Colombia remains a major source country for cocaine, heroin and marijuana. Although the government of Colombia continues to counter the production and trafficking of illicit drugs through eradication operations, aggressive interdiction, and law enforcement activity, potential pure cocaine production in 2014 surged 30 percent to 245 metric tons (MT), 60 MT above 2013 production. This rise is attributed to the largest single-year increase of coca cultivation in Colombia in more than a decade. The United States estimates the area devoted to coca cultivation increased 39 percent in 2014 to 112,000 hectares (ha) from 80,500 ha in 2013. Production and cultivation estimates for 2015 were not yet available at the time of this report.
The Government of Colombia reported seizing 295 MT of cocaine and cocaine base in 2015. Colombia also eliminated tons of potential cocaine through combined aerial and manual eradication of 49,105 ha of coca during the same period.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), approximately 90 percent of the cocaine samples seized in the United States in 2014 was of Colombian origin.
B. Drug Control Accomplishments, Policies, and Trends
1. Institutional Development
During the course of its 50-year conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Colombian government has announced various major initiatives to expand the reach of civilian government institutions and services into Colombia’ most neglected rural regions, in an effort to reduce civil unrest, armed conflict, drug production and trafficking, and other illegal activity emanating from these areas. In line with prior efforts, on September 22, 2015, the Government of Colombia announced a new drug control strategy that reduces focus on forced coca eradication, and enhances efforts on interdiction; rural policing; prosecuting criminal organizations; anti-money laundering; alternative development, including crop substitution; market development for licit products; infrastructure and development projects; social investment; and protection of national parks. The new strategy constitutes a major component of the Colombian government’s evolving plans for the implementation of an eventual peace accord with the FARC, and includes the creation of a new crop substitution agency to be housed within the Presidency to ensure high level commitment and coordination among all ministries and agencies.
In accordance with the new drug control strategy, the Colombian government officially suspended aerial eradication of coca on October 1, 2015. The Government of Colombia emphasized it will maintain a forced manual eradication program, but statements by government officials suggest that forced eradication under the new strategy is not intended to substitute for the loss of aerial eradication, but rather will be utilized in a targeted manner in national parks and when coca cultivators refuse to voluntarily eradicate. The new strategy is expected to maintain a strong interdiction and law enforcement focus by continuing to aggressively target organized criminal groups with coordinated investigations and operations, increased efforts to seize precursor chemicals needed to produce cocaine, targeted anti-money laundering mechanisms, and legal reforms to facilitate the arrest, prosecution, and sentencing of members of organized criminal groups.
The extradition relationship between Colombia and the United States is robust and productive. Since December 17, 1997, Colombia has extradited approximately 1,870 individuals to the United States, with the majority of the individuals wanted for drug crimes.
2. Supply Reduction
The United States estimates that the area devoted to coca cultivation in Colombia increased 39 percent in 2014 to 112,000 ha from 80,500 ha in 2013. Coca cultivation expanded most notably in the southwestern and certain eastern regions of Colombia, with gains of 152 percent in Nariño, 59 percent in Putumayo, 56 percent in Caquetá, 48 percent in Vichada, 39 percent in Vaupes, 37 percent in Cauca, 28 percent in Norte de Santander, and a 95 percent increase in the north-central Department of Antioquia. The southern, central and other eastern departments saw the greatest decreases in coca cultivation with reductions of 37 percent in Guainía, 33 percent in Caldas, 29 percent in Santander, 25 percent in Amazonas, 22 percent in Guaviare, 21 percent in Meta, and a 35 percent drop in the north-eastern Department of Arauca.
Several factors contributed to the overall surge in coca cultivation in Colombia in 2014. First, widespread reporting indicates that FARC elements have been urging coca growers to plant more coca, purportedly motivated by the belief that Colombian government post-peace accord investment and subsidies will focus on regions with the greatest quantities of coca. Second, empirical evidence demonstrates that counter-eradication tactics have significantly reduced the effectiveness of coca eradication efforts. To hamper aerial eradication efforts coca growers: (1) shift fields to areas off limits to aerial eradication, including national parks and indigenous reserves; (2) plant smaller fields in areas where aerial eradication is permitted, to impede coca detection and aerial eradication; and (3) prune coca plants after being sprayed to prevent full absorption of the herbicide and save the plant for future harvests. To combat manual eradication, coca growers: (1) employ blockade techniques to prevent eradicators from accessing fields; (2) place improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around eradication operations to kill, injure, and demoralize eradicators and significantly slow eradication operations by requiring extensive counter-IED detection efforts; and (3) plant fields in remote areas, requiring increased effort to detect, access, and eradicate fields. Finally, Colombia’s manual eradication budget has declined by two-thirds since 2008, resulting in a 90 percent reduction in the number of manual eradicators in 2015 as compared to 2008. In mid-2015, however, the Colombian government announced a plan to dramatically increase the number of Colombian National Police (CNP) personnel devoted to manual eradication operations by about 100 percent to approximately 2,650, and to increase the number of manual eradicators by about 40 percent to approximately 1,050.
Colombia ended aerial eradication on October 1, 2015. Prior to that date, Colombia had aerially sprayed 36,494 ha of coca in 2015, on course to meet its 2015 goal of 45,000 ha. Colombia manually eradicated 12,611 ha of coca in 2015, surpassing its goal of 11,000 ha.
Based on U.S. estimates that 52 percent of the 2014 coca cultivation consisted of immature, lower-yielding crops, 2015 cocaine production numbers are expected to increase significantly, regardless of any new cultivation, due to the increased productivity of maturing coca plants.
Colombia also remains the second largest supplier of heroin to the United States market. The United States estimates that 800 ha of opium poppy were under cultivation in Colombia in 2014, sufficient to potentially produce two MT of pure heroin. Production and cultivation estimates for 2015 were not yet available at the time of this report.
Colombia continued to make drug interdiction one of its counter-drug priorities, linking it to a stable post-peace accord environment, the extension of citizen security and rule of law throughout Colombia, and the countering of illegal armed groups that have plagued Colombia for decades. Given the Government of Colombia’s stated desire to shift its counter-drug strategy towards interdiction, interdiction-related activities are expected to gain prominence as one of Colombia’s primary counternarcotics tools in the coming years. With respect to interdiction, Colombian authorities reported seizing 295 MT of cocaine and cocaine base, 245 MT of marijuana, 393 kilograms of heroin, and destroying 3,602 cocaine base laboratories and 236 cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) laboratories in 2015.
3. Public Information, Prevention, and Treatment
While Colombia’s overall illegal drug consumption rate remains at an intermediate level internationally, the Government of Colombia has expressed growing concern about the use of marijuana and cocaine, especially among school-aged youth, and is carefully monitoring the increase of heroin use, having observed a recent spike in overdoses in six regions of the country.
In 2015, Colombia reevaluated its approach to drug demand reduction. It launched a new national demand reduction plan for 2014 – 2021, which addresses consumption as a preventable and treatable health issue. In addition, the government has been reexamining its criminal response to consumption. Acknowledging that severe criminal sanctions disproportionately impact the most vulnerable in the drug trafficking chain and contribute to serious prison overcrowding, the Colombian government is exploring alternatives to incarceration and the expanded use of restorative justice models, especially within the juvenile system. This reevaluation is reflected in the public debate on consumption, with increasing support for alternative sentencing models. On December 22, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed a decree legalizing and regulating the production, possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes.
Colombia’s new counter-drug strategy highlights increased focus on a public health model based on demand reduction and treatment programs, and by reducing domestic consumption through strengthening the institutional capacity of the government, promoting healthy lifestyles, preventing initial drug use, reducing the negative health and social effects for current users, and improving access to treatment for those suffering from substance use disorders.
As a matter of policy, the Government of Colombia does not encourage or facilitate illicit drug production or distribution, nor is it involved in laundering the proceeds of the sale of illicit drugs. Local elections for governors, mayors, and councilpersons were held on October 25, 2015. These elections ushered in government officials who will be responsible for leading the implementation of the anticipated peace accord throughout Colombia. Not only will post-accord efforts focus on strengthening rule of law to effectively counter existing criminal networks, but they will also need to address the issue of individual FARC members who refuse to demobilize.
Although the elections were extremely peaceful, claims of corruption and electoral crimes (vote rigging, voter fraud, identification fraud, illegal campaign financing, etc.) were lodged before and during the elections. Additionally, several elected candidates are suspected of links to drug trafficking, corruption, or organized crime. The elected Governor of Valle is being investigated for alleged illicit enrichment linked to drug trafficking. The husband of the elected Governor of Magdalena has been linked to illegal-armed groups, and the elected Mayor of Yopal is currently in prison for alleged links to drug traffickers.
As in prior years, in 2015 there were several investigations, arrests, and prosecutions of government officials, and members of the military and police, for alleged ties to organized criminal groups.
C. National Goals, Bilateral Cooperation, and U.S. Policy Initiatives
The United States provides a range of counternarcotics assistance to the CNP and Colombian military, as well as to judicial institutions that investigate and prosecute drug traffickers. The United States also supports programs designed to develop Colombia’s rural policing capabilities. Additionally, the United States supports Colombian efforts to move communities out of coca-based economies by expanding the presence of the state, strengthening licit market linkages, and fostering democratic citizenship. In transition zones where the Colombian government has only recently established minimum security, the United States works with Colombia to respond rapidly to community-identified needs, strengthen local institutions, develop social capital and encourage greater civil-society participation, promote land restitution and formalization, and support longer-term economic development opportunities. A multi-variable index analysis of these transition zones shows progress in terms of security, local governance, and economic development.
Through the U.S.-Colombia Action Plan on Regional Security Cooperation, Colombia’s security forces are providing expertise for countering transnational organized crime and drug trafficking to nations in Central America and the Caribbean with U.S. assistance. The Action Plan included 39 capacity-building activities in four countries in 2013, and has grown to include more than 200 activities in six countries.
Bilateral maritime counterdrug cooperation, exercised under the ship-boarding agreement signed in 1997, continues to be one of the most effective in the region, enabling the United States to seize over 29 MT of cocaine in fiscal year 2015.
Colombia continues to take steps to combat the drug trade. These efforts likely have kept hundreds of metric tons of drugs each year from reaching the United States and other markets, and have helped stabilize Colombia. Colombia is now a partner in exporting security expertise and training to international partners.
Peace negotiations between the Government of Colombia and the FARC are in their third year, and the United States strongly supports them. An irreversible transition from conflict will require the Colombian government to draw from lessons of the past to address the structural and political impediments that have prevented the full guarantee of basic constitutional rights to the approximately seven million Colombian rural inhabitants who live below the poverty line. If a peace accord is achieved, its implementation will require the Colombian government to devote unprecedented resources to enhance government presence, improve security, increase public services, build infrastructure, and generate additional economic opportunities in regions historically influenced by organized criminal groups. Additionally, an accord will present new opportunities, challenges, approaches, tools, and resources for drug control activities, rural security, and economic development.