ADVANCE. In recent years, according to UNODC reports, coca leaf cultivation has increased in the Bolivian, Colombian and Peruvian Amazon.

Narco-deforestation: new coca map destroys the Andean Amazon

Narco-deforestation: new coca map destroys the Andean Amazon

ADVANCE. In recent years, according to UNODC reports, coca leaf cultivation has increased in the Bolivian, Colombian and Peruvian Amazon.

Photo: FCDS.

Between 2018 and 2022, the Amazonian territories of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru lost more than one million hectares of forest, a significant part due to the expansion of illegal coca leaf crops. In Peru alone, 64% of deforestation is related to areas of expansion of this plant. In Colombia, these crops affect 49% of special management zones, and in Bolivia, they occupy 26% of protected natural areas. An analysis by OjoPúblico's Transboundary Investigative Network, with its partners La Silla Vacía (Colombia), Vistazo (Ecuador) and El Deber (Bolivia), identifies that, although coca is not the main cause of deforestation for now, the reconfiguration of criminal organizations is changing the drug map, expanding illegal coca leaf cultivation in the lowland jungle.

10 Junio, 2024

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With the collaboration of Iván Paredes (in Bolivia)

At an altitude of more than 3,730 meters in Oruro, Bolivian authorities found in January of this year what may be one of the largest and most sophisticated drug seizures of recent times: 8.7 tons of cocaine impregnated like varnish on thousands of wooden planks that were to be transported first to Chile and then to Panama, before reaching Belgium and finally the Netherlands.

This seizure shows the rise of drug trafficking in the region, which now has the Amazon as its main focus of dispute. While Peru, Colombia and Bolivia continue to be the epicenter of cocaine production in the world and Ecuador ceased to be a transit zone to become the center of distribution, drug trafficking mafias have turned their attention to the invasion of indigenous lands and Amazon forests to extend the border of the illegal coca leaf. 

An analysis by OjoPúblico's Cross-Border Investigative Network, with La Silla Vacía in Colombia, Vistazo in Ecuador and El Deber in Bolivia, identifies that the reconfiguration of criminal organizations is changing the drug map, expanding illegal coca leaf cultivation in protected areas.

Between 2018 and 2022 alone, according to official figures, deforestation in the Amazon in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru exceeded one million hectares. But the most alarming situation occurred in Bolivia, where forest loss reached, only in 2023, more than 696 thousand hectares, which represents an increase of 27% over the previous year, according to Global Forest Watch reports.

Much of this destruction is related to the advance of coca plantations on forest soils. The analysis of spatial and statistical data carried out by the OjoPúblico team reveals that in Peru, 64% of deforestation (356,000 hectares) corresponded to areas of the Amazon where coca cultivation has increased.

Accelerated by genetic innovation, the technification of resources, the empowerment of international criminal actors who have taken control of the plantations and the routes to Brazil, a new order has been imposed on the coca market in the midst of a crisis in the price of coca leaf in Colombia.


The new territorial order of crime

The areas of the Amazon where coca leaf cultivation has been expanding in recent years are those located along the borders. This is the case on the border of Peru with Colombia and Brazil, in the so-called triple frontier: plantations are growing in the basins of the Putumayo and Yavari rivers. But it also occurs to the south, on Peru's border with the state of Acre (Brazil), and on Bolivia's borders with Peru and Brazil. And it is repeated, in the north, on the border of Ecuador with Colombia.

In the Ecuadorian province of Sucumbíos, bordering the Colombian province of Putumayo and the Peruvian province of the same name, deforestation increased from 6,824 hectares in 2020 to 9,146 hectares in 2022, an increase of 34%. It is the second province in the Ecuadorian Amazon with the greatest forest loss. In first place is Morona Santiago, also bordering Peru, with 9,828 hectares deforested in 2022.

From the banks of the Putumayo River, which crosses Brazil, Colombia and Peru, and the Yavari River, which separates Peru from Brazil, to Peru's borders with Bolivia and Brazil, coca leaf cultivation is spreading in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, driven by criminal groups that capture and often invade the territories of indigenous communities to force them to plant coca.

The advance of the crops coincides with the strengthening of six criminal groups that have territorial control of these Amazonian borders: First Capital Command and Red Command (from Brazil, with influence and presence in Peru), Border Command and Carolina Ramirez Front (from Colombia, with influence and presence in Ecuador and Peru), and Los Lobos and Los Choneros (from Ecuador, with presence in Peru). 

In Peru, between 2018 and 2022, the area under coca leaf cultivation increased in the Amazonian districts on the border with Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia, mainly in the Loreto, Ucayali and Madre de Dios regions.

Of this group, the highest increase in coca leaf cultivation was recorded in the sector known as Callería, Ucayali. Over this area, the increase was more than seven times: between 2018 and 2022 they went from 1,047 to 7,846 hectares.

In the same period, in the area known as Bajo Amazonas - which corresponds to the Peruvian border with Colombia and Brazil, between the Putumayo and Yavari river basins - cultivation increased fourfold, from 277 to 1,211 hectares. The situation is similar in Sandia, on the border with Bolivia.

Data from Bolivia's Directorate General of Coca Leaf and Industrialization (Digcoin) accessed for this investigation confirm that Sandia is one of the starting points for coca trafficking from Peru to Bolivia, in the towns of Palmeras and Miraflores.

In recent years, cocaine seizures have also increased in Amazonian territory. Between 2018 and 2023, according to data from the Police Anti-Drug Directorate to which OjoPúblico had access, in the districts of Callería and Masisea, also in Ucayali bordering Brazil - where investigations point to the presence of the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) - the seizure of Basic Cocaine Paste (PBC) tripled. In 2018, 100 grams of cocaine were confiscated, and in 2023 the figure exceeded 14 kilos. 

The most recent report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Colombia identified in 2023 that 65% of the country's coca crops are concentrated in Nariño, Norte de Santander and Putumayo. According to these figures, in 2021, the Putumayo area alone was home to 31,874 hectares of coca, but in 2022 it reached 53,648 hectares, representing an increase of 68%.

In this same department on the border with Peru and Ecuador, forest loss accounted for 6% (116,427 hectares) of all Colombian deforestation between 2013 and 2022, the latest figure for which authorities have records.

In the Colombian department of Nariño, which borders the Ecuadorian provinces of Esmeraldas and Carchi, there were more than 59,000 hectares planted with coca leaf in 2022, according to the same UNODC report.

The advance of these crops in Colombia has been historic, and as in Peru and Bolivia, they are grown on indigenous territories (18% of affected lands) and protected natural areas (21%).

Mapa hoja de coca

Ilustration: Jhafet Ruiz.

Coca in protected natural area

In Peru, Colombia and Bolivia, according to information provided by the authorities, coca leaf crops are growing in protected areas, and cocaine processing laboratories and clandestine airstrips used to transport drugs are located alongside these plantations. 

In Bolivia, coca cultivation has been recorded in 6 of the 23 national protected areas and 4 of these are in the Amazon. In the six parks there is a total of 435 hectares of coca, with a slight decrease compared to 2021, when it reached 452 hectares. The most critical case is Carrasco National Park, which is home to 51% of the coca cultivation in protected areas, with 224 hectares. 

In contrast to Colombia and Peru, by October 2023, according to Unodc figures for Bolivia, coca leaf cultivation decreased between 2021 and 2022. This drop was also reflected in Amazonian areas. 

Drug laboratories have reached protected territories such as the buffer zone of Yaguas Park, on the border between Peru and Colombia.
Composition: OjoPúblico.

In Peru, coca cultivation in protected natural areas reached 16% of the 95,008 hectares monitored in 2022. Of this group, most (39.4%) was concentrated in the Bahuaja Sonene National Park, between Puno and Madre de Dios, with 277 hectares under cultivation. 

In Colombia
, 49% of coca cultivation is located in areas categorized as special management, including natural parks (21%), indigenous reserves (18%), Afro-descendant community lands (4%) and forest reserves (2%). 

In 2021, 37% of the crops were concentrated in parks in the Colombian Amazon and 24% in reserves in that region. The Serranía de la Macarena, in Meta, the Nukak Natural Reserve, between Caquetá and Guaviare, and La Paya in Putumayo, were the parks most affected by planting. In turn, 60% of deforestation in 2022 occurred in protected areas, mostly in the Amazon biome.

In Ecuadorian territory, despite the little information provided by the police on the presence of coca leaf plantations, the activity has links and impacts on the Siona indigenous people, who live permanently threatened by groups of outsiders who invade their lands for coca cultivation, according to a report by the Ecuadorian Ombudsman's Office, accessed by OjoPúblico's Cross-Border Investigative Network and made public for the first time.

Criminal actors

In the drug trafficking production chain, cocaine plantations and production, as well as control of the routes, are the responsibility of multinational criminal organizations that have a presence in border countries. OjoPúblico's Cross-Border Network identified two from Brazil (First Capital Command and Red Command), an equal number from Colombia (Border Command and Carolina Ramirez Front) and in Ecuador, the Los Lobos and Los Choneros gangs. 

The Colombian dissidents detected, although they confront each other for territorial control, especially in the Putumayo River on the border with Colombia's Guaviare and Meta, as reported by La Silla Vacía, have collaborative relationships with the main Brazilian criminal groups. This means that the combined power of all of them increases their influence and territorial reach throughout this territory. 

Ecuadorian security sources consulted for this investigation attribute to the Border Commandos the control of most of the laboratories and crystallization sites in the border area between Putumayo and the Sucumbios region, as well as the collection of extortion and quotas from coca leaf farmers. 

Plantación hoja de coca Perú
The Ecuadorian government minimizes the presence of coca crops in that country, but in recent years there are records of areas where this crop is cultivated.
Photo: Ecuatorian Army.

This Ecuadorian territory, according to Ecuadorian police data, is also a land route for the transfer of cocaine and its departure to ports along the coast. 

In addition, as corroborated in this investigation, the families of the Siona indigenous people living on the border with Colombia were offered a payment of 4 million Colombian pesos (about a thousand dollars, at the current exchange rate) for a single planting and harvesting of coca leaf. "After [this situation] the family must obligatorily sell the production to the group that gave them the money", details the defense document which, due to the seriousness of the case, requests precautionary measures of protection to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). 

Behind the threats to the Siona people in Colombia and Ecuador, according to interviews with local sources, are the Comandos de la Frontera, who are currently fighting with the Carolina Ramirez front. These armed groups are made up of dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The Border Command group also has links to the Lobos group -- which operates in Ecuador and Peru -- and, to a lesser extent, the Choneros. In addition, these gangs are suppliers of fuel for the Border Commandos to process cocaine, agree investigators interviewed. 

Innovation and technology: enclaves of coca 

In recent years, the production of drugs from coca leaf has generated new modalities and processes for their subsequent shipment - from South America - to other international latitudes such as the United States or countries of the European Union. 

In different visits to the Peruvian side, high-ranking police officials told OjoPúblico that they have identified more than 100 drug production laboratories in areas near the Putumayo province. However, the limited budget and personnel allocated do not allow for intervention in these places.

In the Ecuadorian case, according to police intelligence sources, coca leaf processing occurs at two levels. The first is when cocaine base paste (PBC) is produced and the second when it is crystallized to obtain cocaine hydrochloride. 

"To crystallize CBP and obtain cocaine hydrochloride, it is necessary to process it with specific techniques and substances, such as sulfuric acid, potassium permanganate, acetone and hydrochloric acid. Different equipment is used, such as microwave ovens and presses. Due to the complexity of this process, crystallization [in Ecuador] is often not carried out in coca-growing areas, but in large cities," according to a police document accessed by Vistazo for this publication.

The areas of the Amazon where coca leaf cultivation has been expanding in recent years are the localities located on the borders of the Amazon region.

In the last five years, UNODC has identified a new drug trafficking dynamic in Colombia called enclaves, which refer to the centers of concentration, technification and improvement of the processes of planting, extraction, production and marketing of drugs. 

In the case of the Amazon, most of these sites have been established on the border of the Putumayo River to guarantee the entry of inputs, as well as the exit of coca and its derivatives. In addition, with the fall of the FARC, control fell to its dissident groups: the Carolina Ramirez Front and the Border Commandos.

Incautación droga
In recent years, Bolivia has been the site of large seizures of cocaine and other narcotics destined for European countries.  
Photo: Bolivian Information Agency.

The impact of the enclaves, according to a Unodc specialist interviewed by La Silla Vacía, is that before in a department like Putumayo there was forest and in the middle small coca fields planted by peasants or indigenous communities. But now what we see now are huge hectares cleared and deforested. 

In contrast to the coca patches cultivated a few at a time over the years, in the enclaves the groups are destroying everything in a single area, breaking biological corridors and the balance of the forests. The estimated area affected by this type of damage, according to a 2022 study by different researchers, exceeds 188,000 square kilometers (18'800,000 hectares), more than the total area of South Korea.

This phenomenon has been studied by the scientist Dolors Armenteras, and she calls it the edge effect. "It is the result of transitions that are generated when forests are fragmented, that is, the edges are created where the forest ends and a piece of land begins with a totally different cover that exposes those edges to desiccation. It does not retain moisture and is more exposed to invasive species and to the sun, wind, etc.," said the researcher in an interview with La Silla Vacía. 

Price dynamics 

Although much has been said in the last year about the coca crisis in Colombia, a comparative analysis of coca leaf prices in the region offers new insights. 

Official figures from Peru and Colombia show that the cost of coca leaf changes depending on the locality and the period reviewed. In Colombia, there is no official updated information available, but - on average - La Silla Vacía identified that an increase in price - in local currency - can be seen for the period 2013 to 2018. In this time, the national average of coca leaf went from 2,014 Colombian pesos (USD 0.5 at the current exchange rate) per kilo to 2,250 (USD 0.57).  

This increase occurred in the Putumayo-Caqueta, Amazon Corridor, Meta-Guaviare and Orinoco areas of Colombia. The Integrated Illicit Crop Monitoring System does not have current data and is currently undergoing a process of methodological change due to new coca dynamics. 

Leonardo Correa, director of Unodc's Simsi for the Andean Region and Southern Cone, told La Silla Vacía for this investigation that the prices of coca and its derivatives have remained stable in recent years, if compared since 2005. However, this office has re-evaluated its measurement system as the price is now variable depending on the place where it is consulted. Previously it was homogeneous given the FARC's monopoly in the Amazon region.

Fewer farmers are accessing the market because there are no buyers and there is conflict among buyers."

The specialist also warned that there are areas where criminal groups "compete with different prices" as well as groups of people who sell the product cheaply "to get out quickly" of this activity. "Fewer farmers are accessing the market because there are no buyers and there is conflict between buyers," he explained.  

In Peru, the official and most updated information indicates that the national average price of coca leaf is USD 2.14 per kilo. This value changes according to the area. Since 2020, the different amounts are divided into six points: the Amazon Corridor (Ucayali and Central Amazon), the Huallaga, the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers (Vraem), the Southern Amazon, La Convención - Kosñipata and the Triple Border. The last three have been added since reports three years ago.

The highest value of coca leaf is found in the Southern Amazon (Puno and Madre de Dios), where it reaches USD 3.33 per kilo. While in the case of the Triple Border (Lower Amazon and Putumayo) the cost is reduced to USD 2.11 per kilo and in the Amazon Corridor (Pichis - Palcazú and Aguaytía) the price drops to USD 1.9 per kilo. 

Interior Ministry sources explained to OjoPublico that this difference responds to additional costs present in the Amazon such as the construction of airstrips, airplanes and the payment of other people involved in cocaine production. 

Historical coca leaf values show a 52.8% drop when comparing 2014 figures with those of May 2023, the last period analyzed by Devida, the Peruvian state entity that monitors cultivation. 

Deforestación Yaguas - ILLEGAL ADVANCE
Coca cultivation threatens the buffer zone of Yaguas National Park.
Photo: César Ipenza

A decade ago, the price was over USD 4.54 per kilo, but now the national average cost is USD 2.14 per kilo. And that drop has been constant. In 2019 -another period under review- the price reached USD 3.29 per kilo.  

If we review the amounts by zones, the price also fell considerably in the case of the Peruvian Amazon Corridor. In this place, the price fell by 55.3% for the period 2013 to 2023. It went from USD 4.26 to USD 1.90. In Huallaga it dropped from USD 5.46 to USD 2.11 (a drop of 61.3%) and in Vraem from USD 3.91 to USD 2.01.

Leaders killed

That the Amazon has become the new scenario in dispute of the narco, not only invades land and deforests, in its path, the violence of the armed groups that now control the plantations, threatens and murders leaders of Amazonian indigenous peoples. Between 2017 and 2022, according to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz), in Colombian municipalities with coca crops the civilian population suffered 2.8 times more threats and 4.3 times more homicides than in municipalities without the presence of coca crops.

Between 2021 and 2024, according toofficial records, there were 109 murders of indigenous leaders in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. In Peru, 10 of the murders were against leaders denouncing the invasion of their lands by criminal groups dedicated to growing coca for drug trafficking. One of the latest victims was Benjamín Flores Ríos, of the Kakataibo indigenous people, in the province of Atalaya, Ucayali region, very close to the border with Brazil. 

Colombia, according to the latest report by Global Witness, leads the list of murders of indigenous leaders with 60 deaths. This figure represents almost double the number of murders registered in 2021.

According to the Ombudsman's Office, social leaders face risks in 84% of the Amazon region. One of the causes is opposition to the planting of coca crops, especially in Bajo Putumayo, on the border with Ecuador, and in the Caquetá river basin, where the Border Commandos and the Carolina Ramírez front of the EMC are also fighting for control.

In Ecuador, in recent years, the deaths of indigenous leaders have been linked to their rejection of oil and mining projects. Between 2009 and 2014, at least three Amazonian leaders in that country were killed for opposing these sectors. However, in February of this year, Alberto Quiñonez and his 12-year-old nephew - both from the Chachi indigenous community - died when they fell into a ravine after the car in which they were traveling was shot at. 

The murder occurred in Esmeraldas, an Ecuadorian province located on the border with Colombia and threatened by drug trafficking, illegal mining and deforestation. On the Colombian side of this locality there is extensive coca leaf cultivation. 

Although coca leaf cultivation is not the main cause of deforestation in the Andean Amazon, it is one of the fastest growing activities, and in many cases, as in Peru and Ecuador, with a great deal of violence. This new configuration of crime, following the demobilization of the FARC and the advance of criminal organizations in Brazil, poses new challenges for the protection of forests and their main defenders, the indigenous peoples.

On the other hand, in Colombia, the emergence of highly technified enclaves, as the researchers point out, is also putting out of business many small farmers with more artisanal processes who depended on this income and are now left out, generating a severe economic crisis in these localities.

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