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RawFeed: Fuzzy Math in State Department Report

COLOMBIA / 9 MAR 2011 BY ADAM ISACSON* EN

(Originally published 3 March, reprinted with permission from Adam Isacson and Just the Facts.)

The State Department has just released its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), which details foreign countries’ efforts, both U.S.-aided and otherwise, to halt the production and transit of illegal drugs.

While a generally useful document, the report paints a confusing picture of cocaine production. The numbers don’t seem to add up.

Note these three excerpts from the report. The first two are two paragraphs apart.

Crediting sustained aerial and manual eradication operations [in Colombia] in 2009, the USG also reported a decline in pure cocaine production potential of 3.5 percent, from 280 metric tons (MT) in 2008 to 270 MT in 2009 - a 61 percent drop from the 700 MT estimated production potential in 2001.

According to the Colombian government, Colombia in 2010 seized over 225.9 MT of cocaine and cocaine base. (Later, the report gives a 2009 seizure figure of 205.85 tons. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime assumes a 1-to-1 conversion rate between a kilogram of cocaine and a kilogram of cocaine base.)

There are approximately 250 metric tons of cocaine transiting through Venezuela annually, according to USG cocaine-movement estimates.

This language gives the reader the impression that Colombia potentially produced 270 tons of cocaine in 2009, of which 206 tons were interdicted, leaving about 64 tons.

Yet then, somehow 250 tons apparently got shipped through Venezuela alone. And incidentally, U.S. guards at the Mexican border seized another 61 tons, and the U.S. Coast Guard 93 tons, in 2009. Where are all these tons coming from, if not Colombia’s net 64 tons?

In fact, add those four figures together:

  • Colombia’s 2009 interdiction (206 tons)
  • U.S. border interdiction (61 tons)
  • Coast Guard interdiction (93 tons)
  • Venezuelan transshipment (250 tons)

That’s 610 tons of cocaine. But let’s add two more, from the 2010 INCSR:

  • Panama’s 2009 interdiction (52 tons)
  • Ecuador’s 2009 interdiction (44 tons)

That gives a total of 706 tons of cocaine seized or transshipped from these six sources alone in 2009: more than 2 1/2 times the 270 tons that the INCSR estimates Colombia produced that year. If the State Department is right, these six statistics alone would account for all of the INCSR’s estimate of world cocaine production for 2009 (690-710 tons).

In other words, according to the INCSR, all cocaine produced in the world in 2009 was either seized in four countries (Colombia, the United States, Ecuador, and Panama), or it passed through Venezuela. This is obviously ridiculous.

There are some possible answers, but they are unlikely to make up for this huge statistical confusion:

  • Some cocaine seized in Colombia and elsewhere may have been produced from coca grown in Peru, and possibly Bolivia, which according to the INCSR produced 420-440 tons in 2009, much of which went to Brazil and Europe. Because of Colombia’s geographical position, it is the source of the vast majority of cocaine that actually gets shipped to, and consumed in, the United States.
  • Cocaine seizure numbers may be inflated because the product may be less than pure – narcotraffickers “cut” the product with other substances (baking soda, sugars, other drugs) in order to stretch their supplies, and the seizure statistics may be counting the weight of these fillers. However, most of this “cutting” occurs after the product reaches the United States, as international smugglers are unlikely to waste scarce weight and volume.
  • Some of the seizure volume could be stockpiles of cocaine from previous years. It’s unlikely – there is very little evidence that cocaine traffickers maintain stockpiles to overcome supply volatility – but not impossible that stockpiles might increase total cocaine supplies by a small amount.

These are likely only very partial explanations for the numbers not adding up. The State Department needs to clear up the strong and erroneous impression its report leaves: that every last bit of cocaine produced these days is either seized before it reaches users, or passes through Venezuela.

*Isacson is a Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy at the Washington Office on Latin America.

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