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Dec 7, 1:21 PM EST

US, Colombia vow to redouble efforts against drug trade

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AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

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US, Colombia vow to redouble efforts against drug trade

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- U.S. and Colombian officials vowed Thursday to redouble efforts against drug trafficking as the South American nation contends with a record surge in coca production that has tested the relationship between the two nations.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with his Colombian counterpart, chief prosecutor Nestor Martinez, and a delegation from Mexico in the Caribbean city of Cartagena Thursday. The meeting came three months after President Donald Trump threatened to decertify Colombia as a partner in the war against drugs unless the south American nation reverses a rise in coca cultivation.

Cultivation of the plant used to make cocaine rose in 2016 to levels unseen in nearly two decades of U.S. eradication efforts, according to a White House report. The prosecutors also discussed money laundering and human trafficking, two issues frequently intertwined with the illegal drug trade.

In a short statement after the meeting, Martinez said the three nations would "strengthen cooperation among each other to effectively battle this scourge."

"We're gonna make progress," Sessions said after shaking hands with Martinez.

Colombia is the U.S.'s staunchest ally in the region and one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid. The U.S. has spent more than $10 billion in counter-narcotics work in Colombia over the course of nearly two decades.

The amount of land devoted to coca cultivation had steadily declined but began rising again in 2014, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The biggest jump was seen last year, when the agency registered a 52 percent increase in the area where coca is grown.

The rise coincided with both a decision by President Juan Manuel Santos to stop the use of crop-destroyed herbicides due to health concerns in 2015 and a peace deal that provides benefits to coca farmers who agree to substitute their crops.

Colombian officials have vowed to eradicate 100,000 hectares of coca this year through a combination of forced and voluntary destruction of the plants. Authorities announced this week they had met the goal of eradicating 50,000 hectares through force. Independent analysts do not expect they will succeed in reaching that same number through voluntary eradication.

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