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Dec 18, 2013 | 20:21 GMT

A Pause in Colombian Coca Eradication

Reports emerged this week that a U.S. program to spray coca crops in Colombia with herbicides has been on hold for two months. At the same time, the Colombian government has also acknowledged that a national program to uproot coca plants has been reduced this year. According to Colombian officials, only 42,000 acres of coca were uprooted in 2013, compared to 74,000 last year. At the same time, government authorities are reporting a 30 percent reduction in the areas of coca cultivation sprayed with herbicide. The announcements come at a time of transition for Colombia as it struggles to secure a peace deal with militants and manage a massive drug market while at the same time making strides in economic development. 

According to reports from Colombian news outlet La Silla Vacia that have been confirmed by the LA Times, herbicide flights supported by the United States were suspended in October after two planes were shot down in close succession. The Colombian government also announced this week that it has stopped eradicating coca in the Catatumbo region of northeastern Colombia in order to end a violent two-month protest by coca growers there.

Colombia has eradicated coca by hand or by aerial spraying across the country for nearly two decades, in cooperation with the U.S. war on drugs. The program is a part of the overarching strategy to stop the flow of drugs to the United States from South America and aims to destroy the main ingredient in cocaine. Coca only grows in very limited regions on the slopes of the Andes mountains, making Colombia, Peru and Bolivia the heart of the cocaine manufacturing industry. 

Eradication efforts in Colombia during the 1990s and early 2000s have had some notable success. As a result, many coca producers have moved their plantations and processing facilities to Peru and Bolivia, where there is less military pressure. This has reduced Colombia's total coca growth areas by nearly two-thirds since 2001 and pushed Peru into first place as the world's largest producer of coca. 

Colombia is focused on fighting leftist insurgents and a wide array of criminal groups, all of which draw revenue from the cocaine trade and pose a security threat to the Colombian state. Though the program is politically controversial, Colombia has an interest in using it to undermine these groups. This, coupled with Colombia's close partnership with the United States means that a pause in the eradication campaign is likely temporary. 

However, serious questions lie ahead as the Colombian government negotiates with leftist rebels over the future of the drug trade and its social impact on Colombia. The violent protests in Catatumbo are one example of the controversy that surrounds the program, which frequently impacts legitimate crops alongside illicit ones. As a result, there will be continued social pressure to reduce the negative impacts of the eradication program. As Colombia emerges from a state of all out war on rebel groups, these social pressures will have growing influence on government decisions. The country will have to carefully balance these constraints with a continued need to pursue law enforcement campaigns against influential criminal groups. 

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