Every March, the State Department publishes an annual report, required by law, providing a global survey of what countries around the world are doing to reduce supply and demand for illicit drugs. The International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) is a bit of a drug-war relic, but it contains a lot of information unavailable elsewhere, such as how much drugs countries seized, and what U.S. aid to their counter-drug forces looks like.
The INCSR gets rewritten every year. While a lot of the same phrasing reappears, you can tell a lot about the U.S. government’s posture by looking at what has changed. A prime example is the report’s discussion of the growth in Colombia’s coca crop, which the U.S. government estimates as increasing from 80,500 hectares in 2013 to 209,000 hectares in 2017.
This paragraph, which appears each year, has undergone a radical metamorphosis from the Obama to the Trump administrations. Once a useful if partial analysis of the phenomenon, it is now hot garbage.
March 2016 report:
Several factors contributed to the overall surge in coca cultivation in Colombia in 2014. First, widespread reporting indicates that FARC elements have been urging coca growers to plant more coca, purportedly motivated by the belief that Colombian government post-peace accord investment and subsidies will focus on regions with the greatest quantities of coca. Second, empirical evidence demonstrates that counter-eradication tactics have significantly reduced the effectiveness of coca eradication efforts. To hamper aerial eradication efforts coca growers: (1) shift fields to areas off limits to aerial eradication, including national parks and indigenous reserves; (2) plant smaller fields in areas where aerial eradication is permitted, to impede coca detection and aerial eradication; and (3) prune coca plants after being sprayed to prevent full absorption of the herbicide and save the plant for future harvests. To combat manual eradication, coca growers: (1) employ blockade techniques to prevent eradicators from accessing fields; (2) place improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around eradication operations to kill, injure, and demoralize eradicators and significantly slow eradication operations by requiring extensive counter-IED detection efforts; and (3) plant fields in remote areas, requiring increased effort to detect, access, and eradicate fields. Finally, Colombia’s manual eradication budget has declined by two-thirds since 2008, resulting in a 90 percent reduction in the number of manual eradicators in 2015 as compared to 2008. In mid-2015, however, the Colombian government announced a plan to dramatically increase the number of Colombian National Police (CNP) personnel devoted to manual eradication operations by about 100 percent to approximately 2,650, and to increase the number of manual eradicators by about 40 percent to approximately 1,050.
Here, State posits four reasons for the increase in coca-growing. (1) The peace accord, whose draft pointed to rewards for coca growers; (2) coca-growers’ resistance to aerial eradication; (3) coca-growers’ resistance to manual eradication; and (4) cuts to Colombia’s manual eradication budget.
As noted in a 2017 report, I would add a drop in the price of gold, which caused a big switch from illicit gold-mining to illicit coca-growing; a big weakening of the Colombian peso against the dollar, which made it look like coca’s farm-gate price was jumping; and declining Colombian spending on alternative development.
March 2017 report:
Several factors have contributed to the overall surge in coca cultivation in Colombia since 2014. First, widespread reporting indicates that FARC elements urged coca growers to plant more coca, purportedly motivated by the belief that the Colombian government’s post-peace accord investment and subsidies will focus on regions with the greatest quantities of coca. Second, the Colombian government reduced eradication operations in areas controlled by the FARC to lower the risk of armed conflict as the parties negotiated a final peace accord. Third, counter- eradication tactics employed by coca growers have significantly reduced the effectiveness of coca eradication efforts. To combat manual eradication, coca growers: (1) employ blockade techniques to prevent eradicators from accessing fields; (2) place improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around eradication operations to kill, injure, and demoralize eradicators and slow eradication operations; and (3) plant fields in areas less accessible to eradication efforts, including national parks, indigenous areas, and remote areas. Finally, Colombia’s manual eradication budget has declined by two-thirds since 2008, resulting in a 90 percent reduction in the number of manual eradicators in 2016 as compared to 2008.
In 2017 the “resistance to aerial eradication” argument goes away, which makes sense since the glyphosate-spraying program was suspended, due to health concerns, in October 2015. The recently signed peace accord gets blamed for a second phenomenon: the government soft-pedaling forced eradication to avoid disrupting the Havana dialogues. (I’ve talked to people in the Santos government who deny this, though the 2016 eradication figure, 18,000 hectares, was historically low.) The rest remains the same.
March 2018 report:
Several factors contributed to the surge in coca cultivation in Colombia since 2013, including the end of aerial spraying and indications that FARC elements urged farmers to plant coca, purportedly to take advantage of the Colombian government’s peace accord coca crop substitution program. Furthermore, counter-eradication tactics employed by coca growers have impeded the government’s manual eradication efforts, including blocking eradicators from accessing fields; placing improvised explosive devices in coca fields to kill, injure, and demoralize eradicators and slow eradication operations; and planting fields in inaccessible areas, including national parks, indigenous areas, and remote regions.
Colombia’s suspension of aerial fumigation gets blamed in this year’s report, even though the report two years earlier detailed several ways that coca-growers had acted to make spraying less effective. The peace accord is again blamed for creating a perverse incentive, but the report doesn’t repeat the charge that the Santos government abstained from eradication to avoid harming the negotiations. The “reduced eradication budget” argument disappears because Colombia ramped up manual eradication in 2017.
March 2019 report:
Several factors contributed to the surge in coca cultivation in Colombia since 2013, including: the end of aerial spray of glyphosate on coca; a crop substitution program that created perverse incentives for coca growers to grow more coca; and the failure of the FARC to comply with the illicit drug provisions of the peace agreement. Drug traffickers employ effective counter- eradication tactics such as protests and the use of improvised explosive devices in coca fields to kill, injure, and demoralize eradicators and to slow eradication operations.
This is the most contentious and poorly documented—we could say, “the Trumpiest”—edition of the report. It blames the peace accord’s entire crop substitution program for incentivizing coca-growing, even though the program caused the UN-verified voluntary eradication of 35,000 hectares of coca by the end of 2018. It claims that coca increased because the FARC cheated on its peace accord commitments: this is an explosive charge, but the report neglects to specify what commitments the FARC reneged on, or whether it is referring to all demobilized guerrillas or to the 10-20 percent who have retaken arms as “dissidents.”
Finally—and ominously, if you care about good analysis—it’s no longer “coca-growers” who take measures to resist manual eradication: it’s “drug traffickers.” At least 119,500 Colombian families live off the coca crop right now. For the State Department, these people are now drug traffickers. Language matters.
Over the course of the Trump administration, we’re seeing a relatively credible and careful report morph into a political document that we can no longer rely on as an accurate depiction of what is happening.
This change in the INCSR report’s language dovetails with President Trump’s and Ambassador Kevin Whitaker’s verbal attacks on the Colombian government this month for “not doing enough” about drugs. It raises the likelihood that, in September, President Trump will “decertify” Colombia as a partner in the drug war, placing Colombia on a small list of uncooperative countries that includes Venezuela and Bolivia.
That was once unthinkable because it would be so counter-productively stupid, given Colombia’s demonstrated willingness to do nearly everything the U.S. government asks on drug policy, trade policy, and Venezuela. But we live in counter-productively stupid times. At the rate we’re going, by next year this discussion of Colombia’s coca crop will probably just be 280 characters ending with “Sad!”