Explainer last updated March 28, 2020
Indigenous peoples in the Andes—mainly Bolivia and Peru, but a few in Colombia—have used the leaves of the coca bush as a mild stimulant for centuries. In 1859, chemist Albert Niemann refined the leaves’ stimulant alkaloid into what would become a powerful, addictive drug, most often used as a salt called cocaine HCl. In the United States, cocaine was used in over-the-counter patent medicines and soft drinks until the Harrison Narcotics Act declared it illegal in 1914.
Illicit use of cocaine increased in the United States and elsewhere during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. By the 1980s, U.S. authorities had declared addiction to cocaine, and its cheaper derivative crack, to be a major public health threat. The Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, together with Democratic-majority congresses, passed mandatory sentencing laws for cocaine possession and devoted ever-increasing resources to its interdiction, and to the eradication of coca bushes, in the Andes. Cocaine interdiction and eradication remain large components of U.S. drug supply reduction strategies in the Andes.
During the last half-century, nearly all of the world’s illicit coca and cocaine have been produced in three Andean countries: Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. Bolivia and Peru allow a certain amount of coca to be cultivated for legal use of the coca leaf, and endeavor to eradicate the rest. Colombia tolerates a few indigenous communities’ small-scale use of the leaf, but prohibits it otherwise.
Producers usually refine cocaine from coca in two stages. In the relatively crude first stage, often carried out by farmers themselves, the harvested coca leaves are combined with cement, gasoline, acetone and a few other chemicals, which yields a low-volume “coca paste.” Trafficking organizations later refine this paste into cocaine, usually in clandestine laboratories. A kilogram of coca paste yields roughly the same weight in cocaine. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that it is becoming more common for Colombian farmers to sell dried coca leaves instead of processing the leaves into paste, as the majority did as recently as the mid-2000s.
Between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s, the illegal cocaine trade was monopolized by two Colombian criminal syndicates, or cartels: the Medellín Cartel commanded by Pablo Escobar, and the Cali Cartel run by two brothers, Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela. These organizations were vertically integrated, controlling the trade from the coca fields, along transshipment routes, all the way to the principal markets in U.S. and other consuming countries’ cities.
Probably because they did not want to contend with the armed groups in Colombia’s countryside, the cartels of that era preferred to buy coca leaf and coca paste in Bolivia and Peru, then refine it into cocaine in Colombia. As a result, most coca during this period was cultivated in Bolivia and Peru, with Colombia in an often distant third place.
Colombian authorities killed Pablo Escobar in 1993, and arrested Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela in 1995, the year after Colombian President was accused of accepting campaign donations from the Cali Cartel. Both brothers are now in U.S. prisons. The dominion of the big cartels was over—and with it, the cocaine trade’s organization as a single, vertically integrated supply chain. Mexican criminal groups gained control over lucrative routes through their country into the United States, and grew dramatically in size and wealth. In Colombia, smaller organized crime groups, guerrillas, and paramilitaries quickly filled the vacuum the big cartels left behind, and international cocaine markets saw little change in supplies, prices, or purity levels. In fact, U.S. street prices declined during this period, indicating that supply was meeting demand more than ever.
Colombia becomes the cultivation center, and fumigation begins
Coca cultivation, too, exploded in Colombia during the mid-to-late 1990s, as the new trafficking groups mostly lacked the capability to bring the raw material from Peru and Bolivia to Colombia. They bought instead from farmers in ungoverned areas of rural Colombia, many of them the sites of civil strife and land tenure disputes going back decades. Between 1994 and 1997, Colombia shot from third to first place among coca-cultivating nations.
Today, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) traces back to Colombia 90 percent of cocaine seized within the United States. By the end of the 1990s, their participation in coca or cocaine revenues allowed Colombia’s FARC guerrillas and AUC paramilitaries to expand territorially and recruit heavily, roughly tripling or quadrupling in size during the decade.
During the early 1990s, Colombia’s government went along with a U.S. proposal to begin spraying the herbicide glyphosate from aircraft over territories where farmers grew coca. The “fumigation” program began in earnest in 1994, spraying nearly 5,000 hectares of coca-growing territories that year with a mixture of glyphosate and surfactants, a more concentrated version of the “Round-Up” product sold by Monsanto, Inc. Peru and Bolivia did not adopt aerial spraying programs, and continue to perform all eradication manually, with eradicators entering coca fields and destroying the bushes.
The U.S. government’s 2000 “Plan Colombia” aid package funded a sharp expansion in the fumigation program, first in the southern Colombian department of Putumayo, and elsewhere soon afterward. During most of the 2000s decade, this was a heavily military aid package, putting about four of every five dollars into security efforts, including fumigation, and only a small amount into development or attention to victims.
Between 2000 and 2004, ever-increasing levels of spraying brought reductions in U.S. and UN estimates of Colombia’s coca crop. After that, however, progress stagnated, then reversed, even as the spraying intensified.
Between 2004 and 2007, Colombian coca cultivation kept increasing, even as spraying reached record levels that have never since been matched: 172,000 hectares in 2006. Coca farmers, with no viable economic alternatives in a vacuum of on-the-ground government presence, adjusted to the spraying. They migrated elsewhere in the country, cutting down forest and growing the crop in new areas—most notably the department of Nariño, which grew from being marginal to the trade to being Colombia’s number-one coca-producing department. They grew smaller, scattered, harder-to-detect plots of coca. They cut back the plants immediately after spraying, saving the plants. They reportedly planted new varieties that yielded more cocaine alkaloid from smaller bushes.
Manual eradication and territorial presence
After 2007, the U.S. government gradually reduced funding for the aerial spray program; as the Bush administration and Congress didn’t intend to maintain the same high funding levels forever, they began handing over more responsibility for the program to Colombia. Overall fumigation began to decline. The strategy placed more emphasis on forced manual eradication and territorial presence through programs like “family forest rangers” (Familias Guardabosques), which paid people to prevent coca cultivation, and the “National Territorial Consolidation Program,” which sought a more holistic approach to bringing state presence into ungoverned territories.
These programs contributed to a notable decrease in coca-growing between 2008 and 2012, even as aerial fumigation plummeted during those years. (It is notable that between 2004 and 2012, coca increased while fumigation increased, then declined while fumigation declined, showing a weak correlation between spraying and reduced cultivation.) By 2012, official estimates of Colombia’s coca crop declined to levels not seen since at least the mid-1990s. The programs that achieved these reductions, however, proved to have their own drawbacks, or were not sustained into the 2010s.
Manual eradication turned out to be quite dangerous. At least 95 eradicators, or their escorts in the security forces, were killed by ambushes, snipers, landmines, and improvised explosive devices hidden among the coca plants. Hundreds more were wounded. Manual eradication was also expensive, requiring the transportation of dozens of teams around the country, and operations often risked confrontations with coca growers. The “family forest ranger” program was more of a payment program than a development strategy, and was not continued by the government of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-18). The National Territorial Consolidation Program, which benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance, was largely unable to bring non-military agencies into newly secured territories, and the Santos government gradually defunded it.
The post-2012 coca boom
After 2012, coca cultivation began to increase again in Colombia. By 2017, according to U.S. estimates, the country’s coca crop had surpassed the unprecedented 200,000-hectare threshold. Rather than owing to a single cause, this new coca boom was the result of a “perfect storm” of factors.
- The FARC shot down two spray aircraft in 2013, forcing a temporary suspension of fumigation. Then in 2015, the World Health Organization released a literature review indicating that glyphosate may cause cancer. This finding spurred the government of Juan Manuel Santos to call a halt to the program. In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court set strict health, environmental, prior consultation, and compensation requirements that any new spray program would have to meet.
- The Santos government did not immediately accompany the end of fumigation with any new strategy, whether dissuasive or assistive. As noted, the early 2010s saw declines in both manual eradication and investment for government services in ungoverned territories. With few exceptions, farmers in these zones got a reprieve from the fumigation planes but saw no increased state presence or development support.
- The peace accord’s draft chapter on coca substitution became public in 2014, with text indicating that farmers who had coca might receive monetary benefits in exchange for eradicating it. U.S. and Colombian officials believe this created an incentive to plant coca.
- The price of gold, which had risen sharply after the 2008 financial crisis, declined again by the early 2010s. Many coca-growing areas are also zones of illicit precious-metals mining. Coca growers who had abandoned the crop during the “gold rush” years went back to coca after the price fell.
- Colombia’s peso weakened sharply against the U.S. dollar, making the farm-gate price for the crop appear much higher in local currency, and thus more attractive to farmers. A kilogram of coca leaf jumped from about 2,150 pesos in 2014 to 3,000 pesos in 2015, UNODC reported at the time.
- A post-2013 fall in oil prices deprived the Colombian national government of an important revenue source, reducing its budget by a significant fraction. This hampered both eradication and rural development programs at a time when, more than a dozen years after Plan Colombia’s launch, U.S. aid had also declined to half of its Bush administration peak level.
Coca and cocaine in Colombia today
At the present moment, official sources tell us the following about coca and cocaine in Colombia.
- The U.S. estimate of Colombia’s coca crop was 212,000 hectares in 2019 and 208,000 hectares in 2018.
- The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimate of Colombia’s coca crop was 169,000 hectares in 2018.
- The UN agency breaks down this number geographically; in 2018 the top five coca-producing departments were Nariño (41,903), Norte de Santander (33,598), Putumayo (26,408), Cauca (17,117), and Antioquia (13,403). Of these, in 2000 only Putumayo and Nariño were in the top five.
- In 2018, the UNODC estimated that 119,500 Colombian families made at least a partial living from the production of coca. The average coca-growing household earned about US$130 per month from the crop.
- Colombian personnel manually eradicated 94,606 hectares of coca in 2019, a record.
- Farmers voluntarily eradicated 40,506 hectares between 2017 and 2019, in exchange for assistance under a National Comprehensive Substitution Program established by the 2016 peace accord’s fourth chapter. This program enrolled 99,097 families, promising each approximately US$12,000 worth of cash assistance and technical support for the switch to legal crops. While much of that support remains undelivered, a late 2019 UNODC estimate, extrapolating from a small sample, contends that only 0.4 percent of enrolled farmers had replanted coca.
- The White House estimate of Colombia’s potential pure cocaine production in 2019 was 951 metric tons, up from 887 tons in 2018.
- The UNODC estimate of Colombia’s potential pure cocaine production in 2018 was 1,120 metric tons, up from 1,058 tons in 2017.
- Of cocaine bound for the U.S. market, over 90 percent was smuggled at least partially via maritime routes in 2015. This includes small boats, semi-submersible craft, and cargo containers.
- About 3 percent was smuggled at least partially by air in 2015, with much exiting airstrips in Venezuela and making initial landfall in Honduras. (A U.S. official, speaking off the record, told WOLA staff in March 2020 that the aerial percentage had since increased somewhat.)
- In 2019, Colombian security forces reported seizing 433 tons of cocaine, nearly tying their 2017 record of 434.7 tons.
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reports seizing an increasing amount at the U.S.-Mexico border: 45.8 metric tons in 2019, up from 22.6 tons in 2014. CBP seized 88 percent of that 2019 cocaine at border ports of entry.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an increase in cocaine-related drug poisoning deaths in the United States for the fifth consecutive year in 2017. Many of the 13,942 reported cocaine-involved deaths in 2017 involved combining cocaine with opioids.
- In the U.S. government data reported to UNODC between 1998 and 2016, the inflation and purity-adjusted price of cocaine sold on U.S. streets neither spiked due to scarcity nor dove to supply-glut levels.
Today, Colombia’s cocaine trade is dominated not by large cartels, but by a fragmented constellation of armed and criminal groups. These include fronts of the ELN guerrillas; the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group; several FARC dissident groups; several regional criminal organizations; small, generally low-profile Colombian organized crime structures; and representatives of Brazilian, Mexican, and Venezuelan criminal trafficking organizations. These groups frequently confront each other, but also cooperate often. Once cocaine leaves Colombian territory, it is much less likely to be trafficked by Colombians than was the case 20 or 25 years ago.
As noted in the list above, the 2016 peace accord’s fourth chapter created a National Comprehensive Substitution Program, providing support to coca-growing families who voluntarily eradicate the crop. The accord did not outlaw aerial spraying, but it relegated it to “last resort” status. First, the government is required to seek accords with coca-growing communities on voluntary substitution. If a community refuses or is found to be cheating, the government may proceed with eradication, “prioritizing manual removal where possible, bearing in mind respect for human rights, the environment, health, and well-being.” If substitution is still not possible, for instance due to security conditions, the government may then employ aerial spraying.
The likely return of fumigation
The government of President Iván Duque is pledging to re-start the aerial herbicide fumigation program. During Duque’s March 2020 visit to Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump told him pointblank, “You’re going to have to spray.” In late December 2019, Colombia’s Justice Ministry issued a draft decree laying out how the government would meet the Constitutional Court’s requirements for a renewed spray program.
Spraying would most likely remain prohibited in national parks, environmentally fragile areas, population centers, and probably indigenous reserves and Afro-Colombian collective lands. Speculation in Colombian media indicates that spraying could re-start during the second half of 2020, a date that may be pushed back by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is WOLA’s position that aerial herbicide fumigation is a poor policy choice that can only yield short-term results, while carrying high risks of health and environmental damage and social discord in rural areas. The only way to guarantee a permanent, long-term reduction in illicit coca cultivation is to bring a functioning state presence to ungoverned territories, while partnering with these territories’ populations on their development. In the absence of state presence, with land titling and farm-to-market infrastructure, all eradication efforts, including alternative development programs, run into long-term difficulty.
“State presence” programs take a long time to implement, however, and do not yield short term results. In the short term, WOLA recommends significant investment in consultation-based alternative development, along with greatly increased interdiction of both drugs and precursor chemicals along heavily used but largely unguarded trafficking routes.