BOGOTA — A rare breed of moth that devours coca leaves with such voracity it's earned the nickname “el gringo” could become the next weapon in Colombia's war on drugs, according to scientists.
Alberto Gomez, a Colombian botanist who has been breeding butterflies for 18 years, says the species Eloria Noyesi can be bred in labs and released into the wild to gobble up illegal coca fields and deprive cocaine producers of the raw material they need for their drug.
“Eloria Noyesi only lays its eggs on coca leaves,” Gomez told Fusion in an interview this week. “Its instincts allow it to find coca plants wherever they are.”
The moths' eggs produce small caterpillars that chomp their way through coca fields, consuming 1.5 times their body weight each day.
“We are certain that the only thing they can eat is coca,” Gomez said.
Gomez said he first got the idea of using the moth for coca eradication in 1982, when news emerged that a plague of "gringo" moths had devastated coca fields in Colombia’s Putumayo province.
Back then, however, scientists did not have the technology to breed moths or butterflies in captivity, so Eloria’s destructive capabilities were useless to anti-narcotics agents.
Years later, after scientists figured out how to breed the insects, Gomez said he spoke with Colombian officials about the applicable uses of the coca-chomping moth. He asked the government for funding to conduct field tests.
“Eight years ago, when (current President) Juan Manuel Santos was Minister of Defense, I talked to him about using the moth…and he said it was an interesting idea,” Gomez said.
The botanist sent a proposal to Colombia’s anti-narcotics police asking for $30,000 to capture live specimens of the moth and set up a breeding program. But the project was quickly dismissed as too expensive, despite Colombia's billion-dollar annual anti-narcotics program.
“A colonel called me and told me that they didn’t have enough money to fund it,” Gomez said.
But now interest in the moth is starting to resurface, as Colombia seeks new ways to eradicate its coca crops.
The Colombian government this week decided it will stop fumigating illegal coca farms with the toxic herbicide glyphosate, which means officials are now looking for safer, and less-expensive alternatives to combating cocaine production.
Gonzalo Andrade, a biology professor and butterfly researcher at Bogota’s National University, says the time has come to reconsider the proposal of using Eloria Noyesi for crop eradication.
But first, he says, scientists need to make sure that the moth eats only Erythroxylum Coca, the species of coca plant that is used to make cocaine. Otherwise, the moth solution could cause unintended consequences on other types of coca crops.
“There are five species of coca in Colombia, and only one or two of them can be used to make cocaine,” Andrade said. “If the moth turns out to eat other coca species, I wouldn’t be so sure about deploying it because it could destroy [legal] coca crops used by indigenous communities for traditional purposes.”
Andrade says that the moth’s impact on coca crops could be significant. Each specimen of “el gringo” can produce up to 1,000 eggs over its lifetime.
Although the species has a prolific reproduction rate, it’s population has remained low in recent years — perhaps, Andrade postulates, because glyphosate fumigation campaigns have also killed off the moths in many parts of Colombia.
The population of "el gringo" could surge with a breeding campaign, but to do that means Andrade and his fellow scientists would need special permits to grow coca plants, as well as funds to capture live specimens in the wild.
Gomez said that he initially proposed using the moth because it could be a good substitute for fumigation in ecologically sensitive areas such as National Parks and reserves, where farmers often plant coca in hopes that the army won't spray. Now that aerial fumigation is no longer an option, Gomez says that the Eloria moth could be deployed to areas that are hard or dangerous to reach for soldiers who conduct manual eradication.
While the “gringo” moth could be an effective measure, the scientist said total eradication will only occur when the government gives peasants economic alternatives to producing drugs.
“You can’t tell people to stop growing coca, and let them die of hunger,” Gomez said. “The solution is to give these people in remote areas [legal] ways of making a living.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.