New US figures showing a tiny drop in Colombia’s drug cultivation over the last year are being hailed as evidence that a hardline crackdown is working, ignoring a more complex reality.
Colombia’s total coca cultivation, the raw material for cocaine, dropped from 209,000 hectares in 2017 to 208,000 hectares in 2018, according to new estimates from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
While remaining at record highs, this is the first drop registered in Colombia’s cocaine production since 2012.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Cocaine
“We are seeing Colombia make progress in accomplishing our shared goal of significantly reducing coca cultivation and cocaine production,” said ONDCP Director Jim Carroll.
The White House also congratulated Colombia’s President Iván Duque for increasing eradication of coca crops by 56 percent over his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos.
This is support Duque has desperately sought. Cocaine had become a source of rising tension with US President Donald Trump. In April this year, Trump lambasted his counterpart for failing to stem the flow of drugs, saying “he has done nothing for us.”
Yet the White House report comes in the shadow of darker news. Global cocaine production is at a record high, with Colombia responsible for 70 percent of total world production in 2017, according to the 2019 World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
“It’s bad news for the producing countries … What is happening in Colombia is worrisome,” commented Angela Me, UNODC’s head of research.
InSight Crime Analysis
Between 2012 and 2017, coca crop production in Colombia grew by 168 percent, or from 78,000 hectares to 209,000. A small drop of just 0.5 percent, or 1,000 hectares, may not be cause for celebration.
Historically, the United States’ stance has encouraged reducing the supply of cocaine through the eradication of coca plants and a tough stance on drug traffickers, often leading to extradition. The security aid package known as "Plan Colombia" saw the United States provide $10 billion to Colombia over a 15-year period, with a heavy focus on narcotics control.
Its evolution, Peace Colombia, provided greater support for human rights and migration issues, but still included $143 million for military training and narcotics control in 2018.
This aid was a boon for Colombia during the peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia -- FARC), and has seen Colombian governments work hard to keep Washington happy.
This partnership has led to a narrow approach at times, focused on imprecise, short-term gains instead of working out lengthier, but more sustainable, solutions. In this case, measuring coca crops is not an exact science and estimates can vary widely.
The government of President Duque has pushed the forced eradication of coca crops rather than building on the voluntary substitution plans laid out as part of the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC. This gives farmers a strong incentive to hide their crops under thick jungle or concealed among other plants.
InSight Crime field work in Sur de Bolívar also found evidence that farmers managed to pay off soldiers to avoid harming their crops, or only destroyed part of them while registering eradication as complete.
In September 2018, Duque announced a plan to reduce Colombia’s coca crops by 140,000 hectares to 150,000 over the next four years, mostly through eradication. This was a marked change from his predecessor, former President Santos.
The 2016 peace agreement with the FARC included the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito – PNIS) as a key anti-narcotics strategy.
As of December 2018, over 100,000 families had signed up for this program, which saw them receive cash payments in exchange for switching from coca to other crops. Many of these payments have been delayed or never materialized, with some participants returning to coca production as a means of subsistence.
That this small drop is being spun as a win by Washington is likely to reinforce Duque's current stance. While the eradication to date has been manual, the president is determined to return to aerial fumigation through glyphosate, looking to overturn a 2015 court order banning its use due to potential harm to human health.
Reducing coca crops is vital but it is one part of a complex whole. Other statistics paint a fuller picture. Colombia’s homicide rate has risen for the first time in a decade. It is estimated that at least 2,000 former FARC fighters have abandoned the peace process. And fighting for control of key drug trafficking routes have caused mass displacements.
The United States’ support will continue to be key in Colombia’s anti-narcotics strategy but a redefinition of how it measures success may be in order.