Colombian police have reportedly invented a device that allows them to rapidly pull up coca bushes, although whether it can grant coca eradicators greater protection from anti-personnel mines and possible gunfire is another question.

Colombia’s coca-fighting machine

As El Tiempo reports, the machine was designed by a group of officers in Bogota’s school of police technology. Intended to be attached to an ATV vehicle, the machine can remove a coca plant, roots and all, in about 30 seconds, police told the newspaper. This is compared to the average time of two minutes which it usually takes a coca eradicator to remove the plant from the ground.

The device is set to be tested in Putumayo province, along Colombia’s border with Ecuador, and in the municipality of Tumaco in Nariño province, in the Pacific southwest. These are among the most coca-rich areas in Colombia. According to the most recent coca cultivation survey released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Tumaco is the municipality with the highest amount of coca in Colombia, with some 5,771 hectares.

Police say they began designing the machine in 2010 in an effort to devise new strategies to protect coca eradicators. Eradication teams are sometimes targeted by sniper fire and surprise ambushes by guerrilla groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Eradicators also fall victim to the anti-personnel mines that the guerrillas typically leave behind in areas of coca production which they control. According to El Tiempo, so far in 2012 five eradicators and 11 police were killed by anti-personnel mines while completing eradication work, with another 108 wounded.

The guerrillas’ use of landmines to protect coca cultivations has helped make Colombia the second most affected country in the world in terms of landmine injuries and deaths, just after Afghanistan. While the device invented by Colombian police is intended to bring down this casualty rate, the machine’s ability to do so appears to be limited. There are questions about the device’s practicality — the current design reportedly only works when attached to an ATV vehicle, and not all vehicles can access the rural, difficult terrain where coca is most often cultivated. And while the use of the machine certainly puts greater distance between the coca eradicator and the actual plant, it is unlikely to give them further protection from a landmine explosion.

Police are aware of these challenges. According to El Tiempo, the machine’s inventors hope to eventually design a version which can be controlled remotely.