By Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombia will focus its anti-drug fight on weakening traffickers’ financial power and will continue forced eradication of coca crops, the country’s new national police director said in his first interview with international media.
The South American country, considered the world’s top producer of cocaine, comes under frequent pressure from prime ally the United States to reduce cocaine output.
New leftist President Gustavo Petro has promised changes to the anti-narcotics fight, saying the decades-long war on drugs has failed, and to seek peace with the country’s armed groups.
“Production and trafficking of drugs will be fought with the higher-ups, those who benefit from money laundering. The fight is focused on them,” said Major General Henry Armando Sanabria, who was appointed by Petro last month, late on Wednesday. “Money laundering as a way to attack drug trafficking is one of the government’s priorities.”
Smuggling and other avenues for integrating illicit funds into the legal financial system will be a top priority, added Sanabria, 51, as will seizures of cocaine exports headed for top consumers the United States and Europe.
The government will maintain a ban on the aerial fumigation of coca with the herbicide glyphosate, halted in 2015 on cancer concerns, Sanabria said, but will carry out forced manual eradication if growers refuse substitution plans.
“(Forced eradication) should continue to force precisely what the president wants: voluntary eradication,” Sanabria, a 33-year police veteran, said.
Coca growers – who are sometimes obliged by armed groups or by poverty to cultivate the crop – are not the target of the anti-drugs fight, Sanabria said.
Colombia’s potential cocaine output fell 2.2% to 972 tonnes in 2021, the U.S. White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said last month.
Leftist ELN rebels, crime groups like the Clan del Golfo and former FARC guerrillas who reject a 2016 peace deal are all implicated in production and trafficking, often through alliances with Mexican cartels.
Cartel emissaries are becoming more closely involved in cocaine production and paying for shipments with high-powered guns, Reuters investigations revealed this year.
Petro has promised to reform or even dismantle the police riot squad, which is implicated anti-government protest deaths last year.
But Sanabria said the unit, along with special anti-terrorism forces, will continue under strict supervision and human rights training.
The ESMAD riot squad will be barred from using 12-calibre lethal munitions and from firing paint pellets, but will continue to deploy tear gas, he said.
“A democracy can’t have a police force without the capacity to attend to disturbances,” he said.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Josie Kao)