Colombia's government is intent on passing a law that will grant a one-year judicial immunity for small-scale coca farmers who agree to abandon their illegal cultivations, which is a provision of the government's peace deal with the FARC. Without guaranteeing that farmers will not be jailed in the short term, there is little hope that they will voluntarily switch to alternative crops as part of the government's new substitution program.
But while drafting the law, Colombia's government came up against an impossible dilemma: what to do with the 40 percent of farmers who not only cultivate the coca leaf, but also process it into coca paste, according to the latest report on illegal cultivations by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Technically, the government could still explicitly include them in the law, since the peace deal it is adhering to calls for the temporary protection of "small-scale coca farmers." One could argue that farmers who also process coca leaf only do so because they are "cocaleros," or coca growers, meaning that processing coca is a secondary practice.
But this decision would significantly add to the political cost of a project that has already been controversial for offering temporary amnesty solely to coca growers. Including those who gain higher profits at this stage in the cocaine production chain would receive even greater criticism.
"It would be political suicide because it would leave the door wide open for the attorney [general] and opposition members to say that it's not only the farmers that are being demobilized," a narcotics expert told La Silla.
But leaving them out of the amnesty law could create a time bomb that might explode further down the line, should the Attorney General's Office decide to prosecute small coca farmers who have signed up for government substitution programs on charges that they have processed coca leaf. Coca farmers may interpret this as a violation of the crop substitution agreements signed with the government, and of the peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).
Hence the heated debate.
"From the beginning, discussions within the government concerning the issue [on the legal protection of coca leaf processors] have been very tough," a government source told La Silla.
"Here at the Ministry of Justice we have been very insistent on the need to intervene against [coca leaf] processing and that there can't be any sort of penal alternative for them. They must be pursued," we were told by Vice Minister for Criminal Policy and Restorative Justice Carlos Medina.
This is why the government has chosen to exclude them from the law's current draft, La Silla was told by two sources with access to the document. But avoiding political confrontation today could pave the way for trouble further down the road.
The number of coca farmers participating in the processing stage -- in which they transform coca leaf into paste in artisanal laboratories -- is rising continuously, according to a report on the National Crop Substitution Program (Programa Nacional de Sustitución de Cultivos - PNIS) by the Ideas for Peace Foundation (Fundación Ideas para la Paz - FIP). This is particularly true in Nariño, Putumayo and Norte de Santander, the departments with the greatest coca fields, according to UNODC figures.
Coca farmers are primarily spurred by economic incentives. Processing the leaf generates higher profits, as shown by the UNODC's price estimates. While 1 kilogram of coca leaf can be sold for 2,900 Colombian pesos (just under $1), 1 kilogram of coca paste (which requires 125 kilograms of leaf, at a cost of 362,000 pesos ($120)) will be sold at 1,895,700 pesos ($625). Even when considering additional supply costs, the profitability of processing coca is significantly higher. And it is also easier to move coca paste, as it saves money on transport costs and is easier to hide than piles of leaves.
"The increase in what here we call 'kitchens' is significant. Many people quickly learned to process the leaf into paste, even if it's low quality. They sell it at a better price and it's easier to transport," an anonymous source from Tumaco told La Silla.
And it is also cheap to set up an artisanal kitchen.
"Here, farmers invest between 300,000 and 500,000 pesos ($100 - $165) max to set up a kitchen and buy the gasoline, cement and some chemicals needed to make the paste. It's not rocket science," La Silla was told by a source in Putumayo who chose to remain anonymous due to the risks of discussing the subject.
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It is generally difficult for farmers to process coca beyond the paste stage, which is not consumable. Making cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) requires more complex laboratories and other precursor chemicals that are both harder to acquire and to use. Which is why just 1 percent of farmers participate in this second processing phase, the UNODC report states.
Farmers started processing coca leaf several years ago, when US aid initiative Plan Colombia boosted the capacity of the country's security forces to destroy large clandestine laboratories. But information obtained by La Silla indicates that the trend has grown stronger since the government launched its campaign to forcefully eradicate 50,000 hectares of coca during 2017.
This has been happening, for instance, in Colombia's top coca-producing department of Nariño. In its port municipality Tumaco, where 16 percent of the country's coca fields are located, farmers' participation in processing has become the norm due to falling leaf prices. A unit of coca leaves dropped from 50,000 pesos ($16.5) to 15,000 (just under $5) in recent months, a source told La Silla.
And while the price of paste has also dropped, it remains preferrable to leaves not only because it is better to transport and hide. Paste does not decompose as easily -- an important quality at a time when the market is stagnating under heavy pressure from security force operations. Indeed, police and the military have destroyed 20 laboratories and 74 artisanal kitchens; captured 20 individuals; seized 2,992 kilograms of cocaine and 214 kilograms of paste.
Similar dynamics have played out in Policarpa municipality. After the government eradicated locals' coca fields nine months ago, leaving many people jobless, 75 percent of urban inhabitants are now dedicated to processing coca leaf, according to a community representative.
"You have to live off something," the local source said.
In the Catatumbo region, coca leaves have a higher alkaloid concentration and render higher quantities of coca paste, therefore more people are processing due to the product's increased profitability. The prices here are also higher than in other parts of the country, with 1 kilogram of leaves worth 3,300 pesos (just over $1) and that of paste worth 2.4 million (nearly $800), according to a source from national agency coordinating the development of rural areas (Agencia de Renovación del Territorio - ART).
A dilemma with heavy consequences
In the face of these economic realities, the government has opted to exclude the processing of coca leaves from the list of crimes exempt from criminal prosecution. This decision bears heavy consequences.
As it stands, small-scale coca farmers with artisanal laboratories are considered participants in the secondary cocaine production echelon. This puts them at risk of future prosecution -- and possible incarceration -- even if they have signed and are fully complying with government crop substitution programs.
As a result, there is a high risk that many farmers will opt out of the PNIS and thus maintain their criminal economy.
Nonetheless, any government attempt to pressure judicial authorities into sparing farmers involved in coca processing could backfire by fueling another scandal. For as much as the coca grower may bear the image of a humble farmer with no alternatives, a processor's image is that of a drug trafficker.
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At the end of the day, the decision to not explicitly include processors in the law bill, while simultaneously hoping that those same farmers do not abandon the PNIS, is actually a gamble on the likelihood that the Attorney General's Office will not be capable of prosecuting them, aside from isolated cases that do not jeopardize the legitimacy of the substitution agreements in the eyes of other coca processors.
Perhaps for this reason a government source who requested anonymity La Silla that "the Attorney General's Office doesn't have the capacity to go after them all." The question now is what the final law will stipulate, and whether it will be modified as it passes through congress.
*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length and published with the permission of La Silla Vacía. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.