Identifying drivers of deforestation in tropical biodiversity hotspots is critical to assess threats to particular ecosystems and species and proactively plan for conservation. We analyzed land cover change between 2002 and 2007 in the northern Andes, Chocó, and Amazon forests of Colombia, the largest producer of coca leaf for the global cocaine market, to quantify the impact of this illicit crop on forest dynamics, evaluate the effectiveness of protected areas in this context, and determine the effects of eradication on deforestation. Landscape-level analyses of forest conversion revealed that proximity to new coca plots and a greater proportion of an area planted with coca increased the probability of forest loss in southern Colombia, even after accounting for other covariates and spatial autocorrelation. We also showed that protected areas successfully reduced forest conversion in coca-growing regions. Neither eradication nor coca cultivation predicted deforestation rates across municipalities. Instead, the presence of new coca cultivation was an indicator of municipalities, where increasing population led to higher deforestation rates. We hypothesize that poor rural development underlies the relationship between population density and deforestation in coca-growing areas. Conservation in Colombia’s vast forest frontier, which overlaps with its coca frontier, requires a mix of protected areas and strategic rural development to succeed.