Seeing Colombia's coca production through TikTok (2/2): Farmers under control of traffickers

A screenshot of a TikTok video shows someone lifting a bag full of coca leaves.
A screenshot of a TikTok video shows someone lifting a bag full of coca leaves. © TikTok

Hundreds of videos posted on TikTok by young Colombians document cocaine being produced in this South American country, from the fields where coca grows to the labs where the leaves are transformed into the drug. Colombia is the largest global producer of both coca and cocaine. One of these young people told our journalists that many locals are reliant on coca production to make a living but that the sector continues to be controlled by narcotraffickers.

Advertising

Even though producing coca and cocaine is illegal in Colombia, many young people post videos on TikTok showing their work in the sector.  

>> Read part one of this series: A rare look inside Colombian coca farms and cocaine labs, via TikTok (1/2)

Three videos showing coca fields, shot in the department of Cauca. "This plant is very beautiful, in a month, a month and a half, it will have to be harvested", we hear in the first one. The other two show workers at work. © TikTok.

'We're forced to sell the coca base to drug dealers'

Juan (not his real name) is one of these young TikTokers. In part one of this series, he explained that he works in the coca industry, mostly for financial reasons, in the Putumayo department, which borders Ecuador. He owns his own land, where he grows coca, and he also works on other, larger coca farms where the leaves are harvested and turned into “coca base” in a clandestine lab – the next step to transforming the leaves into cocaine. 

Juan told us how both leaves and coca base are then sold. 

I sell the leaves that I grow on my land to someone who isn’t part of an armed group. But then I have to let the narco trafficking groups in Putumayo know, because they then buy the leaves from this intermediary. 

With the coca base, on the other hand, we have to sell it directly to these groups. If we don’t, they might chase us off our land or give us a really high fine. If we can’t pay the fine, then we would have to sell our land or leave the country because they could kill us. 

Video shot in Colombia, showing the "coca base" in a clandestine laboratory, a preliminary step in the manufacture of cocaine. © TikTok.

That said, even if we are supposed to sell all of our products to these groups, we still keep a bit to the side, just in case. For example, when the groups are fighting for control of the territory, which happens often, they often pay us late, so we end up short on money. So, sometimes, we sell some of our wares to groups from Ecuador, who pay better than the Colombians anyway. Right now, the price of a kilogram of coca base is 2,650,000 pesos [Editor’s note: 600 euros].

There are at least three armed groups operating in Putumayo, according to the Colombian NGO Indepaz and Alexander Sanchez, a social leader based in Putumayo who is the spokesperson for the National Coordination of Coca, Marijuana and Poppy Growers (COCCAM): Frente Carolina Ramírez, the Comandos Bolivarianos de la Frontera (made up of dissidents from the former FARC guerilla group, which signed a peace agreement with the government in 2016) and La Constru (a paramilitary group).

'I post videos on TikTok to show people how we grow coca'

Juan continued: 

I post videos on TikTok to show people how we grow coca, so they can ask questions. People from other countries sometimes tell me that they would like to buy land to grow coca. Others ask me the going rate for leaves, how much to pay the workers who harvest the leaves or how much I make myself. Some people even write to me begging for work. 

That said, some people also tell me that what I am doing “isn’t good’ and that I shouldn’t pollute because when we work in the labs, we throw away the toxic liquids and the coca leaves that are no longer of any use to us. Actually, to that end, armed groups ban labs within 50 metres of rivers so as to keep from polluting the water that locals might drink. 

Video posted by Juan, shot in Putumayo, showing chemicals and equipment next to a river. The song accompanying the video says, "Many people criticize my life, because I make dirty money, because I traffic drugs and send them to the United States [...]." © TikTok.

I know that my videos could cause me trouble with the police or the army, but so far I haven’t had any issues.

'If the police or army destroy my crops, I can replant them right away'

A few months ago, they came into the area to get rid of coca plantations. When they come, it’s by helicopter, so you can hear them coming. We stop working. Then, they measure the land we are working on and explain that they are going to pull up some of our crops. Normally, they take 20% of a one hectare plot of land. But if we say we’ll “collaborate” with them then, they might only take 10%. There are even people who give them money so they don’t destroy anything. That said, even if they destroy part of the crops, you can replant them right afterwards. 

As for the labs, they can destroy them but they can’t burn them for environmental reasons.  

Montage of two videos shot in the Putumayo, showing the arrival of helicopters. In the second, shots are heard. © TikTok.

Police and soldiers also active on TikTok 

On TikTok, there are also videos posted by police and soldiers, which show their work to eradicate coca crops. The Colombian Ministry of Defence has reported that 103,100 hectares were eradicated and more than 5,700 labs were destroyed in 2021. Since the rightwing President Iván Duque took power in 2018, the government has intensified eradication campaigns. 

Montage of two videos. In the first, soldiers are tearing up coca plantations. According to the soldier who published it, it was taken in the department of Caquetá. In the second, published by a policeman, it says "My mother: let's hope they don't send you away to work", and then "Eradicating in Putumayo". © TikTok.

'Sometimes police or soldiers only pull up some of the coca crops in exchange for money'

Alexander Sanchez from COCCAM says it “isn’t legal” for the army and police to only rip up part of a coca field, as Juan described them doing:

In theory, they are supposed to destroy all of the coca fields that they find. But sometimes they only pull up part of a field if they come to an “agreement” with the peasants, for example, if they give them money. It’s theft. But this system means that peasants don’t lose all of their crops, which they depend on for their livelihood. And when an agreement isn’t possible, sometimes there are clashes. 

The Colombian police did not respond to our request for comment. We will update this article if they do respond. 

Video taken from a helicopter, flying over coca crops from 0'16. © TikTok.

Alexander Sanchez added:

I don’t think the young people posting on TikTok will have any problems because the authorities are already very aware that there are coca plantations and labs in these zones. 

Twenty minutes to the south of Puerto Asís [Editor’s note: a town in Putumayo], there are already people growing coca along the rivers. And they know that if the police or army rip up their crops, they can replant them. 

In my opinion, they publish these videos because they are proud of their work and want to promote it – it’s how they make their living. 

Video shot in Putumayo, in which a young man says he harvests coca leaves to earn money for his girlfriend. © TikTok.

Difficulty in implementing coca crop substitution programmes

In 2016, the peace deal signed between the government and the former guerillas of the FARC included a plan that would use government money to help get people to abandon coca to grow other crops. At the time, the government promised the people who took part in the program one million pesos per month (roughly equivalent to the current minimum salary) for the first year.

But Juan says “it is more profitable to keep working in coca.” His long term aim is to buy a bigger plot of land in order to make more money and become financially stable. 

Moreover, very few people ever received the money promised by the government. “The promises weren’t kept so many people who wanted to stop growing coca started growing it again, just to survive,” Sanchez says.

What's more, the threat of armed groups also play a role, because they don’t look kindly on the development of substitution programs, according to Indepaz.

Video shot in Cauca, showing women harvesting coca leaves. © TikTok.