Unparalleled levels of illegal cocaine production in Colombia risk derailing the country’s fragile peace deal.
The United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs (UNODC) said illegal coca plantations in Colombia reached record levels last year following a 17 percent increase from 2016 to around 423,000 acres (171,000 hectares).
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The agency said on Wednesday that translated to a potential 31 percent increase in cocaine production from last year to almost 1,400 tons, adding that potential production of cocaine has a value of $2.7 billion in the local market.
Coca leaf is the primary ingredient in the production of cocaine and current plantations generate 33 percent more leaves than they did in 2012.
But the UNODC warned that the lucrative proceeds could undermine peace building efforts while strengthening corruption and the power of armed groups.
In 2016, the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group, the Farc, signed a peace deal.
The deal was aimed at ending five decades of armed conflict, which has killed more than 260,000 people and left millions internally displaced.
Speaking at a conference in Bogota, Bo Mathiasen, the UNODC representative to Colombia, said: "I want to express my deep concern about the amount of money that is moving around illicit drugs."
Colombia remains way ahead of the rest of the world in terms of illegal coca plantations, while it is also the top producer of cocaine, much of it destined for the United States, the biggest consumer of the white powder.
"The report presented today by the UNODC is really very worrying," said Colombia‘s Justice Minister, Gloria Maria Borrero.
The worst affected region is Narino on the border with Ecuador. On its own, Narino has more farmland dedicated to coca plantations than Peru, the country with the second largest area of such fields, at almost 110,000 acres.
Riddled with FARC guerrillas as well as drug trafficking gangs, Narino is one of the country’s most dangerous regions.
The UNODC report said that the "potential production of cocaine has a value of $2.7 billion in the local market" and warned that those proceeds "could undermine peacebuilding efforts, weaken the culture of lawfulness, strengthen armed groups and delegitimize democratic institutions through corruption and illicit financial flows."
Colombia‘s border regions with Ecuador to the southwest and Venezuela to the east and north east are the principle theaters of armed conflict between government forces and a combination of drug gangs and Marxist rebels.
Although cocaine production is increasing, so too are efforts to halt it.
Cocaine seizures increased by 20 percent to 435 tons in 2017, while 4,820 laboratories were destroyed, up 12 percent.
However, the UNODC highlighted the fact that those figures remained below the "increase in potential production" of cocaine.
Colombia president Ivan Duque, who was inaugurated on August 7, has vowed to wipe out at least 350,000 acres of coca plantations during his four-year mandate, with Washington expressing concern about the increase.
Duque has criticized his predecessor Juan Manuel Santos’s policy of encouraging the voluntary substitution of coca plantations through agreements with local farmers.
Santos’s government blamed the increase in drug culture on compromises made in negotiations with FARC rebels in order to sign the historic 2016 peace accord.
That agreement obliged the former guerrillas to help in the fight against the very drug-trafficking that provided much of their funds during their half-century insurrection.
The increase in plantations has led to Duque examining the possibility of resuming aerial fumigations using glyphosate, suspended since 2015 due to the weedkiller’s potentially harmful effects on nature and public health.