By Allison Fedirka
Colombia has long been known as the world’s top producer of cocaine, a reputation the government tried to rid the country of for years through a crackdown on drug cartels. It has made some progress, with high-profile rebel groups putting down their arms, promising to turn away from drug trafficking and signing peace deals. Frequent and intense counternarcotic operations carried out by Colombian security forces led to shortages of a precursor chemical necessary to make cocaine, missed production quotas and decreases in the quality of the cocaine being produced. But the crackdown laid the groundwork for a new security threat facing the country today: Mexican cartels.
Over time, the disintegration of Colombian drug trafficking groups essentially opened the door for powerful groups from Mexico that wanted to protect their supply chain. On March 13, Colombia’s justice minister expressed concern, on the sidelines of the United Nations’ Commission on Narcotic Drugs conference, about the presence of Mexican cartels in Colombia. He said that there are links between the cartels and Colombian organized crime groups, as well as dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, rebel group, which signed a peace deal with the Colombian government in 2016.
In the 1980s-’90s, both countries had powerful cartels that, economically and militarily, were more or less on equal footing. This is no longer the case. When Colombia took down major cartels like Medellin in 1993 and Cali in 1998, much of the drug trafficking activity was taken over by the FARC, paramilitary auto-defense groups and budding cartels such as Norte del Valle. But the Colombian government has been dismantling these groups too. Norte del Valle has fragmented, the auto-defense groups demobilized by 2006, the FARC has demobilized, and another rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, is also engaging in talks. Many of these groups have not been eliminated completely but rather have splintered into smaller criminal groups commonly referred to as “bandas criminales” or bacrims. In the last quarter of 2017, the seizure of three large cocaine shipments showed no less than 22 different groups were involved. The operational capacity of individual bacrims is limited, and a power vacuum has opened up in the black market. Even the largest group to emerge over the past several years, Clan del Golfo, has suffered internal divisions and failed to consolidate control over other groups.
In the meantime, Mexican cartels have tried to protect their business interests in Colombia and to take advantage of the fractured environment. Roughly five years ago, as FARC peace talks were starting, Mexican cartels began sending representatives to Colombia. They were assessing their prospects in the country following the peace deal and recruiting dissident FARC rebels and members of other criminal groups. They offered drug traffickers a way to continue their operations, despite the government crackdown.
Since then, Mexican cartels have transformed the cocaine industry in Colombia. Cartels like Sinaloa, Zetas and Jalisco New Generation have set up offices and oversee operations in at least 10 Colombian provinces: Antioquia, Cundinamarca, Norte de Santander, Valle del Cauca, Narino, Cauca, Meta, Guaviare, Vichada and Cordoba. Mexican cartels primarily finance local groups to carry out operations and make use of facilities that are already in place. Additionally, they buy and lease production land – primarily in Cauca, Putumayo, Catatumbo and Narino – that gives them further control over their supply chain. To enhance production and quality, the cartels have started hiring agriculture and engineering experts. Mexican cartels are also becoming increasingly involved in transportation, since Colombian groups can’t handle large-scale operations and can’t get major shipments to market.
Despite the crackdown, therefore, cocaine is making a comeback in Colombia. Colombian cocaine production has been on the rise since 2013, and based on indicators, this upward trend will continue in 2018. Between 2015 and 2016, production increased 35 percent to 710 tons, and the cultivation area for coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived, increased by 18 percent to 188,000 hectares, according to the most recent U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration figures. Coca is cultivated in 183 municipalities throughout Colombia, though just 10 of these municipalities account for 49 percent of production. Production is also driven by high U.S. demand, which has also been rising since 2013. Cocaine from Colombia accounts for 92 percent of the cocaine that reaches the U.S., and the U.S. consumes 52-54 percent of Colombian cocaine exports. There are now well over 1.2 million users in the U.S., the highest number since 2007.
There are a number of ways Mexican cartels can increase their control in Colombia, and most involve an increase in criminal violence in Colombia and other places like Central America. The car bomb that exploded in Ecuador in January just over the Colombian border – an area known to be a hub for coca cultivation and cocaine export – is just one example. Dissident FARC groups, backed by a Mexican cartel, orchestrated the attack in response to a series of drug seizures and arrests. Right now, there appears to be a large enough market to keep all these groups in business so that they don’t have to compete against one another. But there is no guarantee this will continue to be the case in the long term. Moreover, Colombian security forces are still working to eradicate these illicit activities, and this may lead to clashes with criminal groups. While it’s unclear how exactly this will play out in the future, and how violent the clashes will be, the Colombian justice minister has reason to be concerned.