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Pushing productive coca seeds, Mexican cartels reshape Colombia’s drug industry

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© Reuters. A drug-sniffing dog sniffs barrels that authorities say contain cocaine dissolved in chemical fertilizers and honey, in Cartagena, Colombia February 4, 2022. REUTERS/Luis Jaime Acosta

By Luis Jaime Acosta

TUMACO/NORTE DE SANTANDER, Colombia (Reuters) – Emissaries of Mexican drug cartels are involving themselves more closely in cocaine production in Colombia, paying farmers in advance and pushing cultivation of highly-productive strains, coca growers, security officials and rights activists say.

Top Mexican cartels like Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generacion – which have large areas of influence within Mexico and engage in brutal violence for control of drug routes – have long purchased cocaine from Colombia’s guerrilla groups and crime gangs.

But while they once operated as discrete buyers – and still avoid direct engagement in the competition for their business – the increasing presence of emissaries is noticeable in several cocaine-producing areas, residents and farmers told Reuters.

The cartels have driven significant changes in the varieties of coca being planted, sending cocaine production higher, Colombia’s anti-narcotic police say. These developments in how coca is grown have contributed to the increased quantity and purity of cocaine trafficked to both the United States and Europe, the police say.

The increased output from new coca strains is visible in figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, with potential cocaine output rising over the last three years even as the planted area decreases.

Individuals are sent by cartels to guide production, as well as buying and transport, General Fernando Murillo, head of the DIJIN investigative division of Colombia’s national police told Reuters.

“They do it for assurance and confidence in the purity of the substance that is being sold to them,” he said.

Coca growers, informants and captured traffickers have detailed to police and the military how the Mexican emissaries conduct purity controls, maintain relations with the entire spectrum of Colombian armed groups and negotiate prices, Murillo said.

CARTEL AGRONOMISTS

The extra fruitful coca seeds are the product of cartel-funded cultivation work by experienced farmers and agronomists, said General Ricardo Alarcon, director of the anti-narcotics police.

Over the last three years, his unit has detected 14 adaptations made to increase productivity. There is no evidence the seeds are genetically-modified, he said.

The U.N., police and military sources, as well as growers and human rights activists, agree that a recent surge in productivity was due to careful selection of high yielding varieties.

One coca grower in Norte de Santander (BME:SAN) province told Reuters cartel representatives and their Colombian business partners began distributing more fruitful varieties two years ago, ordering farmers to plant them.

Though the area planted with coca fell in 2020, 2019 and 2018, estimated cocaine production and average yield of cocaine hydrochloride per cultivated hectare rose each of those years, according to the U.N. figures.

In 2020, the most recent year for which figures are available, potential annual production was up 8% to 1,228 metric tonnes, while yield per hectare was up 18% to 7.9 kilograms.

Potential production refers to the quantity that would be produced if all coca leaves were processed into pure cocaine.

The cartels add another element to a complex landscape of violence in Colombia. The Mexican gangs are bringing high-powered weapons to the country from the United States to use as payments for shipments of cocaine.

Cartels purchase both coca base and high-grade cocaine from Colombian crime syndicates like the Clan del Golfo, the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels and former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerilla group who reject a 2016 peace deal, security sources in the police and army said.

“It’s a very pragmatic relationship,” Rafael Guarin, who was then serving as national security advisor to Colombia’s president Ivan Duque, said in late 2020. “Whoever has control of the growing areas and the laboratories and can meet demand is the one who maintains relations with the Mexicans.”

The presence of emissaries in coca-growing regions is visible, four people living in Cauca, Narino and Norte de Santander and one who recently visited Cauca told Reuters.

In one incident, two men with Mexican accents at a Cauca bar who discussed moving cocaine by truck got angry when a local man came too close, according to a waitress who overheard the conversation in 2020.

“We’ll fill your stomach with lead,” one said, revealing the pistol wedged into his waistband.

Reuters was able to corroborate some of the details described by the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, through security footage taken in the bar.

COCA ADAPTATIONS

The cartels fund construction of laboratories and warehouses where shipments are coordinated, a police intelligence report seen by Reuters shows, and police sources say they also bankroll improvised docks and semi-submergible boats on the Pacific. Nearly all shipments are marked with logos used to control origin and quality, the report said.

Farmers said they had little choice but to plant the new strains.

“If someone arrives here with a gun, dressed in camouflage, or dressed like a civilian but with a gun in their belt and tells me that these are the seeds to plant, I just do what they say,” said Fernando, a Norte de Santander farmer. “It’s my life and that of my family.”

“We don’t ask who’s buying, nor where they come from,” he said, though he said he believed visitors to his area were Mexican cartel representatives because of their accents.

Cocaine can be obtained from four strains of the plant Erythroxylum, of which three – the novogranatense, coca and ipadu – are present in Colombia.

The most productive type varies according to climate – with some varieties thriving in colder areas and others heartier when it comes to resisting drought.

“It’s an adaptation of the plant in different areas,” said Alarcon, the anti-narcotics police director. “What the producers – of both coca leaves and cocaine hydrochloride – do is take advantage of the mutations.”

The national police have recorded the presence of varieties colloquially or commercially known as ‘tingomaria,’ ‘giant,’ ‘Bolivian black’ and ‘Bolivian red’ in both Norte de Santander and Narino, the two top producers of cocaine.

Farmers are encouraged to rotate seeds to further increase output and reduce harvest times, Alarcon said. Some adaptations produce between four and six harvests a year, instead of a traditional three.

It is unclear if cartels prefer a specific modification.

More than half the cocaine leaves Colombia along its Pacific coast, security forces said. A key cartel alliance in the region is with the FARC dissidents, said Colonel Jaime Zambrano, head of the 4th Marine Infantry Brigade, as he rode a boat through the yellow waters of a jungle estuary near Tumaco, Narino.

The bumper crops and high demand mean business is good. The price for a kilo of high-quality cocaine rises more then eighteen-fold to $30,000 at the U.S.-Mexico border and to more than $120,000 per kilo within the United States, according to Colombian police.

In Colombia, the scarce state presence, poverty and lack of economic opportunities mean the cartels’ offers of pay-outs for harvests, including in advance, are attractive to farmers, activists say.

“Drug trafficking has gone up because of the total abandonment of the state. There is no dignified housing, no dignified healthcare, we don’t have dignified education or employment,” said Tumaco social leader Luis Alfredo Vasquez.The situation is similar in Norte de Santander, where rising cocaine production has caused upticks in violence but where growers feel economic benefits.

“For the first time in many years coca growers in the region have cash upfront,” said Wilfredo Canizares, head of the Fundacion Progresar human rights group.

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Analysis-Australian women unleash new political force on climate, integrity

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Voters line up outside a Marrickville suburb polling station to cast their ballots on the day of the national election in Sydney, Australia, May 21, 2022. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy/File Photo

2/3

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Professional women and voters concerned about climate change unleashed a third force in Australia’s election, taking a swath of seats that ended nine years of conservative rule even as votes for the winning Labor Party fell.

Women who left successful careers in business, medicine and media to enter politics as independents were on track to win five seats from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal party in its affluent urban heartland in Saturday’s general election, as moderate voters abandoned the government.

Independents or the minor Greens party looked set to win at least 15 of the 151 lower house seats, ABC election analysts said. Labor remained five seats short of the 76 seats it needs to form a government as counting continued on Sunday.

Personifying the disruptive change were centrists, mostly women, dubbed “teal” candidates because of teal-coloured marketing material used as they targeted seats held by Morrison’s conservative party.

“You seldom see this in Australian politics – a campaign that springs up and catches fire,” said Simon Jackman, a University of Sydney professor, referring to teal community campaigns run by women volunteers.

The election showed women’s anger at Morrison and at inaction on climate change, underpinned by “a fierce desire to get accountability back into Australian politics”, said Chris Wallace, a professor at the University of Canberra.

“There was a large overlap between women outraged by the government and voters overall who wanted action on climate policy,” she told Reuters. 

This “mobilised women in never before seen numbers – including the affluent, middle-class professional women who donned teal T-shirts and took several safe seats off the coalition,” Wallace said.

Independent Sophie Scamps, a doctor who won a Sydney seat held by the Liberals for 70 years, told Sky News, “There were so many people in Mackellar saying, ‘I have voted Liberal my entire life and they no longer represent me.'”

‘AUSTRALIA HAS MOVED ON’

Monique Ryan, a paediatric neurologist who defeated Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in Melbourne, cited the gender pay gap and violence against women as key issues on Sunday.

Climate change struck the biggest chord with voters, said Jackman, who worked on polling data with Climate 200, a group funded by a former Liberal donor that gave money to around 20 independents.

Highly educated voters were also angry at the government on integrity issues, including the handling of gender and sexual assault claims in parliament that would not have been tolerated in most Australian workplaces, he said.

“Women were powerfully motivated,” Jackman said, while their male partners were also coming to believe “that the Liberals are the past. Australia has moved on, we’ve moved on on climate, we’ve moved on on gender equality.”

Former Liberal finance minister Simon Birmingham said the Morrison government should have embraced a more ambitious 2030 emission reduction target, and the election showed the Liberal Party needed to be more inclusive.

“Especially Australian women who are much more highly educated today,” he told ABC television. “It’s a cohort that we have clearly failed to have represented in sufficient numbers.”

Jackman said businesswoman Allegra Spender, who won the Liberal Sydney seat of Wentworth as an independent, should have been Liberal party royalty. Her father was a Liberal lawmaker for a decade and her grandfather negotiated Australia’s pillar ANZUS security treaty with the United States as foreign minister.

Instead, he said, Wentworth became a case study in how sophisticated moderate Liberal voters who understood climate science, and entrepreneurs who wanted to invest in greener technology had abandoned the party.

Greens appeared to have won two seats in the Queensland city of Brisbane that were badly hit by floods, and were leading in the flood-affected Brisbane electorate.

Greens leader Adam Bandt said Liberals and Labor both lost vote as a record number of people voted for the Greens. “This result is a mandate for action on climate and equality.”

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In Japan, Biden to launch economic plan for region sceptical on benefits

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© Reuters. U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks with Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Euisun Chung (not pictured) on the automaker’s decision to build a new electric vehicle and battery manufacturing facility in Savannah, Georgia, as Biden ends his visit to Seoul

2/3

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Yoshifumi Takemoto

TOKYO (Reuters) – President Joe Biden headed to Japan on Sunday to launch a plan for greater U.S. economic engagement with the Indo-Pacific, facing criticism even before the programme is announced that it will offer scant benefit to countries in the region.

On the second leg of his first Asia trip as president, Biden is to meet with leaders of Japan, India and Australia, the “Quad,” another cornerstone of his strategy to push back against China’s expanding influence.

In Tokyo on Monday, Biden will call on Emperor Naruhito before talks with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. He and Kishida are expected to discuss Japan’s plans to expand its military capabilities and reach in response to China’s growing might.

Tokyo will also see the launch on Monday of Biden’s long-awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), a programme intended to bind regional countries more closely via common standards in areas including supply-chain resilience, clean energy, infrastructure and digital trade.

Washington has lacked an economic pillar to its Indo-Pacific engagement since former President Donald Trump quit a multinational trade agreement now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving the field open to China to expand its influence.

But the IPEF is unlikely to include binding commitments, and Asian countries and trade experts have given a decidedly lukewarm response to a programme limited by Biden’s reluctance to risk American jobs by offering the increased market access the region craves.

The White House had wanted it the IPEF announcement to represent a formal start of negotiations with a core group of like-minded countries, but Japan wanted to ensure broader participation to include as many Southeast Asian countries as possible, trade and diplomatic sources said.

Given this, Monday’s ceremony will likely signal an agreement to start discussions on IPEF rather than actual negotiations, the sources said.

“Japan wanted as many participants as possible … and also wanted the U.S. to conduct an inclusive process of dialogue after the launch,” a person familiar with the discussions said.

This source said the launch was expected to be attended in person by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Biden and Kishida, and by other leaders virtually.

LACK OF INCENTIVES

A Japanese Finance Ministry official said many Southeast Asian countries would not join IPEF because of the lack of practical incentives like tariff reductions.

“It’s not a cold decision but a practical one, probably because it doesn’t really have significant contents,” the official said.

However, an Asian diplomat said a least half the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could join the launch ceremony.

“It seems the White House has decided to make the IPEF launch more like a party with an open bar that all are invited to, with the real work to start on Monday morning,” said Matthew Goodman, a trade expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Eventually the administration is going to have to offer more tangible benefits if it wants to keep countries on board.”

On Tuesday in Tokyo, Biden will join the second in-person meeting of the Quad group of countries.

All share concerns about China, but the Quad as a group has avoided expressing an overtly anti-China agenda, largely due to Indian sensibilities.

India’s strong security ties with Russia and refusal to condemn its invasion of Ukraine will likely prevent any strong joint statement on that issue, analysts said.

However, at their last summit in March, Quad leaders agreed that what has happened to Ukraine should not be allowed to happen in the Indo-Pacific – a reference to the threat posed to self-governed Taiwan by China, though Beijing was not mentioned by name.

Chinese envoy for Korean affairs Liu Xiaoming said on Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) that Washington was “putting together a closed & exclusive ‘clique’.”

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Biden says ‘everybody’ should be concerned about monkeypox outbreak

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden pauses while speaking during a briefing from senior officials on efforts to prepare for and respond to future hurricanes, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., May 18, 2022. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

SEOUL (Reuters) – The monkeypox outbreak is something “everybody should be concerned about,” U.S. President Joe Biden said on Sunday, adding that U.S. health officials are looking into possible treatments and vaccines.

“We’re working on it hard to figure out what we do,” Biden told reporters at an air base in South Korea before departing on Air Force One for Japan.

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