Colombia launches new strategy to tackle drug trade

CARTAGENA, Colombia Feb 3 (Reuters) - Colombia has launched a new strategy to fight drug trafficking, aiming to control cyberspace to tackle criminal groups involved in the cocaine trade, as well as block their financial transactions, Defense Minister Diego Molano said on Thursday.

The "Esmeralda" initiative, unveiled in the Caribbean city of Cartagena, will see support from 36 countries including the United States, Colombia's main ally in the war on drugs.

"We hope to develop new and innovative tactics in the coming years in the fight against the global scourge of drugs," Molano said at the III International Anti-Drugs Congress.

Crime-fighting agencies around the world will increase their cyber presence, including with undercover agents, to tackle the growing distribution of drugs online, Molano said.

Artificial intelligence will also be used to monitor the selling and trafficking of chemical ingredients used in drug making, to protect legal sales but prevent use in narcotics, he added.

Colombia is considered the world's top cocaine producer. Illegal armed groups including leftist guerrillas and criminal gangs descended from right-wing paramilitaries are deeply involved in production and trafficking.

The South American country cut the size of coca crops, cocaine's chief ingredient, by 7% in 2020, but potential production rose 8% to 1,228 tonnes a year, according to the United Nations.

Colombian authorities seized a record 672 tonnes of cocaine last year.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Richard Chang

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