Illegal coca cultivation is surging in Colombia, erasing what the Washington Post calls “one of the showcase achievements of U.S. counternarcotics policy and threatening to send a burst of cheap cocaine through the smuggling pipeline to the United States.” Just two years after it ceased to be the world's largest producer, behind Peru, Colombia now grows more illegal coca than Peru and third-place Bolivia combined. Last year, Colombians planted 44 percent more coca than in 2013, and U.S. drug agents say this year's crop is probably even larger. The coca boom comes at a sensitive time for the Colombian government, which is in the final stages of peace negotiations with leftist FARC rebels, who have long profited from the illegal drug trade. Last month the government halted aerial spraying of the crop, citing concerns that the herbicides may cause cancer. The program had been a pillar of Plan Colombia, under which the U.S. has provided more than $9 billion to this country since 2000.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a key U.S. ally, said his administration would launch a massive crop substitution campaign if a deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is reached and areas under rebel control become safe enough for government workers. The guerrillas and the government have agreed on a sweeping new development plan for Colombia's struggling rural areas, with the FARC pledging to help persuade farmers to rip out their coca in favor of lawful crops. U.S. and Colombian officials say the biggest reason for the current bumper crop is that the FARC and other armed groups have encouraged farmers to plant more coca in anticipation of the peace deal and the new government aid. Santos told the Post that with the FARC off the battlefield, crop substitution could succeed where past initiatives have fallen short. He said, “We have a golden opportunity, but if we don't give the farmers an alternative, they're going to keep growing coca.”