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Colombia, Cocaine and the Lost War

I have been working as a photojournalist in Colombia for over 15 years. In 2010, I documented the brutal civil war that pitched government forces, paramilitaries, revolutionaries and crime syndicates against one another for more than half a century. Over the years, in every corner of the country, conversation has almost always drifted to one topic: cocaine.

Colombia is the world's largest grower of coca and the biggest producer of the stimulant made by processing them. According to a recent UN report, coca cultivation increased 43 % between 2020 and 2021, partly as a result of the economic effects of the Covid pandemic, reaching the highest level recorded since the UN began collecting data 20 years ago. For many Europeans and Americans, cocaine is a party drug. For many Colombians it is blood and violence, corruption and death.

In 2022, I travelled the country to chronicle the drug trade. A 2016 ceasefire halted the long-running civil war, making it possible to visit previously inaccessible regions. In the hills of Antioquia, I observed farmers picking coca. Riding in helicopters with Los Comandos Jungla, the Colombian special police forces, I witnessed the destruction of mountain laboratories. I photographed the ports where drugs leave the country and walked the streets of Cali and Bogota, where a growing number of Colombians are becoming addicts or dealers. My guides were tenant farmers, labourers, social workers, police officers, gangsters and ordinary Colombians who want us to have a deeper understanding of their country. Some risked their lives by speaking to me.

While I was there, Colombians went to the polls and elected Gustavo Petro as president, rejecting decades of economic and drug policy. Petro has promised a new approach to the country's problems, and his election has brought with it hope for a different future.

I met Ariel Albeiro Munoz, 19, in Pueblo Nuevo in Antioquia, a remote, mountainous region a long day's drive from the provincial capital of Medellin. Muñoz said he didn't use cocaine or care much about politics; he just wanted to earn enough money to buy a motorbike. He told me most people like him don't want to be involved in criminal activity, but when they're given the option to earn twice as much for picking coca instead of coffee, it's next to impossible to say no. Coca-leaf collectors began working at 5am and in a day each collected about 70kg, which earned them $10.

The area around the village of Pueblo Nuevo is sparsely populated. There's little infrastructure, few paved roads and a lot of poverty. The region was massively affected by the decades-long civil war. The last military checkpoint is about an hour and a half from here. Beyond that point, you need to negotiate with whoever is in control. Now that the conflict is officially over the area is controlled by a combination of FARC dissidents and various right-wing paramilitary groups.

Andres Hernandez, 26, was another one of my guides. It took Hernandez a while to warm to me, but he eventually allowed me to photograph his work. He said he started as a farmer and was taught how to set up a lab to produce 'base de coca', the first phase of processing leaves into cocaine. It takes 600kg of leaves to produce 1kg of cocaine paste which is sold for about $600.

There are two types of laboratories in the jungle. Labs like Hernandez's and another sort where paste is turned into cocaine hydrochloride, or powder. These require more technical skill and are usually run by organised crime syndicates.

I've been in real war zones where I felt safer than in the Potrero Grande neighbourhood of Cali. I was introduced to Jon and his friends Joan and Brian by a friend who is a social worker. Jon said he made his living from robberies, theft, drug trafficking and occasionally, assassinations. At one point Brian said he carried out assassinations every week to pay for his drug habit. Though he'd tried to work in construction for a while he'd struggled to leave gang life behind. He seemed old beyond his years. 'There are no jobs for us,' he says. 'You leave your resume, but no one ever calls. Then someone comes offering you a motorcycle just to do this one thing. And you go do it. That is how I started anyway.' He said an assassination paid about $700. 'Usually we get a name, an address and a picture. We also have the paramilitaries coming here recruiting the minors and offering jobs to kill their enemies. It is all related: the money, the robberies, the drugs.'

In Potrero Grande, you feel the presence of police once in a while, but you know they're not in control. Every street is controlled by someone different and the lines move constantly. You need permission to enter as an outsider.

In October 2022 I joined Los Comandos Jungla special police forces on raids to destroy cocaine labs. We flew from Tulua until we reached a remote, mountainous area in Choco Department. Because ambushes are common, helicopters travel in groups, one hovering above as the other touches down for soldiers to disembark. The helicopters can be heard approaching from miles around so the labs are usually deserted when officers arrive. Frequently, they're booby trapped with explosives.

At the first location, I stayed in the airborne helicopters and watched the troops from above. In the distance a group of men approached carrying sticks and walkie talkies. If the soldiers had found them in the lab, they could have been arrested but because they arrived after, the encounter fell into a different legal category. The soldiers were outnumbered and since they were there to destroy labs, not to arrest people, they withdrew.

When the helicopter I was in touched down we landed in a river basin and started to trek up the mountainside where we discovered a second-phase lab, a more valuable target for the police. The lab and adjacent 12-bed dorm were deserted. There was a small kitchen with barrels of chemicals cooking cocaine, and burners and microwaves for drying it. Everyone was on high alert. One group of Commandos rigged the lab with explosives while another took samples to get new intel. Then we hurried back to the helicopter. Pilots hate touching down because they're in shooting range and vulnerable. The operation that day destroyed five laboratories producing coca paste and one producing cocaine powder.

In 1999 the Colombian government announced a joint US-Colombia strategy to reduce the production and trafficking of illegal drugs and to improve security. According to a 2008 report from the US Government Accountability Office, the cost of ‘Plan Colombia' was around $540 million per year between 2000 and 2008. During the same period, the Colombian government paid about $812 million per year. The total represented around 1.2 % of Colombia's annual GDP.

Much of the US money went to training and arming the Colombian military and police which were later found to have been complicit or of having committed human rights abuses. Despite this huge investment, the programme did not succeed in halving drug production though it did improve overall security.

At Bogota airport I met Juan Pablo Mejia (26) who did not fit my idea of a smuggler. He was calm and unassuming. His was headed for Madrid but officials noticed objects in his stomach on a scan; he was carrying 13 20-gram capsules of cocaine with a total street value of about £50,000.

He said he was the sole earner supporting his mother until he lost his job during the pandemic. He borrowed about $1,000 from loan sharks to get by and fell behind on repayments. He was threatened and asked to smuggle the drugs to Spain. In handcuffs he said that he felt an overwhelming sense of shame. 'I'm not that type of guy'. He couldn't bear to tell his mother with his one phone call. Customs officials told me that he'd serve several years in prison.
Mads Nissen, November 2022
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