By Daniel Mejía, Mounu Prem and Juan Vargas

According to figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in 2017 the extent of coca cultivation in Colombia reached a record high of 171,000 hectares. This figure has risen consistently since 2013 and represents almost a fourfold increase over that period. This steep rise set alarm bells ringing in Washington. On May 2017, during an official visit by then president Juan Manuel Santos, the White House expressed its concerns, and a month later the US Secretary of State asked Colombia to resume aerial coca-spraying campaigns. Four months later, President Trump threatened to decertify Colombia in the fight against illegal drugs due to the extraordinary spread of illicit-crop cultivation.

But was suspension of aerial spraying responsible for the rise in the first place? Here there is significant disagreement between Duque and his predecessor Santos.

At a public hearing on the issue in March 2019, Santos dismissed the view that suspension of aerial spraying was to blame. There were, he said, four other key factors:

  1. Devaluation of the peso, which increased the profitability of drug trafficking
  2. Falling gold prices, which decreased the opportunity cost of cultivating coca
  3. Repositioning of criminal gangs in areas previously controlled by FARC guerrillas
  4. Early announcement of an incentive programme for switching from coca to legal crop

Our recent research confirms that on these third and fourth points in particular, Santos was absolutely right.

On 16 May, 2014, the government and FARC delegations announced that there would ultimately be a Comprehensive National Programme for the Substitution of Crops for Illicit Use “in order to generate the material and intangible conditions for well-being and good living amongst populations affected by crops for illicit use, in particular for rural communities in situations of poverty that currently derive their subsistence from these crops.”

Crucially, the words “material conditions” created the possibility that farmers would expect to receive direct monetary transfers in exchange for voluntary substitution of illegal crops.