BOGOTA A peace deal between FARC rebels and the Colombian government would greatly help cut cocaine production in Colombia, but officials fear new crime gangs could fill the gap while anti-narcotics police fight a new scourge: synthetic drugs.
As government and FARC negotiators in Havana begin discussing illicit drugs - the third item on a five-point peace agenda - anti-narcotics police chief General Ricardo Restrepo said Colombia had warned the world about the growing risk.
"It will be our next battle," the newly appointed Restrepo told Reuters at his office.
"They are easy to produce in any place; you don't need big laboratories. You can produce synthetic drugs from your home. Certainly they will attract a lot of world attention."
Over the last decade, the Colombian government has cracked down on cocaine labs hidden in the jungle and the small-scale farmers producing coca, the raw ingredient used to make cocaine.
Notorious drug cartels have been dismantled, and a U.S.-backed military offensive against the drug-funded FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and other insurgent groups has helped cut shipments of cocaine overseas.
But while a gram of cocaine is considerably cheaper on the streets of Bogota than an ecstasy tablet or hit of crystal meth, synthetic drugs are easier to produce and traffic than a kilo of cocaine, attracting a new type of drug producer and dealer.
A gram of cocaine costs about $10 in an upscale neighborhood of the capital, while an ecstasy tablet can go for more than $90, according to police officials.
Some of the narcotics are produced using pharmaceuticals imported legally from Europe, said Restrepo, who was appointed a month ago during a restructuring of the armed forces.
The synthetic drugs are then sold locally, he said, but also trafficked to Central America, Mexico and onward to the United States.
The shift toward non-conventional drugs could form part of talks with FARC commanders at the negotiating table in Cuba when they kick off again on Thursday. The two sides are set to discuss how to substitute coca farming for legal alternatives, how to prevent drug use, and improve public health.
HUGE COCAINE PROFITS
The year-long talks have clinched agreement on agricultural reform and the FARC's participation in politics. President Juan Manuel Santos has bet his political legacy on reaching a peace accord with the rebels to end five decades of conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people.
While FARC commanders deny it, the government has said the rebels remain involved in the cocaine production chain, from coca cultivation through to the lucrative trafficking overseas.
"The peace process will bring the nation many undoubted benefits and help the drug trafficking issue," said Restrepo. Without the FARC, he added, there would be a much greater eradication of coca and a decline in cocaine output.
With the help of U.S. aid, Colombian anti-narcotic police have made the lives of drug traffickers difficult in recent years, pretty well eliminating the once powerful cartels and arresting the leaders of new crime gangs.
But the country of nearly 50 million people remains one of the world's biggest cocaine producers.
Coca cultivation fell by a quarter last year to about 48,000 (119,000 acres) hectares as troops cracked down on the growers - well below the estimated 160,000 hectares (395,000 acres) more than 10 years ago. About 309 tons of cocaine can be produced annually from those fields today, Restrepo said, down from some 650 tons more than a decade ago.
But some people still reap huge profits from the drug.
A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cocaine for export costs about $8,000 in Colombia, while the same amount fetches as much as $15,000 in Mexico and $35,000 in the United States. In Europe and Asia, the figure is even higher, Restrepo said.
"It's a huge challenge. The business creates earnings that are exorbitant, abysmal," he said. "I'm sure we won't eliminate drug trafficking, but we must make sure we reduce it as much as possible, and that demand is kept at a minimum."
(Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Eric Walsh)