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The Cocaine Economy
The black market forces that define daily life in one of Colombian biggest coca regions
Pípe gets paid roughly 50 cents for each gram of coca paste he produces, the raw material used to produce cocaine. After it is refined into its final product, shipped to North America, diluted, and sold on the street, that gram is worth over $200.
Pípe, who asked that his last name be withheld for security reasons, is a coca farmer in Puerto Lajas, a riverside agricultural community in Catatumbo — one of the most dangerous conflict zones in Colombia. and one of the biggest coca producing regions in the world.
Coca here is grown openly, thousands of hectares easily visible from the improvised dirt roads that crisscross the region stretch off into the horizon as far as the eye can see.
Despite an escalation of the drug wars even to the point of the Colombian government killing children in air force bombings on rebel camps in its own territory and record levels of crop eradication by the current administration of Iván Duque, Colombia still produced record amounts of cocaine in 2020.
According to a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Colombia now produces and distributes over 80% of the cocaine consumed globally.
This economic bonanza for criminal armed groups that control regions like Catatumbo, where coca is grown, has created an entire black market economy for residents who live in the region: one which exists outside of any government or oversight.
“No one grows food crops here anymore,” Andrés Silva,a community organizer that works with the local farmers collective to implement sustainable farming practices, told Pirate Wire Services. “There is no market for them.”
The fact that all food must be imported to this agricultural community makes food more expensive, which raises the cost of living, which forces farmers to grow coca, which brings more attention from paramilitary groups and the government, which in turn brings more violence.
But the locals who live here, who earn just a tiny fraction of the enormous profits generated by the narco-trafficking industry, feel they have little choice.
Pipe described how his family used to grow Yuca, squash, aguacates and bananas, but they were eventually forced into coca. “It’s 11 hours by bus to the closest city. So when we sold our crop, we had to pay for that transport to Cúcuta [the capital of the department]. We could sell a kilo of vegetables for a pittance there. It just wasn’t sustainable. But if you grow coca, the buyers come to you, and the price is fair.”
The cocaine revolution in Catatumbo began in the late 90’s. As Colombia’s 50 year civil war ground on ruthlessly, the region was settled by farmers fleeing violence at the hands of paramilitary groups and the Colombian army alike.
But guerilla groups, who were looking to fund their insurgency were increasingly turning to narco-trafficking to do so, as were the right wing militias that fought against, paracos, descendants of “self-defense” paramilitary groups that supported the government.
Carmen Silva Rojas, 70, has lived in Puerto Lajas for over 40 years. She suffered the loss of her son at the hands of National Liberation Army (ELN) guerillas when they first arrived to the region. Eight years later, her grandson was killed by the Colombian army.
“The guerillas wanted to displace us,” she said from her porch, sipping coffee. “They killed a lot of people when they arrived. I remember them executing a priest publicly because he wouldn’t endorse them. It was a dark period.”
But with the guerillas came a new market for coca, that had been displaced by a war sweeping the region as part of Plan Colombia, a decade long joint effort by the US and the Colombian government to wage war on cocaine.
As farmers traded their livestock and food crops for coca leaves, that meant the region produced less food, and needed to import it from the regional capital, Cúcuta, 11 hours away along those same poorly maintained dirt roads they used to transport their own harvests. Imported goods meant the cost of living rose in Puerto Lajas, and eventually even farmers who had resisted growing coca were forced to cultivate the illicit crop in order to survive.
Producing all that coca creates another need in the region- gasoline. And a lot of it. Farmers use gasoline and ammonia to produce the coca base, which they sell to armed groups in the region. Coca farmers use so much gasoline that in Colombia that the government estimated in 2019 that 28% of all gasoline consumed in the country is used by coca farmers and cocaine laboratories.
But in Puerto Lajas, it isn’t as simple as going to a gas station. The closest one is 8 hours away on winding dirt roads and wouldn’t come close to fulfilling the communities need anyway. The scarcity has created an entire market in petroleum smuggling.
Civilian trucks pass constantly on the roads to Puerto Lajas, loaded with barrels of crude headed to homemade gasoline distilleries in Catatumbo. The farmers will burn off the heaviest sediments, then distill the crude into a black and oily gasoline they will use to extract the alkaloids from their coca harvests and make coca paste.
“Some of the gasoline is bought upriver in Colombia,” says Silva. “Some of it is stolen from state-owned oil pipelines by armed groups. And a lot of the crude comes from Venezuela.”
Standing at the home-made dock in Puerto Lajas, which is really just a crude concrete slab local have built, supported by wooden posts which extend into the river, hundreds of boats pass daily, all loaded with large plastic or metal barrels.
“You see those boats?,” Silva says. “That’s all petroleum. And almost all of will be used to make coca paste.”
Venezuela gasoline production has collapsed in the last two years. The country produces a particularly heavy crude that before 2019 was processed mostly by U.S refineries. Due to sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, that market is no longer available to producers, but the country still produces crude oil.
And an an unknown amount of that crude is smuggled up the Catatumbo river from Maracaibo, Venezuela, just across the border, to Catatumbo, where it powers thousands of clandestine black market refineries.
“The government says we are all ELN,” says Pípe, as he plants coca seedlings at his family’s small farm. “They say we are narcos, that we are guerillas. None of that is true. We have had to learn to survive with the guerillas because there is no other option. Just like growing coca. If we want to survive, we plant coca.”