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Colombia Failed These Coca Farmers. Now They're Turning Back To The Cartels

“There isn’t much coca left in this area, but if the state doesn’t do what it promised, this place will be full of coca again.”

by Dylan Baddour
Jul 11 2019, 5:47pm

CORREGIMIENTO LA VICTORIA, Colombia — When 70-year-old Ursina Pacheko pulled up her 5,000 coca plants last year, she’d hoped to leave the drug trade for good.

Her isolated riverside community of a few dozen wood-slatted shacks had survived for two generations off the leafy shrub, which is processed into cocaine by armed groups and sold to eager buyers in the U.S., Europe and Australia. But the business had brought the constant threat of violence, and Pacheko was relieved when the government finally offered her a viable way out.

Today, however, Pacheko’s hope has turned to dread that this vast mountainous jungle area is bound to return to its same old ways of war, drugs and poverty.

Most of the government’s promised help for coca farmers never materialized. Instead of the new roads and new crops they were promised in exchange for uprooting their coca plants, Pacheko and her neighbors have only received cash assistance, and it expires this year. When it does, she said, she’ll have no choice but to replant coca. Members of nearby drug cartels have already knocked on her door and offered her good money to do so.

“So much violence was here because of those plants, and the government offered us a way out,” she said in the shade of a mango tree beside the muddy creek that marks the only route from her village to the nearest town. “There isn’t much coca left in this area, but if the state doesn’t do what it promised, this place will be full of coca again.”

When that happens, she said, farmers will turn back toward the drug cartels, even more alienated from Bogota than before.

Colombia coca farmers
Ursina Packeko thought things were changing for good when she ripped up her half hectare of coca plants. (Dylan Baddour for VICE News).

As representatives from the U.N. Security Council visit Colombia this week to check up on the progress of the peace process, they’re likely to find a similarly negative outlook.

Since his election in 2018, Colombia’s hawkish President Ivan Duque has shown little interest in fulfilling many of the commitments made by his predecessor, Juan Manual Santos, in the historic peace accords of 2016. Those accords ended 50 years of conflict with the country’s largest insurgency, the FARC, and laid out an ambitious reform plan to target the structural causes of war and the country's notorious drug trade. A key plank of the accords was bringing farmers like Pacheko into the national economy.

But Duque, facing booming levels of cocaine production and an uptick in rural violence, has eschewed the helping-hand approach and called for a return to more-punitive techniques, including eradication of coca crops by military crews and aerial spraying of herbicide.

Doomed from the start

Duque's hard-line policies may signal the beginning of the end before many of the historic peace deal's signature programs ever got off the ground. Few analysts will be surprised such an outcome.

From the start, the accords promised more than the Colombian government could give, said Sergio Guzman, founder of business consultancy firm Colombia Risk Analysis.

“No Colombian government would have been able to implement the peace accords fully,” said Guzman, adding that without a clear dedication to the idea of massive reform, meaningful change will remain a distant dream.

“However, this government doesn’t have the will to move the needle toward agrarian reform,” he said.

After the accords, former FARC commander Alfonso Mendez headed the government’s voluntary crop-substitution initiative in this region of southern Bolivar state. For a year, the former guerrilla said he spread the word of the new program to coca-growing families, hiking the muddy footpaths and riding narrow boats through the marshy waterways that connect isolated communities in these squat foothills along the Magdalena River.

Read: Inside a FARC camp that’s preparing guerrilla soldiers for civilian life

He told them how the government would build roads there if they tore out their coca crop. He said the state would provide cash assistance so they could get by while it doled out legal titles to their informally owned land and helped each family develop a productive project of its own choice, raising cattle, cacao, corn or plantains.

The government barely took action on these bold promises, however. After initially signing up 14 communities to participate, it quickly scaled back its commitment and agreed to pilot the program in just three, Mendez said, Corregimiento la Victoria among them. In the end, about 2,500 families ripped up their coca plants across this zone.

“Then the program just disappeared,” Mendez said. “Now people have nothing.”

Six installments of $700 were supposed to sustain farmers for a year while they built a new production capacity. Those payments have arrived, often a month or more late, farmers said, but the roads, land titles and agricultural programs never showed up. Two more cash payments are scheduled this year. Then that program ends.

Ditched dreams

In Corregimiento la Victoria, 56-year-old Ricardo Rodriguez strolled about the unfinished wooden skeletons of a pig sty and chicken coop he’d built six months before after government agents had visited his village and agreed with him on projects. They would provide him with pigs, chickens, feed, roofing material and seeds for a vegetable garden.

Rodriguez sighed as he pointed to the bed he’d dug in anticipation, now overgrown with jungle weeds.

“Like this, the coca will never end,” he said.

Colombia Cocaine industry
Ricardo Rodriguez shows off the beginnings of a pig sty he built. Now he’s waiting on roofing and other materials promised by the government to arrive. (Dylan Baddour for VICE News).

His field, he said, lay about an hour’s walk uphill from the village. Before he uprooted his 10,000 coca plants, he used to harvest once every two months, grind the whole yield into about three pounds of paste and sell it for about $800 to the drug cartels. To grow any other crop would mean carrying his whole harvest down the mountain on his back. Even then, he’d have no one to buy it.

The Duque administration has acknowledged the failure. In a letter this month describing the voluntary substitution program to the leadership of the Organization of American States, Emilio Archila, a presidential adviser for consolidation and stabilization, wrote of rural reform: “When (the previous government) handed us the program, they had made a marketplace of offers, but they weren’t planned or financed, nor were staff hired so that other stages would be possible. Very bad.”

This little region is just a small part of Colombia’s big problem. The approximately 6,100 hectares of coca cultivated in Southern Bolivar represent a small fraction of the 171,000 acres grown across Colombia, according to U.N. estimates from 2017, the most recent data available. That figure has exploded from 50,000 acres cultivated nationally in 2012.

In response, Duque has pushed hard for a return of aerial herbicide spraying over illicit crops, a U.S.-led program effectively banned by Colombia’s high court in 2015 over humanitarian and environmental concerns. The practice devastated the jungle’s ecosystem, destroyed food crops of the rural communities, and affected the health of those exposed.

Still, Duque appears determined, and has touted aerial fumigation with glyphosate — the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup weed poison — as a “necessary tool” in the war on drugs.

“If we want to achieve a lasting peace in Colombia, coca crops have to be absolutely defeated,” he told a conference in London last month.

Colombia Coca farmers
A farmer demonstrates the harvest of the coca leaf. (Dylan Baddour for VICE News)

Although fumigation succeeded in substantially reducing the coca crop, the small farmers remember it as a dark time when the whole landscape turned black, animals disappeared, livestock died, strange illnesses lingered in people for years, and local guerrillas traded fire with military helicopters that arrived as escorts for the sprayer planes.

Many analysts doubt that a return of the more forceful methods will yield little more than a repeat of the same mistakes that informed the country’s decades-long civil war.

“It’s kind of a depressing mission,” said Adam Isacson, a a director at the Washington Office on Latin America. “Any kind of eradication that happens without assistance from the people being eradicated is going to turn people away from the government.”

Cover: In this Aug. 15, 2012 file photo, police patrol a coca field as hired farmers uproot coca shrubs as part of a manual eradication campaign of illegal crops in San Miguel on Colombia's southern border with Ecuador. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)