Once again, statistics on Colombia's cocaine production released by the United Nations and the White House present radically different findings. Despite assertions that the White House numbers are more reliable, there are plenty of reasons to doubt this.
On July 30, five days after the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released figures on coca cultivation in Colombia, the US Office of National Drug Control Police (ONDCP) published their own findings on the subject. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the statistics diverged, following a pattern that the UN and US have been remarkably consistent in achieving in recent years. However, the announcement by the ONDCP director, Gil Kerlikowske, that, for the first time in 17 years, Colombia now produces the smallest amount of cocaine in the region – behind Peru and Bolivia – has sparked considerable debate on whether such an assertion is accurate.
The UNODC report found that, for the first time in five years, coca cultivation had increased in Colombia, climbing three percent from 62,000 hectares in 2010 to 64,000 last year, while coca production actually decreased from 350 metric tons to 345 in the same period. The ONDCP, meanwhile, found the cultivation area to have decreased from 100,000 to 83,000 hectares and coca production to have followed a similar downward trend. However, unlike the one percent drop in UNODC’s figures, the ONDCP estimates production plummeted over 25 percent from 270 metric tons to 195 between 2010 and 2011. This represents an alarming disparity of 77 percent with UNODC’s findings, as Colombia analyst Adam Isacson notes. Peru and Bolivia, according to the ONDCP, produced 325 metric tons (a 2010 figure) and 265 metric tons respectively (see graph below right).
Of course, it would be wrong to claim that one organization or state holds a monopoly over the correct method for measuring the area of coca plantations and production capacity. The opaqueness of the ONDCP’s results, however, raises questions over how precise their figures are.
While the UN provides an extensive overview of its methodology in its report, and works with the Colombian National Police to obtain its statistics, the ONDCP has been less forthcoming about how it reaches its figures. Instead, the US has stated that its findings have “95 percent” accuracy due to the employment of “a more sophisticated technology and different methodology.” Quite what this entails is uncertain.
There is also the issue that Bolivia’s coca crop is considerably smaller than Colombia’s. Based on the ONDCP’s own estimates for 2010 – it is yet to provide a 2011 figure for Bolivia’s coca cultivation – Bolivia had only 34 percent the coca crop of Colombia with 34,500 hectares. Assuming this figure stayed the same in 2011, it would still only be around 40 percent the size of Colombia’s cultivation levels. Yet, Bolivia’s production jumped from 195 metric tons to 265 in 2011, according to the ONDCP. As the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) notes, such a statistical phenomenon is “difficult to fathom.”
Part of the reason that Bolivia is apparently able to produce 35 percent more cocaine from a mere 30-40 percent of coca is due to Bolivian producers using “Colombian methods,” stated US Charge d'Affaires John Creamer.
It is certainly true that cocaine production has advanced substantially in recent years in Bolivia. Rather than continuing to use open air maceration pits, Bolivian producers have begun employing so-called “Colombian techniques” involving more precursor chemicals to process the coca leaf, making the extraction of the cocaine alkaloid more efficient. But when looking at the US statistics for kilograms of cocaine produced per hectare, Colombia has been operating at a lower rate of efficiency than Bolivia for the last decade (see graph on kilograms of cocaine per hectare of coca, below left). If the phenomenon of Bolivian producers learning from Colombians is relatively new, the US’s own figures do not represent this.
Another problem is that the US figures rest on the assumption that all coca in Bolivia is used to produce cocaine. This is not the case. Under Bolivian law, 12,000 hectares of coca – roughly one third of the total crop -- are legally mandated for traditional uses such as tea and coca leaf chewing, something the ONDCP apparently ignores. The US State Department even admitted earlier this year that US estimates for cocaine production in Bolivia and Peru “are overestimated to some unknown extent” due to the disregard of traditional uses.
In the ONDCP’s press release, the “strengthened US-Colombia partnership forged through Plan Colombia,” is cited as a key reason for Colombia’s “success” in reducing its cocaine production levels so dramatically. Launched in 2000, the Plan has seen $8 billion in predominantly military and counternarcotics aid provided to Colombia, with coca eradication a central component of the strategy. It would be politically expedient, therefore, for the US to highlight its efforts in Colombia as being successful. Conversely, the US has had a comparatively frosty relationship with Bolivia, with President Evo Morales expelling the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2008 and pushing for global legalization of the coca leaf, a move opposed by the US. Indeed, the likelihood of the US fabricating all of its statistics out of a desire to politically demonize Bolivia is slim. However, this may play a role, as the ONDCP’s emphasis on Plan Colombia’s success indicates.
ONDCP Director Kerlikowske has stated that the US and UN have agreed to work together in the future to try and align their methodologies, meaning that the potential for such wildly divergent figures may decrease. In addition, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru announced in March that they plan to implement a unified system to measure coca production in an effort to tackle discrepancies.
Measuring coca and cocaine production will always be a notoriously difficult task thanks to the clandestine nature of the trade and the increasing move away, in Colombia for example, from large coca plantations to smaller plots hidden amongst other crops. This greatly hinders the effectiveness of satellite technology, something both the UN and US are reliant upon in obtaining their data. This is not to say sensible estimates cannot be made. However, when statistics are based on a mysterious methodology and dubious assertions about the dynamics of cocaine production in the region, it will only raise more questions than answers.
* For full statistics from the UN and US (1999-2011), see WOLA's table here