Cartels reign supreme: the golden age of cocaine is now

by Team Inc.

nature colombia

There's more cocaine than ever. The origin of this cocaine boom takes place outside of cities al La Dorada (Colombia) where cattle ranches and fish farms slowly turn into endless fields of coca.

It is the right to exist of the Colombian state. Apart from a few teachers and occasional raids by the armed forces, the Colombian state hardly exists. To travel here, outsiders need permission from a feared drug cartel known as the Comandos de la Frontera, whose henchmen in military green T-shirts patrol trucks and motorcycles.

This region, in the province of Putumayo, is a major contributor to the unprecedented increase in cocaine production. Although fans of the popular Netflix series Narcos may be under the impression that the era of the Medellin Cartel, of Pablo Escobar in the 80s and 90s, was the heyday of the cocaine trade. Is there much more cocaine trade at the moment.

Why is the cocaine trade growing?

“We live in the golden age of cocainesays Toby Muse, the author of the book Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels from 2020, which has covered the Colombian drug trade for more than two decades. “Cocaine is reaching corners of the planet it has never seen before because there is so much of the drug.”

Underlying that boom is massive growth in acreage, as well as higher productivity on coca plantations – trends driven by changing political dynamics in the region and rising demand. The illicit industry now produces about 2.000 tons of cocaine a year, nearly double the amount made a decade ago, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Satellite photos show that the amount of coca planted in Colombian land rose to a record of more than 200.000 hectares last year, more than five times the amount when Escobar was shot in 1993.

All that supply is flooding markets around the world, bringing with it violence, corruption and huge profits. Some 10.000 miles from those farms in the Andes, cocaine possession arrests in Australia have quadrupled since 2010. US cocaine overdoses have increased fivefold in the past decade as dealers began mixing the drugs with synthetic opioids. Ecuador declared a state of emergency this year for its largest port, Guayaquil. This because of the murders and car bombs and other violence by cocaine dealers.

Europe flooded with cocaine

While cocaine is still reaching traditional markets in the US, it is flooding Europe, where seizures have tripled in just five years, according to EU figures. In Africa, cocaine seizures increased tenfold between 2015 and 2019, while the amount seized in Asia nearly quadrupled over the same period, according to data collected by the UN. Larger quantities of the drug are seized at ports in Turkey and Eastern Europe, as smugglers open up new routes. It is also expanding to places where it was not common a few years ago, such as Argentina and Croatia.

The average purity of cocaine on the streets of Europe has risen to over 60%, from 37% in 2010. Residue of the drug in the wastewater of major cities has doubled over the past decade. “Europe is flooded with cocaine,” said Laurent Laniel, chief scientific analyst at the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, an EU agency. “The offer is simply unheard of.”

The magnitude of this global cocaine boom is supported by sophisticated drug cartels that have become increasingly adept at hiding the drug and distributing it in large quantities around the world. To get it to Europe, smugglers mainly rely on commercial freighters that sail across the Atlantic. That enabled them to leverage the key driver of globalization to reach overseas markets with unprecedented scale and efficiency.

Poor workers and coca pickers

The workers who work on the coca plantation are at the basis of the multibillion-dollar increase in global cocaine production, but very little of the profit ends up with them. Instead, they live in poverty in wooden shacks, while the real money is made by people higher up the chain, including the leaders of groups like Comandos de la Frontera, but also mafia in Mexico, Italy, the Balkans and elsewhere.

A lab technician asked how much the drugs would fetch in London and when he got the answer – about 20 to 30 times the price in Colombia – a reporter asked what he knew about British visa rules and airline ticket prices. An industry has sprung up around La Dorada to strip the lowly workers of the money they earn. When they are done for the day, lab workers often go to a cockfight to gamble. Bars and brothels dot the countryside where coca pickers, some of them migrants fleeing poverty in Venezuela, can drink themselves into oblivion to deafening music.

The cartel – in the absence of authority – has its own legal system and imposes forced labor when workers fight or otherwise misbehave. In addition, there is intense violence. About 20 people were slaughtered in a November battle between Comandos de la Fontera and a rival faction for control of the coca plantations and lucrative trade routes around Putumayo. That same month, a group of people were shot minutes from a farm, apparently in a dispute between the Comandos and another group.

Cocaine trip

Putumayo cocaine often begins its journey by being towed across the Andes to Colombia's Pacific coast, loaded into speedboats, and carried across jungle rivers to Central America. From where it goes on to Mexico and the US. Or it crosses the river to Ecuador to send it abroad via sea containers.

Traffickers have profited over the past 20 years from the explosive trade in fresh produce and other commodities from South America's Pacific coast. Helped by free trade agreements and an expansion of the Panama Canal. Cartels have become increasingly sophisticated in hiding drugs among the millions of containers that enter ports such as Antwerp and Rotterdam every year.

The perishable nature of cargoes such as bananas, blueberries, asparagus, flowers and grapes works to the advantage of merchants by discouraging police or customs inspections that would delay shipments. The flood of cocaine has caused unrest as far as Guinea-Bissau (West Africa). Several hours of gunfire raged in the capital in February as gunmen surrounded the government palace. President Umaro Sissoco Embalo blamed drug traffickers for what he said was an attempt to assassinate him and his cabinet. The country is a transfer point for cocaine bound for Europe, as the uninhabited islands off the coast of West Africa are seen as an ideal place to disembark and store drugs.

Back in South America, the rising supply has even transformed local drug markets. Much of the cocaine produced in Peru and Bolivia also fuels consumption there, particularly in Brazil and Argentina. According to an estimate by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, about 5 million South Americans used cocaine in 2020, meaning the continent's internal market for the drug is now about the same size as Europe's.

“There is expansion in South Africa, Asia and also in Europe,” said Ruben Vargas, a former head of the Peruvian government's anti-drug service. “But for us, the big problem is Brazil, which has become an increasingly insatiable consumer of cocaine.”

Rising production

Colombia's cocaine production started booming a decade ago, around the time the government began peace talks with the country's largest guerrilla group, the FARC. The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia began in the XNUMXs as a Marxist gang of rural farmers who sought to overthrow what they perceived as corrupt governments that favored the wealthy. But the group financed its expansion in the XNUMXs with money it got by taxing farmers and others involved in the cocaine trade.

Authorities relaxed the forced eradication of coca during negotiations, saying they would focus on intercepting shipments and seizing laundered money. Then, in 2015, Colombia stopped spraying coca fields with the herbicide glyphosate. This pesticide was the government's main weapon against growers. However, the WHO indicated that the substance was carcinogenic.

The amount of land planted with coca has roughly tripled since peace talks began. The peace accord, signed in 2016, was accompanied by programs to encourage the voluntary substitution of coca for legal crops. But these barely got off the ground due to legal difficulties, bureaucratic inertia and sabotage by new mafia, who quickly moved into former FARC territory and threatened to kill anyone who collaborated with the government.

As a result, farmers started replanting coca plantations, the effects of which are now being felt all over the world. After the legal crop programs failed, people had to rely on their coca as a source of income again. According to the UN, coca plantations in Colombia have also become more productive. The lack of eradication efforts means the shrubs can grow into their most productive stage, which is when they are two to three years old, according to Daniel Rico, the director of C-Analisis, a Bogota-based risk consultancy. In addition, there is less risk of eradication by the government, which makes farmers more willing to invest in fertilizers and irrigation.

In the decade through 2021, the amount of land planted with coca has increased 182% in Colombia, 71% in Peru and 56% in Bolivia, according to US government figures. Colombia currently produces about twice as much cocaine as its Andean neighbors combined. Small amounts of the crop have also been grown in Central America and elsewhere in recent years.

A tipping point in the war on drugs?

Putumayo was ground zero when US President Bill Clinton's Plan Colombia counter-narcotics initiative was launched around the turn of the century. Two decades and more than $10 billion in US aid later, Putumayo is still full of coca.

This year Colombians elected Gustavo Petro president after he campaigned on a pledge to phase out fossil fuels and redistribute wealth. In his inaugural address after taking office in August, Petro called for a new approach to the war on drugs, saying that the policies Bogota and Washington have pursued for decades have fueled violence and failed to curb consumption. reduce.

Petro says his government will target the mafia, rather than the coca farmers, almost all of whom are very poor. But Petro has also warned that authorities are not giving farmers the go-ahead to plant coca, and will continue to eradicate plants in areas where there is no agreement to voluntarily dig up the crops.

Under Petro, those efforts often led to clashes with local communities, while having little effect on the narcos' business. Last year, Colombian authorities destroyed about 5.000 makeshift laboratories, according to data collected by the UN. Cocaine production increased by about 14%, a new record. In the first week of November, a commando helicopter appeared and set fire to a laboratory. This caused a huge fire in the rainforest. These labs are sometimes operational again within a week.

Source: (EN)

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