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The cocaine industry has a lot riding on Colombia's peace deal

The country's FARC rebels have promised to quit the drug trade, but other groups are ready and waiting to take control.

by Joe Parkin Daniels
Aug 26 2016, 7:00pm

Des soldats colombiens détruisent un champ de coca. (Photo par Fernando Vergara/AP Photo)

Colombians took to the streets this week to celebrate a peace accord that promises to end a war that has killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions over five decades — and helped fuel the country's booming cocaine industry.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a guerrilla group known by its Spanish acronym, FARC, has agreed to lay down its arms and quit the drug trade, which it has long used to finance its operations.

Observers say the peace deal should have a major impact on the dynamics of the local cocaine industry, potentially making the drug more expensive as things settle down.

According to the latest survey by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, estimated potential cocaine production in Colombia last year was 646 metric tons, a 46 percent increase from 2014. The FARC controls 70 percent of the country's estimated 96,000 hectares (237,221 acres) of land where coca — the plant used to manufacture cocaine — is grown, according to InSight Crime, a research group that tracks organized crime in Latin America.

Related: Colombia's peace deal with the FARC could still fall apart

The rebel group taxes local growers, buys their coca leaves, turns them into paste to sell to other illegal groups, and maintains its own clandestine labs that manufacture the powder. The peace accord could end all of that. But the group's promise to get out of the drug trade raises two key questions: Will the rebels keep their word? And, if they do, what happens to their share of the business?

Many expect that some FARC members will find the drug profits too tempting to resist, meaning they may refuse to demobilize and opt instead to stay in the jungle. The country actually has a precedent for this situation: In 2006, about 30,000 members of the AUC, an anti-guerrilla paramilitary organization that became involved in the drug trade, agreed to disband.

"When we demobilized, our politics demobilized too," former AUC commanderGermán Senna Pico said in a recent prison interview. "Those that stayed are only interested in being narcos. It will be the same with the FARC."

InSight Crime has suggested that the FARC commanders will receive offers of money and weapons from international criminal networks desperate to keep the flow of cocaine coming.

But even assuming some FARC fronts refuse to demobilize, a period of instability could force the international price of cocaine up for a while.

Adam Isaacson, director of the regional security policy program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), predicts that other violent groups will fill the power vacuum left by the demobilization and bring yet more violence to local civilian populations. "Things are about to get really bad," he says.

Related: How a French woman became a Colombian rebel

The likely contenders to replace the FARC include Mexican cartels, homegrown successor groups to the AUC, and local criminal bands such as the Urabeños, a feared gang that has long trafficked cocaine in northwestern Colombia and has known links to Mexico's Sinaloa cartel.

The Urabeños are now aggressively consolidating their presence in areas where the FARC rebels once held sway. A UN report described increased fighting and the displacement of thousands of people in these areas, such as the northeastern department of Chocó.

High-ranking Urabeños have also been recently captured or killed in areas outside what is typically considered their turf.

Colombia's second-largest rebel group — the National Liberation Army, or ELN — is also expected to make a play for FARC assets after demobilization. There are reports of battles between the ELN and the Urabeños along the Pacific coast.

The FARC peace deal requires the rebels to assist with a nationwide coca crop substitution program, which is supposed to be voluntary and involve only manual eradication rather than fumigation with harmful pesticides. "Getting people to stop growing coca, and to grow other crops instead, will take time," says Ariel Ávila, an analyst with Bogotá-based research institute Fundación Paz y Reconciliación. "Right now, nothing will change."

Related: Digging up Bodies: Colombia is searching for thousands of unnamed dead

Isaacson, the WOLA researcher, argues that the government should not wait for the peace-mandated substitution program to push coca farmers to grow other crops. But while he stresses that the government would "no longer be having to shoot its way in," he adds that "it's more likely other criminal groups will move faster to fill the vacuum."

And, he notes, history has already provided a lesson to anybody who imagines a peace deal will significantly interrupt the northward flow of cocaine.

"Remember," he says, "even taking down the monopolistic Medellín and Cali cartels 20 years ago had zero impact on cocaine availability in the United States."

Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @joeparkdan

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