What Colombian farmers can buy when they use cocaine’s raw ingredient as currency

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The wrapped fingers of a raspachin, a worker who collects coca leaves, are seen during the harvest of the leaves on a small coca farm in Guayabero, Guaviare province, Colombia.
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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Colombia has long been the world’s top producer of coca, the raw ingredient used to make cocaine. UN data showed a 44% increase in coca cultivation in 2015, to 69,000 acres. US government estimates put cultivation at 159,000 acres in 2015, according to Reuters.

As part of peace negotiations with the Colombian government, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group – a central player in the country’s more than 50-year civil conflict with extensive involvement in narcotics – agreed to sever ties with drug traffickers.

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Courtesy of Stratfor

The FARC has been accused of breaking this agreement, stoking further cultivation.

For many of Colombia’s impoverished and struggling farmers – a lot whom earn just $1,000 a year on average – coca provides a necessary means of income, despite its illicit use.

“The government does not want to resolve the huge problem we have here,” said Orlando Castilla, president of the Farmers Association in the Guaviare region of south-central Colombia.

“We appear to be rich, millionaires on a national and international level, but we have nothing to live off,” he added.

In the Guyabero region, in northern Guaviare, residents – many of whom work on coca farms – trade coca paste for groceries at local stores.

Coca, unlike the government, helped give local residents “a way of sustaining their families in every sense,” Ferin Oviedo, a representative of the Guayabero Regional Farmers’ Association, told Reuters.

The photos below, compiled by Reuters, show how those farmers produce that coca and how much it buys them.


Coca leaf, the material in cocaine, is relatively cheap compared to the end product.

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Raspachines, workers who collect coca leaves, carry bags with harvested leaves to be processed into coca paste, on a coca farm in Guayabero, Guaviare province, Colombia.
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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

“If you look at the raw ingredients in a country like Colombia, to make a kilo of pure cocaine, you need about a ton of fresh coca leaf. It then gets dried out, it weighs a bit less, but that ton of leaf to start with costs only about $400 or $500 in Colombia,” Tom Wainwright, the former Mexico City reporter for The Economist and author of “Narconomics,” told Business Insider earlier this year. In comparison, a kilo of cocaine can retail for as much as $150,000 in the US.

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The wrapped fingers of a raspachin, a worker who collects coca leaves, are seen during the harvest of the leaves on a small coca farm in Guayabero, Guaviare province, Colombia.
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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

But coca cultivation in Colombia is immense. The country is believed to produce more coca than Peru and Bolivia, the second- and third-largest producers, combined. US and Colombian officials have said that FARC encouragement, despite its agreement with the government, has led to the spike in cultivation.

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A worker walks over crushed coca leaves, mixed with chemicals, as part of the process to make coca paste, on a small farm in Guayabero, Guaviare province, Colombia.
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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Source: The Washington Post


The Colombian government halted aerial fumigation of suspected coca crops in late 2015, out of concern that the herbicides used could cause cancer.

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A worker adds chemicals to the already processed coca leaves to make coca paste, on a small farm in Guayabero, Guaviare province, Colombia.
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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Source: The Washington Post


Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has said his administration is willing to implement a massive crop-substitution program if a deal is made with the FARC and rebel control areas become safe for the government to operate.

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A worker shows coca paste after drying it on a stove top at a small farm in Guayabero, Guaviare province, Colombia.
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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Source: The Washington Post


Despite its high value on the illicit market, coca paste is sometimes traded for everyday goods by farmers who produce it. Here, chicken, fish, and eggs lie next to coca paste worth $14,000 Colombian pesos at a local store in Guyabero Region, Guaviare, Colombia. The Colombian peso is trading at roughly 2,900 to the US dollar.

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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Beverages lie next to coca paste worth $30,000 Colombian pesos at a local store in Guyabero Region, Guaviare, Colombia.

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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Grocery products lie next to coca paste worth $110,000 Colombian pesos at a local store in Guyabero Region, Guaviare, Colombia.

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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Vegetables lie next to coca paste worth $8,000 Colombian pesos at a local store in Guyabero Region, Guaviare, Colombia.

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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Grocery products lie next to coca paste worth $32,000 Colombian pesos at a local store in Guyabero Region, Guaviare, Colombia.

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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Canned goods lie next to coca paste worth $26,000 Colombian pesos at a local store in Guyabero Region, Guaviare, Colombia.

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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Grocery products lie next to coca paste worth $18,000 Colombian pesos at a local store in Guyabero Region, Guaviare, Colombia.

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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Cleaning products lie next to coca paste worth $18,000 Colombian pesos at a local store in Guyabero Region, Guaviare, Colombia.

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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Rice and vegetables lie next to coca paste worth $8,000 Colombian pesos at a local store in Guyabero Region, Guaviare, Colombia.

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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

FARC rebels have been heavily involved in Colombia’s drug trade, “taxing” the production of farmers and controlling vast swaths of the country’s drug-producing regions.

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Colombian police officers walk past farmers on their way to a coca plantation in Cano Lajas, Guaviare province, Colombia.
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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Source: The Washington Post


FARC rebels and other criminal groups in Colombia have become central players in the international cocaine trade. FARC groups are believed to have “franchised” parts of production to others, including Mexican cartels. And modern criminal organizations are suspected of partnering with Mexican cartels to move cocaine out of Colombia.

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A police officer stands guard near a coca plantation in Cano Lajas, Guaviare province, Colombia.
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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Source: Business Insider; El Tiempo


But as Colombian farmers struggle to eke out a living, and as criminal groups (and possibly remnants of FARC rebels) compete over the drug’s production, coca production is likely to increase in the near term.

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Farmers stand together to protect their coca fields after police arrived to eradicate the crops in Cano Lajas province, Guaviare, Colombia.
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REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas, who has deployed some 7,000 soldiers to eradicate coca in the country, admits that the crop will probably increase until 2018 – “if things go well,” he said, according to Reuters.

“Even if they reach an agreement, most of the FARC members are going to continue with their drug-trafficking activities,” Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told Business Insider earlier this year. “That’s what they know, they know … those are huge amounts of money. My prediction is most of them will go strictly into the drug trade.”