farm. A Nasa shaman and former governor was gunned down by Colombian troops on his own land in Cauca in mid-October. 

Government soldiers aren’t the only ones turning up the heat. Leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries also harass vulnerable landholders in Colombia’s vast and rugged interior. 

In all, some 300 campesino, Afro-Colombian, and indigenous leaders were slain in Colombia in 2015, according to the Bogotá-based human rights group Marcha Patriotica. Many of them were targeted in land disputes related to the growing coca industry. 

“We’re living in a red zone here,” says Carlos. “We’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel safe.”

 These cocaleros have agreed to an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, to talk about life in guerrilla-held territory—and the roots of Colombia’s new, lucrative, and dangerous cocaine boom.

“We will defend our ancestral lands with our own lives if we have to,” Carlos says, and the other farmers nod and murmur their affirmation in a mix of Spanish and the local Nasa Yuwe dialect.

“We will never give up the sacred plants,” the leader says.

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Many observers contend that the uptick in Colombian cocaine production—due to a sharp increase in coca acres planted by small farmers like Carlos and his neighbors—could have profoundly negative consequences for the fragile peace talks underway between Bogotá and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the nation’s largest rebel group.

The FARC is also Colombia’s most powerful drug trafficking organization. The leftist insurgency controls about 70 percent of the country’s highly lucrative cocaine market, raking in as much as $500 million per year from narcotics sales.

FARC delegates to the peace talks in Havana, Cuba, have been working closely with their government counterparts to craft a detailed solution that would curtail drug-related activities as comfortably as possible, with compensation and concessions thrown in to sweeten the deal. Yet questions remain as to whether the FARC will really cease trafficking operations—especially when its supply of coca is on the rise and the market is steady.

Regional demand for cocaine fluctuates—it’s down in the United States, but up in Europe, for example. Overall it remains more or less constant at the international level. 

So what’s driving the new bloom in blow? 

“It’s the only thing that sustains us economically,” says Carlos, during that same community meeting in Nasa’s hidden, psychotropic valley. What was once a shamanic cottage industry is now the tribe’s cash crop.

“The coca is sacred to us—not something that should be sold for money. But we have no other option,” Carlos explains. Like many Andean tribes, the indigenous people of Cauca have long valued the coca plant for its mild, stimulating effect. 

“I used to plant a lot of yucca and bananas, but I gave them up,” says another Nasa farmer, who wears a Rock Star Energy cap, and calls himself “Jaime.” 

“You can’t make any money that way. They don’t pay anything for simple vegetables in town,” Jaime says. “Not enough that you can feed your family on, anyway. So now just about all I plant is coca.”

The Nasa farmers say a lack of infrastructure and good roads makes anything beyond subsistence farming—and coca farming—next to impossible in the rural highlands of Cauca. 

Many indigenous communities have been displaced by years of conflict—Colombia is home to some 6 million internal refugees—and squatting, impoverished families often have to try to wring a living from tiny parcels of farmland.

“Selling la coca is our only way to survive,” says Carlos, but not without qualms. “To grow for our own use is one thing—but selling it [to the FARC] sets a bad example for our children.” Carlos also worries that, from an agricultural standpoint, current trends are “no longer sustainable.”

“If the land is all seeded for coca plants?” he asks rhetorically, “then what are we going to eat?”

The lure of quick cash tempts farmers to raise more and more coca—even if that means the ancestral forests have to go. Clearing ground for the popular crop is a major factor behind Colombia’s skyrocketing deforestation rate.

Meanwhile, officials in Washington worry that the surge in Colombian blow will further glut the market, driving down the cost on the street in the States. 

“We’re losing control,” says Colombian military intelligence analyst Carlos Armando, 42, during a meeting in his office on the base for the 29th Mobile Brigade, in Cauca’s capital of Popayán. “Counter-insurgency operations are down. Eradication is down. It’s like the FARC are untouchable now.” 

Concessions made by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos as part of the three-years-and-running peace process have allowed the FARC to step up narcotics production. The ban in aerial spraying, due to serious environmental concerns, has also crippled the army’s anti-coca strategy.

“Now with the cease-fire we can’t even conduct operations against the bandits’ laboratories or production sites,” Armando laments as he sketches out a map of the FARC strongholds in Cauca. 

“All of this is effectively off limits to the army,” he says, shading in much of the state with his pencil. 

Although the government refused FARC’s request for demilitarized areas during the peace process, the cease-fire policy has led to sweeping no-go zones for the military, giving the guerrillas a chance to strengthen trafficking networks.

“In these regions the guerrillas know they can do as they like,” says Armando, who has more than two decades of counter-insurgency experience, and who says he has trained with the DEA. “And what they like to do most is process coca into cocaine paste.” 

Armando says at least six different FARC columns and fronts are running cocaine and other drugs in Cauca, which has long been a regional stronghold for the insurgency. A major north-south highway running through the state makes an important shipping corridor for drugs going up to Cali, or out to Colombia’s wild and largely unguarded Pacific coast, on their way to dealers in the U.S. and Europe.

The infamous Sinaloa cartel in Mexico works closely with the FARC along the coast, Armando says. He says the Mexican-based global syndicate run by fugitive crime lord Chapo Guzmán “often pays the FARC directly with shipments of weapons, uniforms,” and other supplies.

The newly flooded market means Mexican gangs like the Sinaloans can now buy up the surplus “marching powder” for as little as 400,000 pesos ($125) per kilo, according to Armando—part of the reason authorities are so worried about an overall price drop in the U.S.

In theory, the Cuban peace talks ought to end Colombia’s long-running civil war and the drug war, too. 

Fighting between the FARC and the government has gone on for more than five decades, and claimed 220,000 lives, with brutal war crimes committed by both sides. A tentative deadline for a finished peace deal has been set for March—and the FARC’s leadership has publically vowed to give up its drug-running ways in the event of an armistice. President Santos’s negotiating team has offered, for its part, to establish rural development programs aimed at supplementing illicit crops.

However, the recent jump in cocaine production and shipping—and revenues—could indicate the FARC’s leaders are unwilling, or unable, to comply with their promises to demobilize individual field units and abandon narcotics trafficking in rural regions.

“It would still be unrealistic to expect all of the FARC troops to go along with a peace deal,” writes Virginia M. Bouvier, senior adviser for the Washington-based Institute of Peace, in an email to The Daily Beast. 

“Insecurity about the future, greed, strong material incentives to continue fighting, and fears may play into the equation,” writes Bouvier from Havana, where she’s been observing the peace conference.

Bouvier worries that “mid-level commanders” might not “want to give up their power,” even if it means disobeying orders.

Past attempts to demobilize leftist-guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary units in Colombia haven't gone so well, either:

“Alternatively, they form splinter groups or new criminal bands, or join up with other armed groups that are still fighting,” Bouvier writes, citing the presence of  “17 different ‘narcoparamilitary’ groups that operate in hundreds of municipalities throughout Colombia—many as the result of the paramilitary demobilizations in the mid-2000s.”

Military intelligence analyst Armando agrees with Bouvier’s concerns about the peace process:

“The political situation in Havana is very different from the combat situation out here,” Armando says. “The political wing [of the FARC] and armed actors see things very differently.”

For many of the regional drug lords, “it’s just business as usual,” says Armando, who considers the insurgency’s criminalization as a foregone conclusion.

“We’re already planning for it,” he says. “We believe that in three to five years you’ll see a complete remaking of la guerrilla.

There have already been reports of FARC elements working with right-wing paramilitaries in Cauca—indicating that the transformation from leftist insurgency to a business-first cartel in the Mexican style might already be underway. 

As for cocaine production: “We’re afraid it’s only going to get worse,” Armando says.

Back in the FARC-held foothills of northern Cauca, indigenous leader Carlos points out a family of five—mother, father, and three children—all working to strip leaves in a thicket of coca growing high up on the valley wall. The parents graze the high branches and the children the lower, quickly fishing out the stems and small crimson berries from the pile of precious leaves.

“They work with us in the fields, and get paid with coca in return,” Carlos says. “Then they can negotiate an independent sale for the best price.”

It’s back-breaking work to fill the sacks with foliage sufficient to meet guerrilla expectations. The FARC buy the leaves in units of weight called arrobas, each of which is equivalent to about 25 pounds—a single arroba usually sells for about 35,000 pesos ($10.85) in these hills. 

Despite the intensive labor involved, Carlos says it’s still the best game in town.

“The government tells us not to raise coca, and not to sell it to the guerrillas—but the state has no presence here at all,” he says, as we watch the young family mechanically plucking leaves from the bushes.

The proposed peace deal in Havana is supposed to lay a framework for just the kind of security and infrastructure the Nasa farmers say they need to transition away illicit agriculture. But peace-talks observer Bouvier worries that the Santos administration, like the FARC, might be making promises it can’t keep.

“Given [the government’s] dismal track record in protecting human-rights [defenders] and peasants seeking to reclaim their lands, it seems unlikely that they would be able to offer real protection to demobilizing FARC combatants,” writes Bouvier. 

Initial assistance programs for poor coca farmers—based on early accords in the peace process and meant to test political willpower—have already failed drastically in the Macarena region, which is topographically similar to Cauca. 

“For generations, the Colombian populace has been trained to hate the FARC,” Bouvier continues. “Human-rights defenders, peasant leaders, labor leaders, leftist politicians, even journalists—have been attacked and stigmatized as ‘guerrilla sympathizers.’ Colombia’s culture of intolerance must change for peace to endure.”

For the Nasa farmers of the Central Cordillera, at least for now, any real change seems unlikely.

“We don’t receive much of the great profit made from our coca,” Carlos says, spitting his plug of leaves into the soil, and grimacing at the bitter aftertaste.

“But we take much of the risk.”