The Colombian government has vowed to pull more coca plants out of the ground this year, amid US concern that it has let the war on drugs slide © Gideon Long

Hanibal Rodríguez plunges a shovel into the soil and uproots a coca plant. He and his team move steadily on, wrenching bushes out of the ground and leaving a carpet of broken branches and leaves in their wake.

Around them, police officers in body armour stand guard, sweating in the heat. Helicopters circle overhead and gunners scour the undergrowth for signs of the dissident leftwing guerrillas who still operate in this remote part of Colombia.

The Colombian government has vowed to pull more coca plants out of the ground amid US concern that a government keen to secure peace with FARC, the country’s biggest and best known rebel group, has let the war on drugs slide.

Coca production has surged dramatically in recent years and the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House has added to pressure on Bogotá. Last month, the White House said it “seriously considered” putting Colombia on a blacklist of countries that are failing to crack down on the global drugs trade, putting it on a par with Venezuela and Bolivia. Colombia, Washington’s closest ally in Latin America, was outraged.

“No one has to threaten us to face this challenge,” said a government statement. “For more than 30 years Colombia has shown its commitment — paying a very high cost in human lives — to overcome the drugs problem. Colombia is without doubt the country that has done most to combat drugs and which has had the most success in this regard,” it added.

But facing an upsurge in US opiate use and a possible increase in cocaine use, the Trump administration is keen to identify culprits. About 90 per cent of the cocaine in the US market is believed to come from Colombia, Washington says.

Last year, a record 188,000 hectares of Colombia, an area 30 times the size of Manhattan, were given over to coca, the US says, a 133 per cent increase in three years. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says Colombia produced about 866 tonnes of cocaine last year; with a local wholesale value of about $1.4bn, or a US retail value of about 50 times that amount.

Last year, Colombia destroyed 18,000 hectares of coca manually, 81% less than in 2008 when manual eradication peaked © Gideon Long

“The White House was within its rights to express its concern over coca growing,” says Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America. “But to threaten to decertify Colombia, to say ‘we’re putting you in the same basket as Venezuela and Bolivia’ — that was humiliating.”

There are many reasons for Colombia’s coca boom, officials say. Last year’s historic peace deal with the Marxist guerrilla group FARC created dangers as well as opportunities. While the state can finally move into areas once controlled by the guerrillas and wipe out the coca crops they had grown to rely on for their income, so too can criminal gangs, some of whom are linked with dissident FARC members. In some areas, that is already happening, officials say.

Another reason for the rise is the government’s decision to halt aerial fumigation in 2015 because of health concerns. Despite US pressure, Bogotá has no plans to resume it. “Colombia deserves an opportunity to show that by taking a more integral, intelligent and more permanent approach, we can replace coca,” vice-president Oscar Naranjo told reporters.

But having abandoned aerial fumigation, the government seems to have done little to replace it. Last year, Colombia destroyed 18,000 hectares of coca manually, 81 per cent less than in 2008 when manual eradication peaked. A government budget squeeze means men like Mr Rodríguez are thin on the ground. The government has vowed to destroy 50,000 hectares this year and eliminate the same amount again through crop substitution programmes, subsidising farmers to plant cacao, coffee, fruits and palm oil instead of coca.

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But farmers complain there is no market for the new crops and no infrastructure to support them. Some farmers have deliberately planted coca bushes in order to then rip them up and claim subsidies, officials say.

Colombia points to the high level of both extraditions and drug seizures as evidence of its commitment to the fight against cocaine. It has extradited more than 800 people to the US to stand trial on drug-trafficking charges. For every tonne of cocaine that US officials seize on the Mexican border, the Colombians seize 44.

The drugs trade also continues to take Colombian lives: this month, at least six died after security forces clashed with coca farmers that the defence ministry said had been forced to protest by dissident guerrillas.

“Colombia has made real progress in recent years in terms of drug seizures,” said Hernando Zuleta, director of the Centre for Security and Drugs Studies in Bogotá. “So, while it may be true that cocaine production is rising, it doesn’t mean it’s all making it to market.” Ultimately, Colombia’s fight against cocaine is a long-time project. Defence minister Luis Carlos Villegas acknowledges “it has to be a process of at least a generation”.

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