Cocaine production in Colombia remained near record levels in 2021, according to estimates released on Thursday by the White House, raising the stakes for bilateral cooperation between the United States and Colombia's next administration.
President-elect Gustavo Petro has promised to rethink drug policy in the South American country and prioritize development programs over coca eradication schemes.
In a press release, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy said that last year Colombia produced approximately 972 tons of cocaine, that are exported mostly to the United States, while 234,000 hectares were planted with coca, the plant used to make the illicit drug.
The figures for cocaine production are slightly lower than in 2020, when the nation produced 994 tons of cocaine and planted 245,000 hectares of coca, according to the White House’s annual study. But cocaine production is still significantly higher than ten years ago, when Colombia produced an estimated 273 tons of the drug.
The White House noted in its statement that Colombia "remains a close ally and partner" of the United States when it comes to tackling cocaine production, and said that last year, Colombia’s armed forces manually eradicated 103,000 hectares of coca and seized more than 750 tons of the drug.
But the partnership will be put to a test later this summer when leftist Petro is inaugurated.
The former guerrilla fighter has been a critic of manual eradication policies that often create conflicts between the Colombian army and farmers in remote areas, who have turned to coca as their main source of income.
During this year’s presidential campaign, Petro said that he wants to boost development programs in isolated areas so that farmers can get legal products to market while they voluntarily eradicate their coca fields. He also said he wants to renegotiate a free trade agreement with the United States which he says has made it harder for some Colombian farmers to sell their crops.
Petro has long criticized U.S. backed efforts to fumigate coca crops using small planes. These programs were suspended in 2015 after studies suggested that the chemical they were using to spray coca crops could be harmful to people and the environment.
The United States has said it wants to continue to work with Petro on a wide range of issues that include security, immigration and climate change. This week, Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s director for the Western Hemisphere, said he would visit Colombia to speak with members of the incoming government.
In its statement, the White House also noted that cocaine production remains high in Peru and Bolivia, which are the world’s second and third largest producers of the drug. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24,500 people in the United States died in 2021 from cocaine overdoses, while fentanyl overdoses killed 71,000 people.