Colombia's rolling hills

Drones deployed in war on drugs in Colombia

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Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos has authorised the use of drones to fumigate coca leaves at low altitude. The herbicide glyphosate will be released by a platoon of drones as part of the Andean nation's battle to eliminate the plant's use in cocaine production.

The announcement comes one day after the US claimed that Colombia’s coca cultivation had increased 11 per cent in 2017 to 209,000 hectares (516,450 acres), with potential cocaine output consequently up 19 per cent to approximately 921 metric tons a year.

Colombia previously suspended aerial fumigation using glyphosate in 2015 after the WHO linked it to cancer. A Colombian constitutional court ruling also highlighted the health and environmental risks. Glyphosate is a key ingredient in the world’s most widely used herbicide, Roundup, produced by Monsanto.

Low-flying spraying by drone is anticipated to limit the airborne danger to humans associated with glyphosate, Santos said, adding that the government aims to wipe out 110,000 hectares (271,816 acres) of coca plants in 2018. The low-altitude elevation of the drones is argued to be similar to ground-based eradication teams, who spray the glyphosate herbicide directly onto plants from tanks mounted on their backs. Drones could also prove more efficient and tireless at the arduous task.

“Today we discussed the use of so-called drones, unmanned aircraft that due to their height simulate ground, not aerial, fumigation,” said Santos, who is due to be replaced by right-wing President-elect Ivan Duque in August this year.

The decision was taken by Santos at a meeting in Bogota of the National Narcotics Council, a government body that formulates strategies to fight the country's widespread drug trafficking.

The Colombian government signed a peace accord in late 2016 with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which had been heavily involved in coca production and cocaine trafficking. Since the group demobilised, new gangs have moved in and taken over the lucrative business and trafficking routes.

The US represents the main market for Colombian cocaine and the US government supports the fight against the illegal drug trade. Between 2000 and 2015, Colombia received around $10bn (£7.6bn) for military and social programs, although this aid has more recently been reduced to around $400m (£300m) per annum.

This would not be the first time that drones have been used by either side in the war on drugs. In Bogota, Colombia’s capital city, there are plans to introduce aerial photography and videography to crack down on local drug crime. Police in Brazil already use drones to monitor drug trafficking on its borders and small drones have also been dispatched by the navy to keep watch on suspected illicit activities offshore.

In November 2016, it was revealed that Colombian drug dealers were using drones to stealthily deliver their wares. Small packages of cocaine, along with a specially adapted unmanned aerial vehicle, were confiscated by Colombian authorities. It was thought that the drone was being used to smuggle cocaine over the impenetrable jungle covering the Darien Gap into Panama.

130kg of cocaine were seized, along with the parts of the drone ready for assembly, found buried in the sand near the town of Bahía Solano on Colombia’s northwest coast.

Speaking to Panama’s daily El Siglo newspaper at the time, General Jose Acevedo said, “The drone was used to carry cocaine to Panama, it had the capacity to transport 10kg per journey and it traveled a 100km distance”.

The drug stash was attributed to a local gang, Clan del Golfo (‘Gulf Clan’). This vast organised gang consists of up to 5,000 men and primarily functions as a drug trafficking operation.

Despite recent successes in controlling coca crop coverage - with the total annual area falling to a record low in 2014 - Colombia has since reclaimed the dubious honour of being the world's number one producer of cocaine. New growing technologies and harvesting efficiencies are helping drug gangs produce greater yields, year on year. The El Niño meteorological phenomenon has also caused droughts in recent years, placing intense economic pressure on farmers to turn to the hardier coca crop as a more reliable way of sustaining their existence.

In 2014, Colombia’s cocaine production accounted for 52 per cent of global coca bush cultivation.

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