Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.


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This set of charts shows why a border wall won’t stop drugs

This graphic, from a San Diego Union-Tribune article that appeared Saturday, includes data that we almost never get to see: real-time information on U.S. border authorities’ drug seizures. (Click on it, or here, to view it larger.)

The data covers just one sector of the U.S.-Mexico border, which Border Patrol divides into nine sectors. This is the San Diego sector, which covers the western half of California’s border with Mexico. 2015 and 2016 data shows this to be the number-one sector, by far, for seizures of heroin and methamphetamine, both of which generally get produced in Mexico’s Pacific coast region. San Diego is also number two for cocaine seizures.

Seizure data gives you at least a vague idea of how much drugs are being trafficked through a sector. In 2015, the DEA reported [PDF], 49% of all heroin and 57% of all methamphetamine that got seized anywhere at the border was seized in the San Diego sector.

San Diego is also one of the most walled-off sectors, with fence built over 46 of its 60 border miles. So it’s a good test case for what a lot of border wall-building might achieve.

The chart here is even more useful because it breaks the seizure information down between what is seized at official border crossings, or “ports of entry” (bottom row), and what is seized in between the ports of entry, where Border Patrol operates and where walls get built (top row).

Look closely at the vertical (y-axis) scale on these charts. The maximum number at the top of each is several times higher for ports of entry than it is for “Border Patrol.” This means that several times more drugs get found at the ports—in cargo containers, hidden in vehicles, carried by people—than in the “in-between” areas where one might build a border wall.

Simply dividing the top-line of the “ports of entry” graphs by the top-line of the “Border Patrol” graphs—a horribly imperfect measure—gives you this general ratio of seizures.

  • Marijuana: 5 times more seizures at ports than between ports (400,000 pounds ÷ 80,000 pounds).
  • Methamphetamine: 17 times more seizures at ports than between ports.
  • Cocaine: 8 times more seizures at ports than between ports.
  • Heroin: 2.5 times more seizures at ports than between ports (though it’s a rough 1:1 ratio in 2016 and 2017).

The unavoidable conclusion here: building more border wall will have minimal effect on the transit of illegal drugs from Mexico into the United States. If you want to make it harder to transship drugs northward, you have to focus on the ports of entry, which have $5 billion in unmet infrastructure needs and are short-staffed by about 2,000 officers.

The ports are less “sexy” than a big concrete wall, but making them function better would do far more to disrupt drug flows. But the Trump administration’s funding requests have so far included no increases for ports of entry.

Postscript: Note that these charts’ 2017 column represents only the first six months of the government’s Fiscal Year 2017 (which started on October 1 of last year), which is why it looks like seizures went down during the most recent year. Double the size of that column, and you get a rough idea of what end-of-year 2017 seizures might look like. At the current pace, San Diego would see sharply more 2017 seizures of cocaine and methamphetamine, a small increase in heroin, and a sharp drop in cannabis.

Brookings post about coca and peace in Colombia

Screen shot of the Brookings blog post.

This just went up on the Brookings Institution’s “Order from Chaos” foreign policy blog. I’ll be talking about “drugs and peace” in post-conflict Colombia at a Brookings panel on Monday morning.

Colombia’s peace accords point the way to a solution. But will they be implemented?

The “illicit crops” part of the peace accord is more transactional than the “rural reform” part of the accord. Instead of addressing state weakness or absence, it says: “eradicate this much, and you’ll receive this benefit.” That its text has been public since 2014 has created a perverse incentive for farmers around the country to plant coca in order to qualify for cash benefits.

Read the whole thing at the Brookings website.

Colombia’s coca problem, in less than 300 words

From Monday’s edition of the Inter-American Dialogue’s Latin America Advisor (PDF).

Q: The U.S. State Department’s annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report released in March said Colombia is the world’s top producer of cocaine and that the cultivation of coca has increased by record amounts for the past two years. What is the reason for the increase in coca cultivation and cocaine production in the country? How will cocaine eradication strategies change as the government and the FARC rebel group implement their peace agreement? What will cooperation with the United States against drugs look like during the Trump administration? How are policies toward coca cultivation and drug trafficking in neighboring Bolivia and Peru likely to affect Colombia’s role in illicit drug production and trafficking?

A: Adam Isacson, senior associate for the regional security policy program at the Washington Office on Latin America: “Colombia has a bumper crop of coca. The U.S. government estimate of 188,000 hectares planted in 2016 is the fourth increase in a row, and is 141 percent more than in 2012 (78,000 hectares). I see seven reasons why this is happening. Colombia halted aerial herbicide spraying, citing health concerns, in 2015, and did not replace it with a new strategy. It slowed forced manual eradication, too, due to costs and dangers. But until this year, it has not increased investment in governance and alternative development. Meanwhile, the price of gold dropped, making illicit mining a less enticing alternative to coca. The dollar rose, making farm-gate prices appear greater in pesos. Word spread that farmers with coca would receive benefits under the FARC peace accords, creating a perverse incentive to plant. And in the middle of peace talks, the government was less willing to use force to confront coca growers. Today, the Colombian government has a plan for new investment and voluntary eradication in the stateless areas of the countryside where coca is grown. The November 2016 peace accord commits former FARC members to help carry out this plan. The U.S. government should support Colombia’s new effort with patience, avoiding an aggressive push to resume policies, like fumigation, that did not solve the problem before. While waiting to see if this can work, though, we must closely monitor the Colombian government’s effort. We must verify it is getting the resources, inter-agency coordination and high priority that bringing governance to coca-growing zones requires. Coca cultivation in Peru and Bolivia has been stable in recent years, ranging around 50,000 hectares in Peru and 35,000 in Bolivia, including legal coca. Trends in those two countries won’t have as much impact on Colombia’s coca boom as the seven factors discussed above.”

Does Colombia have more coca now than before Plan Colombia?

Colombia’s Defense Minister let spill last night that the U.S. government’s 2016 estimate of illicit coca grown in the country is 188,000 hectares (465,000 acres). That is the most coca the USG has ever measured. Here’s what the chart looks like:

Updated coca chart

188,000 hectares is an 18 percent increase over 2015. That’s a lot, but the 2014-2015 increase was 42 percent, and the 2013-2014 increase was 39 percent. I wouldn’t call this progress—it may indicate that coca is starting to reach levels at which farmers no longer find it profitable to grow.

In an article posted last night to WOLA’s website, I review seven reasons for these big increases. It’s complicated.

But there’s a simpler question that I’m already being asked: is there more coca in Colombia today than there was when Plan Colombia started in 2000-2001?

The answer depends on whom you ask.

  • The U.S. government would say “yes.” 2016 broke the record. The U.S. government doesn’t publicly discuss its measurement methods in detail.
  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), whose annual reports discuss methods used, will probably say “no” when it releases its next Colombia survey in June or July. That report will almost certainly find an increase, although the UN measure tends to be smaller than the U.S. figure. If the UNODC estimate also grows by 18 percent, that would be 113,000 hectares—well below the pre-Plan Colombia high of 163,000 measured in 2000. The UN measure would need to have grown by 70 percent to break that record.

At WOLA’s website: Confronting Colombia’s Coca Boom

Title image of WOLA "Confronting Colombia's Coca Boom" post

Looks like everything I’ve written over the last few days about Colombia’s coca bonanza is coming out today. This new analysis just got posted to

Here, I find 7 reasons why Colombia’s coca crop has increased so quickly.

  1. Suspending aerial herbicide fumigation and not quickly replacing it with anything else.
  2. Reducing forced manual eradication and not quickly replacing it with anything else.
  3. Not increasing government presence or alternative development in coca-growing zones.
  4. A drop in the price of gold, making illicit mining less attractive than coca.
  5. A strengthening of the dollar, making farm-gate prices appear higher in pesos.
  6. Word spreading about the benefits coca-growers could obtain in the 2014 FARC accord, incentivizing some people to become coca growers.
  7. Coca-growers’ increased organization and skill at blockading and stopping manual eradication, while the government avoided violent confrontations with them during peace talks.

Those are complicated reasons. What to do about it, then? I argue: let Colombia pursue the plan it has put together within the framework of the FARC peace accords. This plan is barely underway. But constantly monitor and verify that Colombia’s government is doing what it says it is going to do, because after repeated betrayals of trust, “implementation” is almost a swear word in the Colombian countryside. We must “trust, but verify” that Colombia will keep up its end of the bargain with farmers who live in the country’s vast, abandoned coca-growing areas.

Read the whole thing here.

New coca estimate may come tomorrow: looks high, but lower than I expected

Tomorrow, the Wall Street Journal reports, the White House will release its estimate of how much coca was planted in Colombia in 2016.

WSJ excerpt: 695 square miles to be announced tomorrow

695 square miles is 180,000 hectares. This would be the highest U.S. measurement of Colombian coca cultivation ever.

On the other hand, it would represent the smallest increase in Colombian coca-growing in three years.

180,000 hectares is just 13 percent greater than the 159,000 the U.S. government measured in 2015. That’s robust growth, but lower than I had expected. It’s nothing like the 42 percent increase from 2014-2015 or the 39 percent increase that preceded that (2013-2014).

(The data comes from the Obama White House’s legacy website.)

Amid reports that coca-growers in the Catatumbo region are burying their coca paste instead of selling it amid a price collapse, we may be seeing a glut in the coca market that could discourage new planting. If there’s a glut, though, traffickers may be actively seeking new markets, in the United States and elsewhere.

Latest chart of coca production and eradication in Colombia

Coca and eradication in Colombia since 1994

I’ll probably be updating this soon, when the U.S. government releases its grim estimate of how much coca was planted in the country last year. That statistic will show a large increase, perhaps over 200,000 hectares for the first time.

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