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The Reasons for the Surge in Coca Cultivation in Colombia

Using available data and analyzing regional differences, this article examines five hypotheses that could account for the marked increase in coca under cultivation. Has the current anti-drug strategy reached its limit?

The Reasons for the Surge in Coca Cultivation in Colombia

More Crops and Higher Yields


The most recent illicit-crop survey in Colombia reported an upsurge of 44 percent from 2013 to 2014 in the number of hectares under cultivation, which interrupts the downward trend that had been seen since 2008.


This report, prepared by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, shows not only the increase in the number of hectares cultivated, but a notable rise in potential yield, which grew from 290 to 442 metric tons (an increase of 52 percent).


This article analyzes five hypotheses that could explain this increase. There are no simple or single explanations, and in fact there are multiple causes, each weighted differently depending on the region being studied. That is why we do not try to pinpoint a single factor.


Hypothesis 1: The FARC is inciting farmers to plant coca.


There is an elevated correlation between Colombian states (referred to as “departments” in Colombia) with the largest increases in coca production and the active presence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). But this is not new. The insurgency’s participation in the drug trafficking chain is well known, as well as its capacity to exert pressure on communities.


What is new in this hypothesis is the idea that the FARC is inciting communities to plant coca by arguing that they stand to benefit from crop substitution programs in any implementation of eventual peace . Various sources on the ground have confirmed this account, and they indicate that area residents have gotten the message that they should cultivate more coca to receive government benefits.


These populations have seen how state institutions come and go, and how armed groups retreat and return. This is not the first time they have heard about the possibility of obtaining government resources by using coca cultivation as a negotiating factor. The citizens who live in these areas have significantly lower levels of confidence in the government and are skeptical about State Institutions. It is unlikely they would believe in these type of promises.


But even if the increase in cultivation is related to pressure from the FARC in its areas of influence, there are still doubts about whether this change is being driven by expectations about potential government benefit programs.


Hypothesis 2: The reduction in aerial spraying and manual eradication has increased coca cultivation.


As the following graph shows, aerial spraying intensified between 2000 and 2006 and then steadily decreased until 2014, when there was an 18 percent increase in this activity over 2013. Manual eradication also rose between 2000 and 2008, and since then it has decreased every year.


Coca, aerial spraying, and manual eradication (2000-2014)


Source: Prepared by the authors based on information from


In 2013, aerial spraying decreased by more than 50 percent, and manual eradication also dropped significantly. However, the number of hectares under cultivation did not increase.


In 2014, the evidence indicates that in four of the six departments where the area under coca cultivation increased, aerial spraying had also intensified. Manual eradication is a different story, as only one of these departments showed higher rates than those of the previous year.


It is possible to conclude, then, that in general terms there is no direct relationship between the number of hectares sprayed with glyphosate or manually eradicated and the area planted with coca in Colombia (a hypothesis that had already been called into question in several studies). While in some areas of the country the suspension of spraying might have played a role in increased cultivation, this is not the only factor or the most important one.


Hypothesis 3: The drop in the price of gold led families to go back to planting coca.


One explanation claims that the drop in gold prices led to a shift of the labor force from informal mining to coca cultivation. In 2012, when the number of hectares planted with coca fell, one possible reason given was that the rise in the price of gold had led farmers to temporarily turn to more profitable activities such as gold mining.


In general terms, there is a strong correlation between the price of gold and the number of hectares under Coca cultivation (as can be seen in the next graph). It is possible, then, to speculate about a compensation effect between these two illegal economies.


Hectares under coca cultivation and the price of gold (2007-2014)


Source: Prepared by the authors based on UNODC information


When this hypothesis is put to the test in the areas of production, we find that the relation does not always move in the same direction. In Antioquia and Southern Bolívar states, there are municipalities affected by mining that have also seen increases in the number of hectares under cultivation.


Along the Pacific, meanwhile, there are areas where coca cultivation rose at the same time that mining activity was stabilizing; and other areas in which gold mining is intense and yet coca cultivation has increased slightly.


This would suggest that gold mining is not a substitute but a complement to drug trafficking. This trend seems to be consolidating in 2015, with the configuration of mining/coca-growing areas in which guerrillas and criminal organizations have positioned themselves to control both criminal economies.


Taking these factors into account, it could be said that while the substitution of gold with coca could be one factor that contributed to the increase in the number of hectares in 2014, what is being consolidated is more akin to a complementary relation between these activities. 


Hypothesis 4: The increase in domestic cocaine use is spurring cultivation in some areas.


This hypothesis is hard to sustain. It is true that cocaine use in Colombia has increased. According to the National Study on Psychoactive Substance Use, conducted by the Ministry of Justice and Law, the percentage of people who reported ever having used cocaine in their lives rose from 2.5 to 3.2 percent from 2008 to 2013; those reporting recent use remains stable at 0.7 percent. But is this growth in domestic consumption enough drive an increase in production?


The Ministry of Justice estimates that around 19 tons of cocaine per year would be required for a population of 288,000 users. The National Study on Psychoactive Substance Use calculates that there were 162,000 cocaine users in 2013, which would create a demand for approximately 11 tons, representing 2.5 percent of total production, estimated to be 442 tons in 2014.


Covering local demand would thus require around 11,000 hectares, or probably much less, considering the quality of cocaine being used. Seen from this perspective, domestic use is a marginal factor in the increase of production, especially taking into account the demand of more than 200 tons for the U.S. market- despite the drop in use that has taken place in recent years.


Given this reality, one driving factor that should be considered is the growing demand for cocaine in some emerging markets. Along with this factor are changes in the global market, with the intensification of routes toward South American countries, as well as the growing flow toward Western and Central Europe via Africa. 


Another scenario to explore is the reactivation of the cocaine market in the U.S. and Canada. According to the National Secretary of Defense (Sedena) from Mexico, the quantity of cocaine confiscated by Mexico's army during the first six months of 2015 - almost 2,800 kilos – which represents a 340 percent increase from how much was seized during the same period last year. Additionally, some recent events such as the largest seizure in U.S. Coast Guard history, with 12,000 pounds of cocaine from a vessel on the Central American coast, could be a symptom of this change. 


Main Global Trafficking Flows of Cocaine

Source: World Drug Report 2015


Hypothesis 5: The lack of comprehensive intervention in the territories created favorable conditions for the increase.


It is true that in 2014 coca crops were concentrated in areas where comprehensive intervention is difficult. However, this is nothing new and does not help to explain the change in cultivation. Government efforts continue to be limited, with a minimum—though rising—coverage of the territory affected by crop cultivation.


But this hypothesis is interesting because it raises a question about the sustainability of government intervention based on a lopsided strategy—that is, one with a strong emphasis on law enforcement and a limited capacity to spur rural development efforts, including illicit-crop substitution. In other words, barring a change in these areas’ vulnerabilities and conditions, the downward trend in cultivation could not easily be sustained.


From this standpoint, the 2014 increase in coca cultivation is a sign that a Policy based on crop eradication—one without a greater, more effective government presence to implement sustainable rural development and offer viable, lawful alternatives for the communities participating in this illegal economy—has run out of steam. Thus far the government has not managed to balance policies that counteract the phenomenon in the short term with Policies meant to reduce the factors contributing to its recurrence and exacerbation in the medium and long term.


There are good reasons to redesign the existing policy—not just because of the protracted armed conflict and the influence of multiple criminal organizations— but because of the inertia of an approach whose results have been temporary and unsustainable.


This article was originally published in Spanish by Razón Pública (Colombia).ón-de-coca.html 


Juan Carlos Garzón is a political scientist, graduate of the Universidad Javeriana, with a master’s in Latin American studies from Georgetown University; Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center; researcher with the Fundación Ideas para la Paz; and an adviser on drug and security policies.



Julián Wilches is Former Director of Counter-Drug Policy at Colombia’s Ministry of Justice and Law; former Adviser with the Presidential Program against Illicit Crops; and political scientist, graduate of the Universidad de los Andes, with a master’s in Journalism from the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares in Madrid.







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