MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Colombia has long been the world's top cocaine producer. Anti-narcotics operations have helped reduce illegal drug production, but progress has stalled. And once again, Colombian farmers are harvesting bumper crops of coca leaf. That's the raw material for cocaine. Reporter John Otis has more.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Luis Tapia grows two acres of coca bushes near the village of La Carmelita in southern Colombia. Every three months, Tapia strips off their bright green leaves with his bare hands. Later, Tapia will mix these leaves with sulfuric acid and other chemicals to make coca paste. He'll then sell the paste to traffickers, who turn it into powdered cocaine. Tapia earns about $700 per harvest. In this remote jungle region near the Ecuadorian border, that's far more than he can make growing food crops.
LUIS TAPIA: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Tapia explains that just one pound of coca paste sells for more than one ton of corn. Last year, farmers like Tapia produced the largest coca crop in Colombia's history - enough to make more than 1,500 tons of cocaine, according to a new U.N. report. Several factors explain the increase. Police crop dusters used to spray weed killer on coca fields, but in 2015, Colombia halted aerial fumigation over concerns that the herbicide glyphosate might cause cancer. In addition, a government program that pays cash to drug farmers to eradicate their coca has backfired, so says Bo Mathiasen, who heads the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Colombia.
BO MATHIASEN: The word out in these coca-growing areas was if you grow coca, you will get benefits, but if you don't have any coca, you'll probably not get anything. So there was clearly a perverse incentive that made farmers - if they didn't have coca, they would grow coca, and if they had coca, some of them would actually grow more.
OTIS: Colombian officials fear that the boom in the cocaine trade could threaten the country's fragile peace process. Under a 2016 treaty, Marxist guerrillas who, along with drug cartels, were deeply involved in the cocaine trade disarmed after 50 years of fighting. But a new generation of violent drug trafficking gangs has moved into former rebel territory. These groups are pressuring farmers to grow more coca.
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PRESIDENT IVAN DUQUE: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: In a recent speech, Colombia's new president, Ivan Duque, said for Colombia to prosper and for peace to take hold, "we have to crack down on drug trafficking." Duque may bring back aerial spraying. His government is also experimenting with herbicide-laden drones. But La Carmelita and other coca-growing areas are mired in poverty. Drug policy analyst Andres Bermudez says the government must also focus on providing these communities with roads, schools and economic development.
ANDRES BERMUDEZ: If they do not have livelihoods, if they do not have alternatives, they will simply go back to growing it.
OTIS: In fact, several new programs help coca farmers transition to legal crops. But the growers complain that they're badly run.
FLOR: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Back at their tiny farmhouse, Tapia and his wife, Flor, have just received a box of garden supplies from the government to help them grow food. But Flor points out that many of the seeds are for lettuce and other vegetables that don't do well in the thin, tropical soil.
FLOR: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: She says, "the reality is that what grows best here is coca." For NPR News, I'm John Otis in La Carmelita, Colombia.
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