Don Antonio unscrewed a vitamin bottle and dumped a few chunks of coca base – a precursor to cocaine – in his hand. In this part of Colombia, along the Guayabero River that divides Meta and Guaviare, coca base, or mercancia, is as good as cash. A gram is worth 2,000 pesos and might buy you a Coca-Cola.
I just got back from a trip to the region with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Despite the decades-long war on drugs and routine fumigation flights in the area, locals said about 90 percent of the population depends on the shrub to make a living. Those who have tried to make the switch to legal crops say the costs of trying to get their yucca or corn harvests to the nearest town, where they might find buyers, make it unfeasible.
Coca base, on the other hand, is easy to transport and buyers will often visit the remote villages for pickup. It makes sense financially, but the farmers find themselves hounded by the law and caught between the crossfire of the military and the FARC guerrillas that roam the area.
While I was on the trip, and disconnected from the outside world, there were two interesting developments in regional drug policy. The small nation of Uruguay legalized marijuana and announced that the government would become a grower and seller. (Before you book your ticket, the new law also prohibits the sale to foreigners.)
Also, Colombia’s Constitutional Court upheld a Supreme Court ruling making it illegal to imprison people for carrying up to 22 grams of marijuana and one gram of cocaine. Civil rights groups said the move would help steer people toward rehab and take pressure off of overcrowded prisons. The Attorney General, however, said he would fight the ruling.
Along the Guayabero River, Don Antonio will still be buying his Cokes with coca.