BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia risks losing U.S. support in its fight against drug trafficking because of rising coca output and a bill that could allow criminal gangs to surrender and be possibly pardoned, the Andean country's attorney general told Reuters in an interview.
The bill, backed by leftist President Gustavo Petro, is part of the government's efforts to end the role of criminal groups in Colombia's internal conflict, which has run for almost six decades and has killed than more than 450,000 people.
The bill, which is being debated in Congress, would offer reduced sentences to criminal groups if they destroy their networks, recognize their crimes, offer reparations to victims and turn over weapons, assets and information about their activities, according to the government.
"A massive pardon is being presented to people who have committed crimes and would be released from prison without further measures," Attorney General Francisco Barbosa, a strong critic of the proposal, told Reuters in an interview.
The bill would "without doubt" help criminals to break the law, launder their assets and benefit from large-scale drug trafficking, Barbosa said.
The proposal does not include pardons or mass releases from prisons, Justice Minister Nestor Ivan Osuna has told Reuters.
Barbosa said a reduction in operations against criminal groups during Petro's term has impeded the execution of some warrants.
"Colombia is losing its capacity for control," he said. "I cannot, as attorney general, accept that it's understood that here what must be done is to sit down to negotiate surrender laws with drug traffickers."
Barbosa said he is worried the government's decision to reduce manual eradication of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine, and uphold the suspension of aerial spraying of drug crops with the pesticide glyphosate would boost coca output.
According to official U.S. figures, there were 2,340 square kilometers of coca in Colombia in 2021 and potential cocaine output of 972 tonnes. Figures from last year are not available.
Washington is Colombia's top ally in the fight against drug trafficking and annually provides some $450 million in assistance to the Andean country.
The U.S. grades allies' efforts in counter-narcotics and a de-certification of Colombia could result in a loss of funding.
"There is a risk," said Barbosa about a decertification. "I hope Colombia fights not to become a narco-state. Total peace cannot simply be to empty the jails."
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Oliver Griffin, editing by Deepa Babington)