Amid a dramatic spike in coca production, Colombia is rolling out a new weapon in the war on drugs: crop-killing drones.
Jarred by reports of soaring coca harvests and cocaine output, President Juan Manuel Santos announced this week that security forces will begin using remote-controlled aircraft to spray the illicit crops with glyphosate, a powerful herbicide.
Colombia suspended aerial spraying of drug crops in 2015 after concerns arose about the alleged carcinogenic effects of glyphosate — a chemical that’s widely used in agriculture and is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup.
Trying to head off concerns this time, Santos said the drones will fly low enough to keep the chemical from drifting onto other crops, and that the system will work with much lower concentrations of the chemical.
Early this week, the White House said Colombia’s coca crops had hit a decades-long record at 516,000 acres, up 11 percent in 2017 from a year ago. Estimated production of coca — the raw material for cocaine— increased 19 percent to 921 metric tons.
Washington has spent more than $10 billion fighting Colombian coca, and the Trump administration has threatened to cut aid to the country — Washington’s staunchest ally in the region — if it doesn’t show progress.
"President Trump's message to Colombia is clear: The record growth in cocaine production must be reversed," Jim Carroll, deputy director of the White House drug policy office, told the Associated Press this week.
Santos had been hoping that a 2016 peace deal with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, might stem the green tide of coca. The FARC had been one of the country’s biggest narcotics traffickers and the administration believed that, once the guerrillas demobilized, they could be allies in the war on drugs.
Instead, as the FARC retreated from coca-growing areas, new criminal gangs have punched in, taking over and expanding the trade.
Santos said the drones, along with mechanical backhoes, are some of the “innovations” that will be used to destroy crops. The administration also is continuing efforts to encourage coca farmers to switch to legal food crops.
Santos, who will be stepping down on August 7, said the combined carrot and stick approach would mean the eradication of 272,000 acres of coca crops this year.
“It’s a very significant amount,” he said of the goal, “one that is, perhaps, without precedent in our history of fighting against drug trafficking.”
Not everyone’s convinced drones and backhoes will work.
“You can’t end coca using drones,” Rafael Colón, a retired Colombian general, wrote on Twitter. “The coca plant is killed by [building roads] that allow access to markets and rural development in areas where there has been little [presence] of the state, few rights and few liberties.”
Even if the drones work, it could be months or years before the new drug-fighting method proves its worth. The anti-narcotics division of Colombia’s National Police said just a handful of drones will be tested for seven months before rolling out a full fleet.
The country’s drug policies were one of the key issues during the June 17 presidential election. While President-elect Ivan Duque had talked about restarting aerial spraying, his rival, former Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro, pushed for alternate approaches, including legalization.
During his eight years in office, Santos has tried to lead regional efforts to reevaluate Washington's war on drugs, which has often helped fuel violence in Latin America but has largely failed to reduce drug trafficking.