The “answers” in this imagined dialogue are direct quotes from Wednesday’s Senate testimony of Amb. William Brownfield, the longtime assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs. This “imagined conversation” format is a bit goofy, but it illustrates how knotted and constrained the U.S. approach to coca is right now.

Q: Colombia’s government says it plans to manually eradicate 50,000 hectares of coca plants this year, the most since 2009. As of early July, it was at 20.297 hectares, up from 18,000 hectares in all of 2016. Is that effort robust enough?

A: Colombian leadership must find a way to implement a robust forced manual eradication effort to create a disincentive to coca cultivation and an incentive to participation in the government’s crop substitution effort.

Q: So the U.S. view is that Colombia needs to step up manual eradication even further. What about Colombia’s ambitious (perhaps too ambitious) program to work with coca-growing families to voluntarily eradicate another 50,000 hectares?

A: We are strongly encouraging the Colombian government to limit the number of voluntary eradication agreements they negotiate and sign to make implementation feasible.

Q: So the U.S. view is that Colombia should scale back voluntary eradication and crop substitution? But this program was foreseen in the peace accords, and former FARC members are supposed to be helping once they leave their disarmament zones.

A: To be successful, the Colombian government’s voluntary eradication and crop substitution program needs adequate financial and human resources as well as a clear implementation plan to succeed.

Q: Sure. Then, if Colombia is short on voluntary eradication funds, why doesn’t U.S. assistance help fill the funding and expertise gaps?

A: The United States is not currently supporting the Colombian government’s voluntary eradication and crop substitution program because the FARC is involved in some aspects of the program and remains designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization under several U.S. laws and sanctions regimes.

Q: We could debate whether a demobilized FARC member participating in coca substitution is really still a “terrorist.” But never mind that.

In the end, if Colombia carries out so much forced eradication that it outpaces economic assistance for affected communities, what happens to the families who live in ungoverned, abandoned coca-growing zones? The UNODC estimates that 106,900 Colombian households depended on coca last year, earning an average of only US$960 per person per year. If you take their main income source away and don’t replace it with anything, won’t these families go out and protest?

A: Making manual eradication work includes overcoming the persistent social protests that disrupt forced eradication operations. Without a permanent solution to the social protest issue, forced eradication efforts are unlikely to have a significant effect on coca cultivation levels in 2017. In 2016, 675 attempted eradication operations were cancelled in the field due to restrictive rules of engagement that prevented security forces from engaging protestors. In 2017, the protests continue.

Take these responses together, and the U.S. approach to Colombia’s coca boom appears to be:

  • Increase the pace of forced eradication.
  • Do less to help coca-growing families in ungoverned areas.
  • If the families protest, unleash the security forces so they can “engage” them.