BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia's police force said a newspaper misreported Tuesday that it suspended operations to forcibly eradicate coca fields as the country's new leftist government seeks to change its approach to dealing with illegal drugs.
A police statement said that manual eradication teams are still operating but added that officials are stepping up efforts to persuade farmers to voluntarily adopt alternative crops.
The Bogota newspaper El Tiempo initially reported that the nation's new police director, Gen. Henry Sanabria, said during an interview that eradication operations had been suspended. The paper later reported that Sanabria's communication team explained that Sanabria referred only to aerial fumigation of coca crops, which was suspended in 2015.
Sanabria, who was named to the post last week, said during the internview that police are trying to lessen the impact of anti-narcotics policies on people who “have the least responsibility for drug trafficking."
His statements reflect the priorities of Colombia's newly innaugurated president, Gustavo Petro, a leftist who said during his campaign that he wants to find new ways to fight drug trafficking, including putting a greater emphasis on rural development in areas that are still producing large amounts of coca leaf, which is the basic ingredient in cocaine.
Previously, governments in Colombia set annual targets for eradicating coca crops, and deployed thousands of police and soldiers to remote parts of the country to manually pull coca bushes out of the ground with shovels, or kill coca plants with crop dusters and most recently drones.
But forceful eradication operations have led to violent confrontations between police and farmers, who argue that the lack of infrastructure in remote parts of Colombia makes other crops economically unviable. Over the years, dozens of police officers who participated in eradication operations have been killed by snipers or injured by landmines.
The eradication programs received financial and technical support from the United States, but failed to make a significant dent on the cocaine trade.
According to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, Colombia’s cocaine annual production potential rose from 273 tons in 2011 to 972 tons last year. The agency estimates the amount of land used to grow coca tripled in the same period.
In his inauguration speech earlier this month, Petro said that the “war on drugs had failed” and that it was time for nations around the world to find new ways of addressing substances like cocaine.
On Tuesday, Justice Minister Nestor Osuna said cocaine will continue to be illegal in Colombia though some permits could be granted to farmers who grow coca leaves for medicinal products.
Osuna added that police and judges will focus on dismantling drug gangs and businesses that launder money for traffickers.