Colombian farmers offer rare view into the dangerous, lucrative world of coca production

We spoke to a young Colombian coca farmer who shares the tricks of his trade via TikTok videos.
We spoke to a young Colombian coca farmer who shares the tricks of his trade via TikTok videos. © Observers

Hundreds of videos posted on TikTok by young Colombians document cocaine being produced in the 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 TikTokers told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that many locals are reliant on coca production to make a living but that the sector continues to be controlled by illegal drug traffickers.


Juan (not his real name) is a young TikTok user. He stopped going to school around the age of 13 and a few years ago started growing coca in Putumayo (a region bordering Ecuador), mainly for financial reasons. Although he shows his face on TikTok, we've decided to keep him anonymous, for security purposes.

I started to work in coca because I had a piece of land that was abandoned, so I set out to cultivate coca. I publish videos on TikTok to get to know people from other places. Sometimes, people aren't familiar with coca, so it interests them to learn about it. 
Video posted by Juan, shot in Putumayo on his Relatives' land. "I'd rather be involved in drug trafficking than love, it hurts less", we hear in the audio accompanying the video. © TikTok

More than 200,000 families made their living working in the coca fields of Colombia between 2016 and 2018, or roughly a million people (2% of the population), according to the UN.

The vast majority are peasants who grow coca for lack of other options. But the ones raking in the profits are armed groups that control the sector: paramilitary groups, guerillas, and foreign drug traffickers. It's a sector that is lucrative and deadly.

Once the coca leaves are harvested, they have to be taken to a laboratory where they are processed to produce the "coca paste". Once the product is ready, it must be given to a person who then delivers it to the armed groups. If you don't sell them the product, you can be fined or killed.
Montage of three videos shot in Putumayo and Cauca (the first one was published by Juan): they show coca leaves being crushed in secret laboratories. © TikTok

In addition to armed groups, coca farmers need to worry about the Colombian police. Growing coca is illegal, and police are ordered to destroy any of the coca crops they come upon.