Mexican cartels are playing a larger role in Colombia’s coca production, bringing more potent plants, more advanced weaponry, and a greater risk of drug-related violence. For years, major Mexican cartels like Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generacion have purchased cocaine from Colombian groups, but have traditionally taken a hands-off, transactional approach. However, Colombian law enforcement, residents and farmers in several cocaine-producing regions have reported a increase in the presence of representatives of the Mexican cartel, indicating the changing standards of engagement. Representatives brought with them improved varieties of coca, contributing to the increased amount and purity of cocaine trafficked to the United States and Europe. Additionally, they stoked competition among Colombian unions and increased the likelihood of brutality, often trading machine guns, assault rifles, and semi-automatic handguns in exchange for shipments of cocaine.
According to Juan Carlos Echeverry, former Colombian Minister of Finance, the production of cocaine generated between 8 to 12 billion dollars in 2020making it a quarter of the country’s exports. Mexican cartels are buying coca base and cocaine from guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and crime syndicates including the Clan del Golfo. Colombia’s biggest drug cartel, Clan de Golfo, has huge influence, most recently close cities in more than 100 municipalities in response to its leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga’s extradition to the United States. The power of the coca industry and its ties to Mexico will only grow: a police intelligence report shows that Mexican cartels began funding the construction of shipping labs and warehouses and sending in armed delegates to deliver overstocked seed. Over the past 3 years, the police detected 14 coke adaptations designed to increase productivity. In 2020, National Security Advisor Rafael Guarin said, “It’s a very pragmatic relationship. The one who controls the cultivation areas and the laboratories and can meet the demand is the one who maintains relations with the Mexicans. Otherwise, Colombian police report that Mexicans are paying more and more coke with guns, including a weapon dubbed the “cop killer” for its ability to puncture body armor.
Efforts to reduce cocaine production and trafficking have met with minimal success. In 2020, Colombia’s potential annual production (the amount that would be produced if all coca leaves were processed into pure cocaine) was up 8% and yield per hectare up 18%, despite a reduction in the total area occupied by coca crops. Seizures and reductions in illicit crops leave economic dependence on the cocaine industry unaddressed. Farmers often have no choice but to participate, as cartels are often the biggest employers in their region. Social Leader Luis Alfredo Vasquez comments that “drug trafficking has increased because of the total abandonment of the state. There is no decent housing, no decent health care; we don’t have a decent education or job.
Along with failures to stem the flow of drugs, the flow of violence associated with it appears to be on the rise. According to the Ministry of Defense, in 2021, killings by the Colombian armed forces and national police were at their highest level in 6 years, increasing by 57% compared to 2020. As Mexican cartels become more involved, the source worry increases. Mexican drug gangs have easy access to weapons purchased in the United States and supply Colombian gangs with military-grade weaponry. Drug-related violence in Mexico offers a window into where Colombia could be headed. Last year, Mexico sued American gunsmiths for irresponsible business practices and “actively facilitating” an influx of illegal arms into cartels, resulting in thousands of deaths. Criminal groups fighting for territory have caused forced displacement, with Michoacán state alone displaces 20,000 people in 2021. Femicide is rampant – according to Amnesty Internationalat least 10 women and girls are murdered every day in Mexico – and justice is most lacking in states plagued by drug cartel violence, where impunity is the norm.
To minimize the intrusion of Mexican cartels and mitigate violence, Colombian authorities must take a holistic approach, seeking to provide alternative employment opportunities to coca cultivation. Guerrilla warfare and extrajudicial executions must be stemmed at the source, with arms control, rural development, inclusive government, negotiation between insurgent groups and anti-corruption efforts leading the charge. Forced eradication campaigns rarely worked; on the contrary, ending violent conflict is the precondition for undermining illicit economies.