Counternarcotics strategy is a pillar of the U.S. and Colombia cooperation under Plan Colombia and the current peace accords. The government of Colombia continues to fight this “war on drugs” through eradication operations, anti-drug policy reform, and social investments for disadvantaged rural communities, and yet, the country continues to be the world’s largest producer of cocaine.
Both the U.S and Colombia have paid a heavy price in the war on drugs. Colombia has invested approximately 1.1 percent of its GDP per year from 2008 to 2009 and suffered from an estimated 25 percent of total homicides between 1994 and 2008 allegedly related to the illegal drug market. Since 2001, the U.S. has given Colombia more than $10 billion towards Plan Colombia, with roughly $4.9 billion solely devoted to assisting the Colombia Military and National Policy, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
More than a decade later, the results of Plan Colombia are mixed, with temporary “wins” to coca reduction and national security. Between 2001 and 2003 Colombia witnessed a rapid reduction in cultivation from approximately 160,000 to 80,000 hectares (ha) and has been stable for years to come. Recently however, Colombia has experienced a drastic spike in coca cultivation, resulting in 55% of Colombian cocaine production sold in North America. In terms of security, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported Plan Colombia’s successful achievements in security advances. The measure: according to the report the Colombia government today is in full or partial control of about 90 percent of the country in 2007 compared to about 70 percent in 2003.
Yet, as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia’s (FARC) begin the disarmament process, per the 2016 peace accords, other rebel groups and drug traffickers have begun to take over FARC controlled territories to establish their presence. As Colombia struggles to reduce cocaine cultivation and drug trafficking, it is crucial that both the U.S. and Colombia strategize to combat the cultivation and trafficking of illicit drugs.
But U.S. assistance has helped despite the significant challenges. There have been a series of significant wins from Plan Colombia in three departments. Caldas, Cundinamarca, and La Guajira have completed four full years of coca free production and another seven departments have drastically reduced their coca cultivation to less than 100 hectares (ha), according to UNODC 2015 data. Nevertheless, in the last few years, these five regions have seen a spike in coca production, Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo, Caquetá, and Norte de Santander. These regions contain 81 percent of the coca cultivation in Colombia, and at the end of 2015, Nariño, Putumayo, and Norte de Santander alone represented 64 percent. The UNODC 2015 data also suggests that the permanence of coca cultivation occurs in areas that have previously cultivated coca; there is no new arable land being controlled by rebel groups or drug traffickers to cultivate land.
The UNODC has reported an estimated increase of 46 percent of coca cultivation to 96,000 ha in 2015 from the previous year. Meanwhile the U.S. Department of States International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) reported a 42% coca cultivation increase to 159,000 ha in 2015, nearly a 100% increase since 2013. Although there are evident discrepancies of UNODC and INCRS estimates, both measures point to increasing coca cultivation in the last few years.
Figure 1: Coca Eradication in Colombia
Analysts suggest numerous reasons for the increase of coca over the past few years. Key among them are three: Colombia’s 2015 Anti-Drug Policy, the government’s commitments in the 2016 peace accords, and enduring profit incentives for coca cultivation for the illicit market.
In September 2015, President Santos released a counternarcotics strategy that focused on interdiction policies that disrupt the supply chain of the illicit market, improve cultivation zones through social, economic and political development, and reduce drug consumption by emphasizing public health and human rights. Through interdiction, this shift has resulted in the seizure of 421 metric tons (MT) of cocaine and cocaine base in 2016 – a 124 MT increase from 2015. An ongoing study finds that for every lab that is detected and destroyed by the authorities, coca cultivation decreases by about three hectares, making this interdiction strategy more effective towards coca reduction in the long term. Through public health, the new strategy will aid harm-reduction approaches for curbing drug use. Lastly, after extensive negotiations with the FARC, Santos laid out a strategy to allocate resources towards social investments and infrastructure through alternative crop substitution programs found in the peace accords.
The government of Colombia recognizes the threat that the illicit drug market has on national security and peace in the country. Now, more than ever it is crucial that Colombia’s counternarcotics strategies overpower its devastating war on drugs. In order to successfully achieve these strategies, it is crucial to analyze the root causes for increasing trends in cultivation. Policies around aerial fumigation and manual eradication, the implementation of the peace process, and profit incentives in this market all play a huge part in these rising trends.
Aerial fumigation and manual eradication
Despite the increase in cocaine seizures, coca cultivation has slowly been increasing since the reduction in aerial spraying and manual eradication. Aerial fumigation was the preferred method of forced coca eradication; the Colombian government aerially fumigated 100,000 ha annually between 2009 and 2013, but it came with huge financial and social costs. Analysts have calculated the marginal cost for each kilogram of cocaine removed from the market through aerial spraying was approximately $240,000, making it the most expensive form of eradication. In 2013, Colombia witnessed a heavy reduction in aerial fumigation after the U.S. stopped supporting the program due to the shooting of two U.S. pilots. Despite the lack of support from the U.S., aerial fumigation continued. According to critics, the spraying of the herbicide called glyphosate, had negative health effects to rural residents and caused environmental damage leading to the Colombian government officially banning aerial fumigation in 2015.
After the ban on aerial fumigation, the Colombian government focused on manual eradication specifically in national parks and in areas in which coca farmers would refuse to voluntarily eradicate their coca crops. In 2016, INCSR reported 17,642 ha of coca manually eradicated nearly reaching its goal of 20,000 ha. However, the difficulty with manual eradication is the amount of push back from community members and financial reduction in the program. The efforts to push back manual eradication were through blockades and replanting coca in areas less accessible such as national parks, indigenous and remote rural areas. Since 2008, manual eradication has been declining due to a two-thirds budget cut resulting in a 90 percent reduction in the number of manual eradicators in 2016 as compared to 2008, according to INCSR.
With the suspension of aerial fumigation and reduction in manual eradication, Colombia’s emphasis on interdiction and policies to provide services and support to Colombia’s most neglected rural areas are crucial. Figure 1 illustrates over time the linkage between the reduction of aerial fumigation and manual eradication to the increase in coca cultivation.
Implementation of the peace process
According to InsightCrime, Colombia has committed to eradicating 100,000 ha in 2017, evenly focusing on forced eradication by state forces in national parks and voluntary substitution of coca crops through alternative programs.
Coca eradication and crop substitution depend heavily on the peace process’ May 16, 2014 partial agreement titled “The Solution to the Problem of Illicit Drugs.” The Colombian government is counting on the FARCs commitment to the peace accords to help reach this goal. Through the agreement the FARC have admitted their involvement to the drug trade and committed to ending the illicit business. This is a huge step for Colombia; the FARC has long been deeply involved in the taxation, production, and trafficking of illegal drugs. But as the FARC slowly begin to demobilize, per the accords, other powerful drug trafficking organizations and rebel groups such as the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), and Los Puntilleros have been keen to take advantage of the FARCs abandonment of the trade, according to InsightCrime.
The agreement also includes voluntary substitution of coca crops through alternative programs. Alternative livelihood programs are designed to provide coca growing communities’ social and economic opportunities to break away from coca cultivation. Per the accords, if farmers voluntarily chose to eradicate their coca plants, families will receive land titles and financial benefits of up to $7,800 in the first year. There has been widespread reporting that the FARC had urged farmers to increase cultivation to receive benefits from the government stipulated in the peace accords. According to Vanda Felbab-Brown, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, roughly 58,000 families have signed up to the voluntarily eradication programs which could equal close to 50,000 ha of coca to be eradicated. However eradication at this magnitude is not so easy. Other illegal groups have fought the government’s efforts at eradicating coca. According to General José Ángel Mendoza, organized crime groups are paying 100,000 pesos (approximately $35) to each farmer that takes part in ongoing demonstrations against the government in Tumaco. These demonstrations are attacking the government for lack of social assistance, putting pressure on the government to not just sustain its eradication program at the same time that it ramps up expenditures under the peace accords.
Unfortunately, since signing the partial agreement, the Colombian government has been slow in meeting its commitments. For instance, as of March the government was forced to suspend the crop substitution program in Briceño, Antioquia, after locals turned against the project due to the government’s failure to uphold commitments made to coca growing communities in the peace deal. Antioquia, is the 8th largest coca cultivated region producing 2,402 ha or 2 percent of total coca crops in Colombia in 2015, according to UNODC.
Farmers rely heavily on coca cultivation as a major source of income for their families and the government cannot expect farmers to voluntarily eradicate cultivation of illicit crops if they do not receive substantive support. Alternative programs, if implemented properly, can be successful. According to GAO, between 2006 and 2011, USAID implemented two alternative development programs called Areas for Municipal Level Alternative Development (ADAM) and More Investment for Sustainable Alternative Development (MIDAS) that failed to provide a significant reduction of coca crops and its services did not reach Colombian farmers who grew coca.
Profitable market: Price increase for coca cultivation
Without alternative incentives from the government, coca farmers are forced to continue relying on illicit cultivation for their income. There is a market for every stage of the coca production process, and the price for each level of production has increased, which has made coca cultivation more attractive—and difficult to leave. For instance, in 2015, the price for coca leaf increased by 39.5 percent from 2014, the price for coca paste increased 2 percent, the price for coca base increased 8.3 percent, and the hydrochloride of cocaine increased 4.6 percent. In addition to the price increase, the market for legal crops remain fragile and volatile—with the lack of infrastructure for farmers to transport their products to a local city for purchase. In contrast coca farmers do not have to travel to sell coca leafs; drug lords or rebel groups travel to them for purchase, making it convenient for farmers.
Colombia has been a stalwart ally of the U.S. as the U.S. pursues its goals of national security and war on drugs. Today, though, political polarization in Colombia presents serious challenges to the successful implementation of the peace process.
On the one side are the opponents of the peace process who remain skeptical. On the other are the rural populations demanding the benefits of peace and the illegal and non-FARC insurgent forces who hope to take advantage of failure. In between is a government struggling to meet the rising demands and expectations of peace. If the government cannot fully and successfully implement the peace accords and its obligations under them, the country could well fall back into insecurity as rebel and criminal groups grow in power and long-marginalized communities become disgruntled by unmet promises.
The Trump administration recently presented its plan to Congress to cut U.S. economic aid to Colombia by 21 percent. Such a cut would make peace, security and addressing drug production harder than ever for Colombia.