Thanks to Juan Carlos Iragorri for giving me a couple of minutes to talk about what’s happening with coca cultivation in Colombia on the “Y Esto No Es Todo” podcast produced by Georgetown University’s Americas Institute. (Audio in Spanish)
Illicit Crop Eradication
According to the Colombian daily El Espectador, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime detected 230,000 hectares of coca in Colombia in 2022. That amount—which extends the dark blue line in the chart below to 2022—would be the most coca that the UN agency has detected in any year since it began issuing estimates in 1999.
Colombia was governed for just over the first seven months of 2022 by Iván Duque, and for the remaining less than five months by Gustavo Petro.
Petro was still putting together his government by the time 2022 ended. His drug policy team only published their counter-drug strategy this past weekend. While that is a notably slow pace, it was not the cause for 2022’s result.
Petro has sought to de-emphasize forced eradication of small-scale coca farmers’ crops, which places the government in an adversarial relationship with poor people in historically abandoned territories. Through July, forced eradication is down 79 percent over the same period in 2022. Instead, the new strategy document promotes interdiction, targeting cocaine production and related finances, and other strategies.
Still, critics of the Petro government’s choices will use the 230,000 figure to oppose them. It’s possible, though, that the 2023 coca acreage figure could be reduced, because a historic drop in prices may be making the crop less attractive to many growers.
My thanks to Gonzalo Abarca and Voice of America’s Foro Interamericano program for inviting me to participate as a panelist on September 1. We talked about the status of counter-narcotics efforts in light of my recent mini-report on the collapse of coca markets in Colombia.
Here’s an analysis I’ve been working on, bit by bit, for the past several weeks.
The market in Colombia for coca, the plant whose leaves can be used to produce cocaine, is in a state of historic collapse, bringing with it an acute humanitarian crisis in already impoverished rural territories. The unusually sharp and prolonged drop in coca prices has several causes. WOLA has identified 12 possible explanations, some more compelling than others.
Regardless of the reason, the crisis is sure to be temporary as world cocaine demand remains robust. The Colombian government, and partner and donor governments including the United States, should take maximum advantage of this window of opportunity before it closes. The humanitarian crisis offers a chance for Colombia to fill vacuums of civilian government presence in territories where insecurity, armed groups, and now hunger are all too common.
Read on—in English or Spanish, HTML or PDF—at WOLA’s website.
This translated fragment of a January 31 column in the Colombian daily El Espectador, from María Alejandra Vélez of the University of the Andes’ Center for Security and Drugs Studies (CESED), is a succinct, accurate 2-minute overview of where coca eradication policy stands in Colombia right now, six months into Gustavo Petro’s administration.
Consistent with his campaign discourse, his first announcements, which lack details, aim at not persecuting growers, which includes lowering the tempo of forced eradication and considering a territorial transformation program, which includes gradual substitution once other economies generate income that allows a dignified life for coca growers. He reserved eradication for 20,000 hectares of “industrial” growers, who, as in any market, have already vertically integrated into the market: they cultivate in large tracts, process and market. It remains to be seen if we can identify who they are and where they are.
To stop persecuting small coca growers, 52.7% of whose households live in multidimensional poverty, according to the baseline of households that enrolled in the PNIS, seems obvious to me. Waiting for voluntary eradication to happen when they are already producing and generating income in other economies, too.
Now, the devil is in the details and these are what we should be concerned to know. For example, is there enough funding to attend to the territorial transformation of 200,000 or more families? Will there be a census and registration of small growers according to the size and number of plots? What happens with growers who have several plots? Where will the interventions be focused? For what period of time will the households that stop growing coca be accompanied? How will they be protected from the violence to which armed groups and criminal organizations subject them? How are they going to regain the trust of leaders and their communities to become involved in the policy after decades of non-compliance? What are the plans to prevent the expansion of crops and, in particular, their expansion in environmentally important areas? What types of economies other than coca are viable in ethnic and environmentally strategic territories? How does this whole narrative tie in with Total Peace? Do we have the international leadership necessary to stop chasing coca and talk about a regulatory path for cocaine? How will we measure the success of the new drug policy? Will we be able to convince the Biden administration and other U.S. institutions of the need to focus on solving rural development problems instead of eradication?
That last question is critical for our work here in Washington. Will the Biden administration go along with a counter-drug strategy that relies far less on forced eradication of small farmers’ coca plants?
My sense is that yes, they might. But only if they can be reassured that the Petro government is following a detailed, funded, well-thought-out plan. One that can answer many of the questions in Vélez’s final paragraph here.
Unfortunately, as she notes, the Petro government’s plans so far “lack details.” And that could start complicating the bilateral relationship.
It has long been taken for granted that nearly all coca—the illicit bush whose leaves can be used to make cocaine—is grown in three Andean countries: Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. If coca bushes pop up elsewhere, local security forces tend to eradicate them quickly.
That may be becoming less true. If you search Twitter for “coca @Ejercito_GT,” you can find a surprising number of official tweets about Guatemalan security-force personnel eradicating coca bushes.
In the past two weeks alone, tweets from Guatemala’s army and government show soldiers and police eradicating coca bushes in four of the country’s twenty-two departments. In some cases, the plants are quite tall, indicating that they’ve been thriving for a while.
This isn’t a consequence of coca becoming scarcer in the Andes and forcing new growing locations. U.S. government estimates indicate that the leaf has never been more plentiful in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. It may be a consequence of farmers in Guatemala’s neglected countryside searching for an income-generating crop during a COVID-battered economic moment. It may also be a result of traffickers seeking to do a bit of “nearshoring,” trying to produce cocaine closer to U.S. markets without having to ship it over oceans or through the Central American isthmus.
If it catches on, Guatemala could join the three Andean countries as one of the world’s main coca and cocaine producers, not just a transit country. The elements for coca to catch on are all in place. Proximity to a big market. Vast ungoverned rural spaces with smallholding farmers on the edge of hunger. Widespread, chronic state corruption being abetted by the current government and judicial system. A robust existing network of traffickers who are already doing great damage to fragile ecosystems.
Keep an eye on this.
In this tweet, Honduras’s armed forces report “identifying and securing” a coca field in the country’s rural far east. These bushes are quite tall: they were planted some time ago. Certainly before the term of President Xiomara Castro began nine months ago in late January.
Colombian President Iván Duque spoke twice yesterday at events relevant to U.S.-Colombian relations. At both, he referred to aerial eradication of coca with the herbicide glyphosate, a program that the United States supported between the early 1990s and 2015, when Duque’s predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, suspended the program out of concern for public health.
I say Duque “referred to” fumigation, because he managed to talk about it without using the words “aerial,” “spray,” “herbicide,” or “glyphosate,” much less “fumigation.” Instead, he used oblique references:
At a seminar about “urban terrorism” organized in Bogotá by the U.S. National Defense University’s Perry Center:
With regard to drug trafficking, we have to continue reducing the area planted with illicit crops, and we have to do it by combining all the tools.
One, manual eradication, for which our country reached the highest figure last year.
Two, alternative development and substitution, but also appealing to the precision mechanisms required in the complex areas of our territory.
At the swearing-in of Colombia’s next ambassador to the United States, former ambassador and former defense minister Juan Carlos Pinzón:
We all know that after you left the Ministry of Defense around 2014-2015 one of the effective methods of fighting illicit crops was suspended. We then saw an exponential jump.
From the beginning of Plan Colombia, when we had 188,000 hectares, until 2014, when we were below 50,000 hectares of coca, the world could see the comprehensive combination of policies. Unfortunately, when that comprehensiveness was fractured and one of the most effective mechanisms was rejected, we saw an exponential jump.
Weird that Duque not only uses such indirect language, but also doesn’t say “we’re going to restart the spray program.” Perhaps drug-policy expert Daniel Rico, who favors fumigation, was correct when he told El Tiempo’s María Isabel Rueda that Duque, with just over a year left in his presidency, has run out of time:
The political, budgetary and technical fight was lost. The President did not realize that within the government itself they were carrying out a turtle operation [deliberate slowdown], and that was what ended the opportunity he had to incorporate aerial spraying.
Q: Who was carrying out the turtle operation?
The National Health Institute, mainly; that is why there will be no aerial spraying in this government. Not as a consequence of a legal problem, because there was always a legal green light to spray, but because there was no leadership to articulate different positions, budgets and interests.
The President was very poorly surrounded on this issue; on the one hand, there was the inexperience of his vice-ministers and, on the other hand, there were obstacles to its implementation.
Colombia’s government is moving closer to reinstating a program, suspended in 2015, that would spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where coca is cultivated. Twenty-five U.S. and Colombian organizations have joined on this letter to President Joe Biden urging him to avoid supporting a renewed “fumigation” program, succinctly laying out the reasons why this would be an unfortunate policy mistake. The letter was shared with the White House on March 26.
March 26, 2021
President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
The White House
Dear President Biden,
We write out of strong concern about the imminent restart of a program that your administration is inheriting from its predecessor: an effort to eradicate coca in Colombia by spraying herbicides from aircraft. We encourage you not to provide funding for this program, which not only failed to achieve past objectives, but sends a message of cruelty and callousness with which the United States should no longer be associated. It will undermine the peace accords that are a powerful legacy of the Obama-Biden administration.
Aerial fumigation can bring short-term reductions in the number of acres planted with coca. But past experience shows not only that these gains reverse quickly, but that the strategy undermines other U.S. and Colombian security objectives. Recurring to fumigation is like going back in time, ignoring much that we have learned about what does and does not work.
Many of our organizations have published studies documenting the harm that fumigation has done in the past. The December 2020 report of the U.S. government’s bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission found that forced eradication brought “enormous costs and dismal results.” Just since the end of February, we have seen strong critiques of forced eradication and fumigation from the International Crisis Group; the Ideas for Peace Foundation, a Colombian business sector think tank; a list of over 200 scholars, and seven UN human rights rapporteurs.
Between 1994 and 2015, a U.S.-backed program supported a fleet of aircraft, and teams of contract pilots and maintenance personnel, that sprayed the herbicide glyphosate over 4.42 million acres of Colombian territory—a land area 3 1/2 times the size of Delaware. In 2015 the Colombian government suspended the spray program, citing public health concerns based on a World Health Organization study finding glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
For a few years afterward, the Colombian government failed to replace the strategy with anything—neither eradication nor assistance to affected areas. During the late 2010s, Colombia’s coca crop increased to record levels. Nearly all of the increase happened in the exact municipalities and communities where fumigation had been heaviest. After 20 years of constant eradication, farmers continue to face the same on-the-ground reality.
Most Colombian producers of the coca bush are not organized crime-tied criminals or supporters of illegal armed groups. They are families with small plots of land. Estimates of the number of families who make a living off of coca vary from “more than 119,500” to 215,000. If one assumes four people per family, then more than 2 percent of Colombia’s 50 million people depend on coca. Households earn about $1,000 per person per year from the crop, making them by far the lowest-paid link in the cocaine supply chain.
They live in “agricultural frontier” zones where evidence of Colombia’s government is scarce. Paved or maintained roads are nonexistent. The national electric grid is far off. There is no such thing as potable water or land titles. In some areas, even currency is hard to obtain, and stores offer the option of paying for groceries with coca paste.
These people need to be governed and protected by their state. An aircraft flying anonymously overhead, spraying chemicals on populated areas, is the exact opposite of that. But the program has other important disadvantages:
- Because it targets poor households in ungoverned areas, chemical fumigation sends a message of cruelty, and associates that message with the United States. Your administration is steadily working to undo the Trump administration’s cruel migratory measures, which imposed suffering on a weak, impoverished population at the U.S.-Mexico border. We ask that you also avoid returning to “deterrence though cruelty” in rural Colombia.
- Like any eradication without assistance, fumigation further weakens governance and threatens to worsen security in Colombia’s ungoverned territories, where illegal economies and armed groups thrive. Forced eradication, especially when uncoordinated with efforts to physically bring government services into territory, sends families from poverty to extreme poverty, with no official help in sight. This hurts the government’s legitimacy in frontier areas where it badly needs to be built up.
- After perhaps a short-term drop in cultivation, fumigation is not effective at reducing the coca crop. Past experience shows a high probability of replanting and other means of minimizing lost harvests, in contexts of absent government and few alternative crops.
- Fumigation goes against what Colombia’s 2016 peace accord promised. That document’s first and fourth chapters offered a blueprint for reducing illicit crops: first by engaging families in substitution programs, and then by carrying out a 15-year “comprehensive rural reform” effort to bring state presence to rural areas. Fumigation was meant to be a last resort, for circumstances when families were refusing opportunities to substitute crops and when manual eradication was viewed as too dangerous. Rushing to fumigate is a slap in the face to brave farmer association leaders who took the risky step of defying traffickers and leading their communities into the fourth chapter’s crop substitution programs.
- Similarly, fumigation risks large-scale social discord in rural Colombia. In 1996, after the program first got started, much of rural Colombia ground to a halt for weeks or months as mostly peaceful coca-grower protests broke out around the country. Today, farmers are even better organized than they were 25 years ago.
- Fumigation, meanwhile, may carry risks for human health and the environment. The 2015 WHO document is one of many studies that give us reasonable doubts about the health impacts of spraying high concentrations of glyphosate over populated areas from aircraft. Bayer, the company that purchased glyphosate producer Monsanto, has agreed to settlements with U.S. plaintiffs potentially totaling over $11 billion—another reason for reasonable doubt. While the environmental impacts are less clear, glyphosate’s own labeling warns against spraying near standing water sources, and we are concerned about its use in proximity to rainforest ecosystems. The largest environmental impact, though, is likely to be the way many past farmers have responded after losing crops to fumigation, while remaining in a vacuum of government presence: they move somewhere else and cut down more rainforest to grow coca again.
- Like all forced eradication unaccompanied by assistance, fumigation is dangerous for the eradicators themselves. In 2013, not long before the program’s suspension, FARC guerrillas shot down two spray planes within the space of two weeks. While planes and their escort helicopters will be more armored than before, the vulnerability remains. Eradication is far safer when it is agreed with communities by a government that is physically present in its own territory.
In March 2020, Donald Trump met with Colombian President Iván Duque and told him, “You’re going to have to spray.” The country’s highest court has required Duque’s government to meet a series of health, environment, consultation, and other requirements. Colombia’s Defense Minister is now predicting that the spraying could restart in April.
This time, U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg has stated, the U.S. role in the program won’t be as extensive. Still, during the Trump administration, the State Department supported maintenance of the spray plane fleet, upgrades to bases, and training of eradication personnel, among other services. State Department reports sent to Congress in late February and early March hailed fumigation’s imminent restart as a sign of progress.
Nonetheless, we reiterate our hope that the Biden administration will turn away from supporting Colombia’s spray program while there is still time. The United States should not support aerial fumigation in Colombia again. Nor does it have to. We know what to do.
Farmers with land titles hardly ever grow coca. Farmers who live near paved roads hardly ever grow coca. Criminal groups are badly weakened by proximity of a functioning government that is able to resolve disputes and punish lawbreaking.
This is a longer-term project, but Colombia’s 2016 peace accord offered a good blueprint for setting it in motion: a fast-moving, consultative crop substitution program, tied to a slower-moving but comprehensive rural reform program. Though those programs exist and parts of the Duque government are carrying them out diligently, they are underfunded and well behind where they should be as accord implementation enters its fifth year.
It’s not too late to help Colombia jumpstart the model offered by Colombia’s peace accord, which the Obama-Biden administration so effectively supported. We urge you to take that path instead of that of renewed fumigation, which we know to be a dead end.
- Amazon Watch
- Center for International Environmental Law
- Centro Estudios sobre Seguridad y Drogas, Universidad de los Andes (Colombia)
- Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America
- Colombia Human Rights Committee
- Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (Colombia)
- Corporación Viso Mutop (Colombia)
- Drug Policy Alliance
- Elementa DD.HH. (Colombia/Mexico)
- Fellowship of Reconciliation: Peace Presence
- Healing Bridges
- ILEX Acción Juridica (Colombia)
- Institute for Policy Studies, Drug Policy Project
- Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights
- Latin America Working Group
- Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office
- Missionary Oblates
- Oxfam America
- Oxfam Colombia
- Presbyterian Church (USA), Office of Public Witness
- Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
- Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Colombia)
- United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
- Washington Office on Latin America
- Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective
Here is the English text of a column that ran today (March 10) in Colombia’s El Espectador.
The Biden administration and fumigation
by Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America
“Why is Biden supporting fumigation? I’m so disappointed.” I heard this several times last week from friends in Colombia in the human rights, drug policy, and center-left political opposition communities. It seems they were expecting the new U.S. government to usher in a new era of drug policy in Colombia, and reality hit them in the face.
Their disappointment came mainly from two documents from the U.S. State Department.
The U.S. Congress requires the Department to certify that Colombia is following a strategy to eradicate 50 percent of its coca crop by 2023. It produced that document on February 23, with language celebrating that Iván Duque’s government has made “Significant progress…to re-establish a safe, limited, and targeted Colombian-led aerial eradication program” and that the late Minister of Defense “stated seven AT-802 spray planes were operationally ready to conduct aerial eradication.”
On March 2, the Department produced its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. That document laments that “the Colombian government suspended aerial eradication of coca in 2015, removing a critical tool for reducing coca cultivation,” and celebrates that “President Duque has stated publicly his intent to incorporate aerial eradication into an integrated drug control strategy.”
To many Colombians who have lived through 35 years of forced eradication with poor results, this language looks like doubling down on failure. It may even be viewed as endorsing the Duque government’s view that Colombia’s chronic violence is a result not of unpunished corruption and rural areas’ abandonment, but of the persistence of a bush.
I asked my Colombian colleagues when they ever heard a Biden official say, on the record, that they oppose forced coca eradication. Yes, some people close to Joe Biden were members of the bipartisan commission whose very good December report cites “enormous costs and dismal results” from forced eradication. But then-Senator Joe Biden supported eradication in 2000, when the Congress was considering Plan Colombia, both in a Senate floor speech and a report.
There’s no reason for shock, then, at the past two week’s reports. Still, I don’t advise pessimism. Perspectives change. Plan Colombia began 20 years ago, and the results against coca and cocaine are hardly encouraging.
There’s still ample room for hope that the Biden administration can bring about a historic change in the U.S. approach to coca. Rather than expanding forced eradication, many in the new President’s circle prefer to talk about state presence in territory, provision of services, implementing the peace accord, titling farmers’ land, and building roads. They want to work with a Colombian government that has the will to do the hard work of integrating the countryside into national life. (Whether the current Colombian government has that will is immaterial: it will only be in power for 17 more months.)
A new U.S. approach doesn’t happen with Inauguration Day. There is lag time: U.S. policies don’t change quickly, especially when the presidential transition is as chaotic as ours was. It’s been nearly seven weeks and many key U.S. officials haven’t been named yet. Who will be the new White House Drug Czar? Who will run counter-narcotics at the State Department? Who will run Western Hemisphere Affairs? Who will manage counter-narcotics at the Defense Department? We don’t know yet: this will take months more.
Because the new government is just starting, those two recent reports were “zombie” documents, written by Trump holdovers or career officials. We probably won’t see much change in May, when the Biden Administration, still building its staff, sends to Congress its request for 2022 foreign assistance.
By the second half of 2021, though, things need to start happening. Here is what I’d like to see.
By then, most political nominees to key positions should be in place. Many, if not most, should be reform-minded, not just caretakers.
I would really like to see a fundamental review of drug supply policy happen in late 2021 and early 2022, just as the Biden Administration puts together its foreign assistance request to Congress for 2023. By then, Colombia should be seeing the virus subside and preparing for the campaign for Duque’s successor.
2022 could be a very interesting year. Colombia will have a new government—perhaps one that doesn’t subscribe to the “fumigation will solve violence” view. The Biden government will be consolidated. The Democratic-majority Congress, with old-fashioned hardliners marginalized—will consider what might be a very different 2023 assistance request. There should be opportunities to dialogue with cautious moderates, and to dialogue with Colombian civil society. That’s a prominent request coming from several colleagues and I who accompany AMUNAFRO, la Asociación Nacional de Alcaldes de Municipios con Población Afrodescendientes: “un dialogo serio y profundo, que tenga a las comunidades afectadas como protagonista central,” porque “NO consideramos acertado insistir en lo mismo.”
I could be wrong—but I am optimistic. I’ve got my eye on that period between mid-2021 and late 2022. So I say to my friends in Colombia, don’t despair of the Biden government yet.
Many thanks to our longtime friends and colleagues at the International Crisis group for joining us at this event. Though the topic is complex and often frustrating to teach, everybody explained well what they’ve been learning in the field, and the points that they wanted to get across. The moderation, interpretation, and technical aspects were all spot-on. We had well over 150 live viewers—I was glad to see the number not dropping as we passed the one-hour mark—and at least 200 more since then.
And don’t miss the February 26 ICG report on coca in Colombia, “Deeply Rooted,” on which this discussion centers.
That was a great discussion yesterday. As you could see if you “attended,” our partners in Colombia are very concerned about what might happen if the U.S-funded program of aerial glyphosate fumigation returns to Colombia’s coca-growing zones, as the Bogotá government is promising may happen in two months or less.
I’m pleased that several dozen people tuned in to the live event. Here is the video. There’s no translation track, so you have to be comfortable with Spanish.
We’ll keep making noise about this, because it’s bad policy, it’s going to harm people, and even if it temporarily brings the “hectare” number down, it will do so at great cost to social peace and to Colombia’s peace process.
Colombia has broken its annual record for forced manual coca eradication, and renewed aerial herbicide fumigation looms in 2021.
We’ll be discussing this with some longtime colleagues in Colombia a week from Wednesday: December 9, at 1:30 Eastern. Here’s the text of the event announcement, where you can RSVP. Please share.
(And also — on Friday December 11 I’m putting together a new discussion of COVID-era civil-military relations, covering six countries. Mark your calendar and join for both events if you’re able.)
Four years after the signing of a historic peace accord, hundreds of thousands of Colombian families continue to rely on the coca crop. The government, with U.S. support, has already broken its annual record for forced eradication, during the pandemic, and little of it has been coordinated with food security or rural development assistance. Now, a revival of a controversial aerial herbicide fumigation program is looming.
How are coca cultivating communities responding? How does all of this relate to the peace accord? What might happen if fumigation restarts? What are the costs of eradication, both financially and in terms of rights? Will pursuing the same strategies pursued during the past 30 years really yield a different result? What happened with the peace accords’ crop substitution program? What would a better coca policy look like? How should the new U.S. administration adjust its assistance programs?
WOLA, Elementa, CODHES, the Instituto Pensar of the Universidad Javeriana, the Alianza de Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida, and the Corporación Viso Mutop look forward to addressing these topics on Wednesday, December 9, from 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. (U.S. eastern and Bogotá time).
Wednesday, December 9
1:30 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. EST
- Marco Romero
- Nancy Sánchez Méndez
Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida, Mocoa, Putumayo
- Adriana Muro
Elementa DDHH, Colombia-México
- Adam Isacson
WOLA, Washington D.C.
- Pedro Arenas
Corporación Viso Mutop, Bogotá
- Marcela Ceballos
Instituto Pensar, Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá
Simultaneous interpretation will be available.