BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Criminal gangs are attempting to take over coca-growing regions in Colombia being abandoned by the leftist rebels to expand cultivation of the plant used to make cocaine, a leader of the country’s largest guerrilla movement said.
The threats against communities in the northern Colombia and elsewhere have increased as a peace deal reached last year between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia begins to be implemented, the rebel leader known as Pastor Alape said Friday. Sixteen activists have been killed so far this year, Alape said, and authorities acknowledge some of the slayings may be the beginnings of a turf war waged by the powerful Usuga Clan and other groups to prevent a joint FARC-government eradication program from taking hold.
“It’s generating a situation of terror,” said Alape, adding farmers might be driven off the land because of pressure by the heavily armed militias.
Alape’s warning comes as Colombia’s government struggles to rein in a booming coca harvest that has caught the Trump administration’s attention and could make it it harder to pacify areas the FARC is deserting.
On Friday, the government unveiled plans to wean farmers off the drug trade as part of the peace deal meant to end a half century of fighting.
The goal is to remove 50,000 hectares (123,500 acres) of coca crops within the first year by providing farmers who voluntarily destroy the illegal crops with a monthly stipend of around $350 as well as loans, one-time subsidies and technical assistance to plant legal crops. The rebel-supported campaign initially will focus on 40 municipalities responsible for more than half of Colombia’s coca production. The total price this year will be around $350 million, a figure the government says represents a huge savings over what it would cost to forcibly eradicate the same amount of coca without guarantees it won’t be replanted.
“This is much more cost-efficient and furthermore ensures that territories are transformed and peoples’ lives are changed,” said Rafael Pardo, the government’s top post-conflict strategist.
After six straight years of declining or steady production, the amount of land under coca cultivation in Colombia began rising in 2014 and jumped 42 percent in 2015 to 159,000 hectares (393,000 acres), the U.S. government says. That’s an area twice the size of New York City, and after much production shifted to Peru over the past decade, Colombia is again believed to be the world’s largest supplier of the drug.
Secretary of State designee Rex Tillerson said during his confirmation that he plans to hold Colombia to its commitment to rein in drug production amid a surge in cocaine production many critics attribute to President Juan Manuel Santos’ 2015 decision to suspend U.S.-backed aerial fumigation of illegal coca crops.
The government hasn’t renounced forced manual eradication to bring coca levels down, and in a nod to Washington, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas recently set an ambitious goal of destroying 100,000 hectares of coca this year – more than five times the 17,642 hectares destroyed in 2016.
But the preferred strategy the government committed to during peace talks is to win over the hearts and minds of the estimated 64,000 peasant families dependent on the coca trade.
Coca growers are organizing to ensure the government follows through. A fledgling movement calling itself the National Coordinator of Coca, Marijuana and Poppy Growers of Colombia convened its first national meeting in Popayan this weekend. While not explicitly aligned with the FARC, the movement is comprised of activists living in areas heavily influenced by the insurgency.