Crime & Justice

Leaving coca behind: The dream of campesinos under drug gang’s yoke

By Esneyder Negrete and Irene Escudero

Unguia, Colombia, May 25 (EFE).- An army helicopter roars over coca-planted hillsides and tents where the leaves of that plant are processed into coca paste in Unguia, a far-northwestern Colombian municipality near the border with Panama.

Campesinos who are involved in that business yet long to make an honest living are seeing their hopes dashed by an apathetic government that offers nothing more than a military response and by the Clan del Golfo, the illegal armed neo-paramilitary group that controls the drug trade in much of the Andean nation.

Although these small farmers would prefer to cultivate corn, plantains or rice, those crops are less profitable than coca, the raw material for manufacturing cocaine.

But while that plant is a path to more money, it also is the source of many more problems.

“The government (Anti-Narcotics Police) came. What did they come to do? To burn down our ‘caletas’ (drug labs where coca leaf is processed into coca paste),” Elias Caro, president of the Community Action Board in the hamlet of El Naranjo, told Efe about a recent operation against illicit crops.

In the wake of different army interventions in that area several weeks ago, leftist President Gustavo Petro hailed the destruction of several “laboratories” as part of a policy that favors drug seizures over forced coca eradication efforts.

But local campesinos say these operations are not achieving the desired aim.

“They come and put it in the news that they (targeted) some laboratories of illegal groups that operate in the area. And it’s not like that … they’re trampling on campesinos, they’re not weakening any illegal group,” Caro said.

Small-scale coca producers, who receive only 3,100 pesos ($0.70) per gram of coca paste from the Clan del Golfo, say their production at times is insufficient to cover their expenses.

“These crops are not proving to be profitable,” Tomas Fandiño, president of the Coca Growers’ Association of Unguia, told Efe.

Campesinos are merely a small link in the drug-trafficking chain, he said, adding that they are targeted by the authorities even though the money ends up with the illegal networks.

Entire towns in Colombia’s Caribbean and Pacific regions are under the thumb of the Clan del Golfo, who intimidate, kill and displace anyone who dares to interfere with their lucrative international smuggling operations.

Both Caro and Fandiño have pinned their hopes on the Petro administration’s new anti-narcotics policy, which aims to provide assistance to small farmers while clamping down on drug traffickers and money launderers.

(Prior to Petro’s taking office, the area planted with coca in Colombia reached a record high of 204,000 hectares in 2021)

Caro said the campesinos of Unguia are calling on the government to address to their needs because they are now being “forced to plant coca leaf due to a lack of any other alternative.”

Those small farmers say they are willing to participate in Colombia’s PNIS program, which was established as part of the government’s 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group and aims to substitute crops used for illegal purposes.

But they have made it clear they will only do so once there is a strong state security presence – and that this presence cannot be restricted to military helicopters, but instead must include social programs that improve access roads and their ability to sell crops without intermediaries.

At the moment, however, the only ones who have improved the roads are the Clan del Golfo.

“They’ve come here three times to eradicate, and the government has never brought us a productive project,” Caro said. EFE

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