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State Inertia and Organized Crime Limit Colombia’s Coca Substitution Program

State Inertia and Organized Crime Limit Colombia’s Coca Substitution Program

Colombia peasants carry loads-of-harvested-coca-leaves-cocaine-erradication-

Changes in the leadership of Colombia’s illicit crop substitution program and problems in its implementation raise questions about how organized crime is hindering the government initiative.

Colombia’s Comprehensive National Crop Substitution Program (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos – PNIS) was born out of the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). The program’s goal is to reduce the amount of coca crops in the country through substitution, depriving criminal groups of the raw material needed for cocaine production. 

However, the project’s implementation has faced major obstacles. Colombia continues to have the largest number of hectares of coca in the world and has recently broken records in cocaine production.

In mid-May, President Gustavo Petro named Gloria Miranda as the new national director of the Directorate for the Substitution of Illicit Crops, the entity in charge of implementing the PNIS. Until then, Miranda had served as Director of Drug Policy and Related Activities in the Ministry of Justice.  

Miranda’s new appointment is in response to criticism that the government has done little to implement the PNIS program. During a Congressional debate in April, representatives announced that only 5% of the budget allocated to the PNIS was used during 2023. 

SEE ALSO: Peace Leaders in Putumayo, Colombia Bet Their Lives on Coca Crop Substitution

As a result of its failure to implement the program, the government’s relationship with communities in coca-growing areas has deteriorated. Coca growers in departments such as Norte de Santander and Córdoba announced that they will go on strike due to the government’s failure to uphold the substitution program. Families who signed substitution agreements continue to demand answers.

Below, InSight Crime explains key points from the current debate on coca cultivation in Colombia, how organized crime has hindered the implementation of the PNIS, and the role armed groups may play in the future of the initiative.

A Road Full of Obstacles

When the PNIS was created in 2017, experts considered it Colombia’s most ambitious coca crop substitution strategy yet. The PNIS was organized around agreements between families and the national government: families would eradicate their crops, and, in return, the government would provide subsidies and technical advice for short- and long-term agricultural projects. 

“It was an overly ambitious program with huge goals,” Luis Felipe Cruz, a researcher at DeJusticia, a legal and social research center, explained to InSight Crime.

From the beginning, the PNIS was plagued with problems, starting with the lack of coordination between the PNIS management and the Ministry of Agriculture and other government institutions. The program was also hindered by its lack of budget and program design that failed to consider the different needs of different territories, according to a report by the Center for Studies on Security and Drugs of the Universidad de los Andes. 

Criminal groups in coca-growing areas pointed to the shortcomings of the PNIS to legitimize their claims about the government’s failure to comply with the peace accords, and to increase the distrust of government amongst affected communities. 

The failure to implement the substitution program also put social leaders who supported PNIS in their territories at risk. After the government and families signed the agreements, the murder rate of social leaders increased by 546%, according to a study by economist Lucas Marín Llanes.

The national government’s drug policy outlines its strategy to implement the program, which consists of making payments of 36 million pesos — about $9,000 — to the families that joined. But the governments’ commitments to productive projects established at the outset of the PNIS program remain undefined.

The complex social and economic reality in coca-growing areas means these measures will not be enough to solve the violence that plagues local communities, where criminal groups have strengthened in the last year.

A Missed Opportunity

With recent changes in the criminal landscape, the coca market in Colombia has shifted. 

Since the second half of 2022, farmers in departments that produce most of the country’s coca crops, such as Norte de Santander, Cauca, Nariño, and Putumayo, experienced a drop in coca leaf and coca paste prices of 45% and 30%, respectively.

SEE ALSO: Colombia’s Coca Market Crash Unlikely to Impact Cocaine Trade

There are several factors that influence changes in coca prices, such as a rise in the cost of raw material and the saturation of drug trafficking routes, or shifts in criminal control. One such change followed the FARC’s post-peace agreement exit from the territories in 2017.

Previously, the FARC dominated the coca market in the areas where they exercised territorial control. Since the FARC disarmed, other criminal groups have failed to establish the same level of control. Territorial disputes between groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC) and FARC dissidents have exacerbated the drop in coca prices, as international buyers are reluctant to visit these contested areas.

As a result of the collapse in coca prices, more coca growers are willing to consider substitute crops. In parts of the department of Cauca, farmers have even turned to coffee as a solution. This is a window of opportunity that has not yet been taken advantage of by the government.

An Uncertain Future

Colombia’s current drug policy represents a different approach in the fight against drug trafficking in the country: instead of attacking small growers, it targets international cocaine trafficking networks.

SEE ALSO: The Opportunities and Pitfalls of Colombia’s Ambitious New Drug Policy

However, the policy has distanced itself from its initial substitution approach, arguing that these programs are limited, as they focus on short-term agreements and overlook structural aspects that are key to understanding and addressing the dependence of certain territories on illicit economies.

In response, debate has arisen around how coca production could be channeled toward legal uses for the coca leaf as an alternative to substitution. This has become one of the Petro government’s main policy priorities regarding coca cultivation.  

At the end of 2023, the Colombian Agricultural Institute (Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario – ICA) approved the first license for organic fertilizer made from coca leaf, grown in the departments of Cauca and Huila. In addition, Indigenous, peasant, and Afro-Colombian organizations have used coca leaf in the production of food and beverages, fabric dyes, and fertilizers. 

The creation of alternative economies is an important opportunity. A member of an international agency — who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to comment on the issue — said that beyond substituting one crop for another, strategies can also focus on replacing illegal economies with legal ones, which can also help boost economic opportunities beyond agriculture. 

However, they pointed out that, if the state fails to replace one economy with another, the vacuum will continue to be filled by criminal groups and illegal economies. This is already happening in some coca-growing territories where, faced with falling coca prices, growers have migrated to illegal mining, an illicit economy that is making millions in profits for criminal groups. 

Featured image: Farmers carry loads of coca leaves harvested in Colombia. Credit: AP

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