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US Sends Mixed Messages on Aerial Spraying in Colombia

COCA / 17 MAR 2021 BY GABRIELLE GORDER EN

The United States State Department’s annual drug control strategy report calls for Colombia to restart the aerial eradication of coca crops, a position on which the administration of Joe Biden has yet to take a stance.

The suspension of aerial eradication removed a “an irreplaceable tool in the government’s arsenal” for reducing coca cultivation, according to the 2021 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, put out by the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). Colombia will need to “implement its stated goal of restarting a safe, limited and effective Colombian-led aerial eradication program,” the report states.

Colombia and the United States previously agreed on the goal of reducing coca cultivation and cocaine production by half by the end of 2023.

In 2015, Colombia suspended aerial spraying, citing World Health Organization (WHO) warnings that the herbicide glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Two years later, the country’s Constitutional Court restricted the use of glyphosate spraying by aircraft.

SEE ALSO: Colombia’s Coca Eradicators Spared From Coronavirus Lockdown

Colombian President Ivan Duque has sought to overturn that decision amid record coca cultivation and cocaine production. In 2019, the court stipulated that aerial spraying could be reinstated, but that several conditions must first be met to reduce health risks and environmental damage.

In response, the Colombian government launched an environmental management plan for an arial eradication program. The Ministry of Defense has announced plans to resume arial herbicide fumigations in April 2021.

InSight Crime Analysis

President Joe Biden’s administration has yet to take a stance on the controversial issue of aerial spraying in Colombia, but the White House will soon have to make its position clear amid contradicting views within the US government.

In December 2020, the US House of Representatives’ Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission released a report that questions the effectiveness of aerial spraying. Coca growers, often with no other viable alternatives, simply replant elsewhere, according to the report.  Some experts say replanting rates are as high as 70 percent.

The report states that aerial interdiction efforts come at a significant cost, including health risks for coca growing communities, environmental damage, adverse effects on food security, as well as potential social discord.

It also indicates that aerial spraying undermines state legitimacy in Colombia’s remote rural communities. According to one expert cited in the report, “campesinos only encounter the state in the form of a plane spraying herbicide.” What's more, coca-growing regions often lack basic government services, such as road infrastructure, effective police forces, as well as investments in education, health and socioeconomic development programs.  

SEE ALSO: GameChangers 2020: Conflicting US Approach to Latin America Organized Crime

According to United States Agency for International Development (USAID) officials cited in the recent report, aerial spraying could be effective on “industrial-sized” plots of coca away from established communities and in areas where manual eradication teams are at risk of attack.

Over the past four years, the Trump Administration pressured the Colombian government to re-start its aerial eradication programs, first by threatening to decertify the country and cut off aid if it did not make significant progress in reducing coca cultivation.

While the White House has yet to announce a clear stance on aerial fumigation, Biden has previously touted his years of experience in Latin America and his support for Plan Colombia -- the multibillion-dollar US assistance program to combat drug trafficking insurgents that launched the aerial spraying of coca crops. In 2000, while he was serving in the US Senate, Biden authored a bill in support of Plan Colombia, which stated that aerial eradication was key to the United States’ regional drug control strategy.

Members of Biden’s own party have already sought to place limits on US support for aerial spraying. In July 2020, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, prohibiting US funds from going to aerial eradication in any way that violates national and local laws and regulations.

The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed the bill with the proposed amendment (Sec. 1299B). However, it was removed from the version approved by the Republican-controlled Senate and was not included in the final version of the NDAA enacted in January 2021.

Several experts at nonprofits and think tanks have advised the US against pressuring Colombia to resume aerial eradication. "Rather than pressure Colombia to fumigate, the United States should instead encourage President Duque to quit dragging his feet on the full implementation of the 2016 peace accords," says Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, the Director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)."

The Drug Policy Commission report concludes that “aerial fumigation on the scale of Plan Colombia is impossible today, even if the government manages to overcome the legal, financial, and political hurdles to restarting the program.”

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