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What peace in Colombia would mean for the drug trade and those who depend on it

As Colombian officials negotiate with FARC rebels to end the country’s 50-year civil war, the illegal drug trade -- used by the rebels to help finance their insurgency -- has become a major point of debate. Special correspondents Bruno Federico and Nadja Drost travel to the heart of coca production in Colombia to examine how the drug market works and the impact of a potential peace deal.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    But, first, the government of Colombia is in negotiations with Marxist rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to end 50 years of war.

    The country's infamous drug trade, which fuels the conflict and helps finance the insurgency, has been a major point of debate at the peace talks. If a deal is signed, it could prompt radical changes in the production of illicit crops, like coca, the raw material for cocaine.

    Special correspondents Bruno Federico and Nadja Drost traveled to the heart of the coca trade in the southern region of Putumayo to find out what impact a peace deal would have.

    The report is narrated by Ms. Drost.

  • NADJA DROST:

    It's high noon, and the sun scorching, as pickers grab at the leaves of coca plants.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    For us owners of the crop and workers who puck it, it's a big process to harvest it, to get the powder.

  • NADJA DROST:

    Long before white powder cocaine hits the streets of the U.S. and Europe, it starts in a field like this, in an isolated patch of the Putumayo region in Colombia's south, where coca leaves are harvested and then processes into a coca base, the foundation of cocaine.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    Two acres produces 5,000 or 6,000 grams of coca base and each gram is cheap, sold for about 50 cents.

  • NADJA DROST:

    These pickers are at the bottom of the rung of Colombia's multimillion-dollar cocaine industry. But in providing the material for cocaine, they risk arrest on drug-related charges and don't want their faces to appear on camera.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    This is illegal, you know. If the government comes and sees the laboratory, they will burn it. And if they see the guys working here, they will take them away. It's a real problem.

  • NADJA DROST:

    Even so, these workers face the risks of the job because they have few other options. If they were to grow food crops, they say, they would have to travel great distances to market for rock-bottom prices and little profit. Coca provides them a way to make a living.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    Legal work doesn't pay much, but this pays well, you know? These guys can make $25, $30 a day, but, elsewhere, a day laborer is worth $6 a day.

  • NADJA DROST:

    That's why, here in Putumayo, ground zero of the coca trade, coca is the main livelihood for locals.

    But that could drastically change should a peace deal be signed between the FARC and the government. Negotiators debating how to address Colombia's infamous drug trade have agreed to put an end to illicit crops.

    Colombia's drug trade generates the FARC an estimated $200 million a year, according to InSight Crime, a group that tracks the illicit drug trade. The rebels are considered narco-traffickers.

    But Joaquin Gomez, the top commander of the southern bloc says that's an unfair characterization. He says the FARC's southern bloc, says that is an unfair characterization. He says the FARC doesn't exist because of the drug trade; they draw on it by taxing it to finance their cause.

  • JOAQUIN GOMEZ, Commander, Southern Bloc, FARC (through interpreter):

    There's been one relationship or another indirectly with narco-trafficking, but that's why there are crimes are related to rebellion, because it's been to get the funds or means to keep confronting the enemy of class.

  • NADJA DROST:

    The U.S. State Department claims Gomez has overseen the production of thousands of tons of cocaine and offers a reward of $2.5 million for his capture.

    But as part of the peace deal, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos visited the U.S. in February and asked Washington to drop drug-related charges against FARC leaders. Since 2000, the U.S. has spent over $9 billion on Plan Colombia, fighting the narcotics field insurgency, part of the effort, aerial fumigations to eradicate the coca plant. Crops dropped by over half by 2014.

    But production is back on the rise, and Colombia has overtaken Peru as the world's top producer. Aerial spraying has also killed food crops and been blamed for serious health problems. Now, as a part of the expected peace accords, both the government and the FARC have committed to supporting farmers to substitute their coca crops for legal ones, but locals worry.

  • RICARDO, Putumayo Resident (through interpreter):

    What's the fear? That if coca ends, there will be a lot of people without jobs.

  • NADJA DROST:

    And coca base is so important to this town, it's even used to buy goods, a valid currency here. The only way locals can imagine coca substitution programs working is if the governments invests in ways to make alternative crops viable, so that communities don't have to relay on coca.

  • RICARDO (through interpreter):

    We hope that, instead of gunshots, there is social investment. We will leave coca to the side and invest in cattle-raising or something.

  • NADJA DROST:

    Coca leaves, ammonium, cement, sodium hydroxide and gasoline, rudimentary labs like this keep churning out coca base.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    If there's peace, we won't count on coca. If the government doesn't come through, well, we will have to keep going with coca.

  • NADJA DROST:

    If a peace deal doesn't provide alternatives to coca, there will be no shortage of campesinos willing to fill demand for drugs abroad, far away from these coca fields.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," reporting with Bruno Federico, I'm Nadja Drost in Putumayo, Colombia.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The Colombian government announced today that it would soon begin peace talks with the country's second largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN. Colombia's half-century of violence has killed nearly a quarter-million people.

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