INSIGHT-By growing productive coca seeds, Mexican cartels are reshaping the Colombian drug industry
By Luis Jaime Acosta TUMACO/NORTE DE SANTANDER, Colombia, May 9 (Reuters) – Mexican drug cartel emissaries are becoming more involved in Colombia’s cocaine production, paying farmers in advance and encouraging cultivation of highly productive strains, the coca growers, say security officials and rights activists.
Major Mexican cartels like Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generacion – which have large areas of influence in Mexico and engage in brutal violence to control drug routes – have long bought cocaine from guerrilla groups and criminal gangs Colombians. But while they once operated as stealth buyers – and still avoid directly engaging in competition for their business – the growing presence of emissaries is noticeable in several cocaine-producing areas, locals and locals told Reuters. farmers.
The cartels have led to significant changes in the varieties of coca planted, increasing cocaine production, according to Colombia’s anti-narcotics police. These developments in coca culture have contributed to the increase in the quantity and purity of cocaine being trafficked into the United States and Europe, according to police. The rise in production of new strains of coca can be seen in figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, with potential cocaine production increasing over the past three years even as planted acreage declines .
Individuals are sent by cartels to guide production, as well as purchase and transport, General Fernando Murillo, head of the Colombian National Police’s DIJIN investigative division, told Reuters. “They do it to make sure and have confidence in the purity of the substance being sold to them,” he said.
Captured coca growers, informants and traffickers explained to police and military how Mexican emissaries carry out purity checks, maintain relations with all of Colombia’s armed groups and negotiate prices, Murillo said. . AGRONOMISTS CARTEL
The extra fruitful coca seeds are the product of cartel-funded cultivation work by experienced farmers and agronomists, said General Ricardo Alarcon, director of the anti-narcotics police. Over the past three years, his unit has detected 14 adaptations made to increase productivity. There is no evidence that the seeds are genetically modified, he said.
The UN, police and military sources, as well as growers and human rights activists, agree that the recent increase in productivity is due to careful selection of high-yielding varieties. A coca grower in Norte de Santander province told Reuters that cartel officials and their Colombian business partners began distributing more fruitful varieties two years ago, ordering farmers to plant them.
Although the area planted with coca fell in 2020, 2019 and 2018, estimated cocaine production and the average yield of cocaine hydrochloride per cultivated hectare increased in each of those years, according to UN figures. In 2020, the most recent year for which figures are available, potential annual production increased by 8% to 1,228 metric tons, while yield per hectare increased by 18% to 7.9 kilograms.
Potential production refers to the amount that would be produced if all coca leaves were processed into pure cocaine. The cartels add another element to the complex landscape of violence in Colombia. Mexican gangs are bringing high-powered weapons into the country from the United States to use as payment for cocaine shipments.
The cartels buy both coca base and high-grade cocaine from Colombian crime syndicates like the Clan del Golfo, the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels and former members of the guerrilla group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who are rejecting a 2016 peace accord, police and military security sources said. “It’s a very pragmatic relationship,” said Rafael Guarin, who was then national security adviser to Colombian President Ivan Duque, in late 2020. “Whoever controls the cultivation areas and laboratories and can respond to demand is the one who maintains relations with the Mexicans.
The presence of emissaries in coca-growing areas is visible, four people living in Cauca, Narino and Norte de Santander and one who recently visited Cauca told Reuters. In one incident, two men with Mexican accents at a bar in Cauca who were discussing trucking cocaine became angry when a local man got too close, according to a waitress who overheard the conversation in 2020.
“We’re going to fill your stomach with lead,” one said, revealing the gun stuck in his belt. Reuters was able to corroborate some of the details described by the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, through security footage taken at the bar.
COCA ADAPTATIONS The cartels are funding the construction of labs and warehouses where shipments are coordinated, according to a police intelligence report seen by Reuters, and law enforcement sources say they are also funding makeshift docks and semi-submersible boats on the Peaceful. Almost all shipments are marked with logos used to control origin and quality, according to the report.
The farmers said they had no choice but to plant the new strains. “If someone comes here with a gun, in camouflage or in civilian clothes but with a gun on their belt and tells me these are the seeds to plant, I just do what they say,” he said. said Fernando, a Farmer Norte from Santander. “It’s my life and my family’s life.”
“We don’t ask who’s buying or where they’re from,” he said, though he said he believed visitors to his area were representatives of the Mexican cartel because of their accents. . Cocaine can be obtained from four strains of the Erythroxylum plant, three of which – novogranatense, coca and ipadu – are present in Colombia.
The most productive type varies with climate – some varieties thrive in colder regions and others are hardier when it comes to drought resistance. “It’s an adaptation of the factory in different areas,” said Alarcon, the anti-narcotics police director. “What producers – of both coca leaf and cocaine hydrochloride – are doing is profiting from mutations.”
The National Police has recorded the presence of varieties colloquially or commercially known as ‘tingomaria’, ‘giant’, ‘Bolivian black’ and ‘Bolivian red’ both in Norte de Santander and in Narino, the two main cocaine producers. Farmers are encouraged to rotate seeds to further increase production and reduce harvest times, Alarcon said. Some adaptations produce between four and six crops per year, instead of the traditional three.
It is not clear if the cartels prefer a specific modification. More than half of the cocaine leaves Colombia along its Pacific coast, security forces said. A key cartel alliance in the region is with FARC dissidents, Colonel Jaime Zambrano, head of the 4th Marine Infantry Brigade, said as he drove a boat through the yellow waters of an estuary in the jungle near Tumaco, Narino.
Bumper crops and strong demand mean business is good. The price of a kilo of high-grade cocaine is multiplied by more than eighteen to reach $30,000 at the US-Mexico border and more than $120,000 per kilo in the United States, according to Colombian police. In Colombia, weak state presence, poverty and a lack of economic opportunity mean that cartels’ offers of payments for crops, including up-front payments, are attractive to farmers, activists say.
“Drug trafficking has increased because of the total abandonment of the state. There is no dignified housing, no dignified health care, we have no dignified education or employment” , said the social leader of Tumaco, Luis Alfredo Vasquez. The situation is similar in Norte de Santander, where increased cocaine production has caused an upsurge in violence, but producers are feeling the economic benefits.
“For the first time in many years, coca growers in the region have money up front,” said Wilfredo Canizares, head of human rights group Fundacion Progresar.
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