Counternarcotics Efforts in Colombia

  • photo courtesy of Stephen Downes www.flickr.com/photos/35034352186@N01/8275012717
    Mar 9, 2010

    Q1: On March 1, the State Department released the annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), whose country report on Colombia estimated a large decline in coca cultivation and cocaine production potential in 2008. How significant is this?

    A1: It is very significant, but the figures don’t adequately measure the real progress achieved. U.S. government measurements of coca cultivation are done once a year using high-resolution aerial imagery of known or suspected drug-growing areas. These measurements showed coca cultivation in Colombia dropping precipitously from a high of around 170,000 hectares in 2001 to about 114,000 in 2004 as a result of concentrated U.S. and Colombian eradication efforts based on aerial fumigation of coca crops. In 2005, however, they indicated a large spike in coca production, reaching 167,000 hectares in 2007, about the same figure as in 2001. Therefore, according to these U.S. statistics, the steep decline of 29 percent in 2008 only brings the figure back to 119,000 hectares, about the same as measured in 2004.

    Q2: Doesn’t that mean there has been little, if any, progress since 2004?

    A2: No. In 2005, the U.S. government increased by 81 percent the areas of the country surveyed for coca cultivation. Unsurprisingly, a lot more coca was found. Furthermore, in 2005 the persistent cloud cover over important high-density coca regions was very light, resulting in much more coca identified, further skewing the results. Careful on-the-ground studies in several top coca-producing areas of Colombia subsequently estimated that the baseline for coca cultivation in Colombia at the start of Plan Colombia in 2000 could have been at least twice as high as U.S. measurements indicated. That would indicate potentially very significant reductions in coca production over time. Such results would jibe with surveys of coca cultivation in Colombia by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which show an overall 50 percent reduction in coca cultivation since the high point in 1999.

    Q3: Are there other measurements of success in counternarcotics efforts in Colombia?

    A3: Yes. Both the United States and the UNODC have measured a large decline in pure cocaine production potential since the start of Plan Colombia in 2000. The 2010 INCSR estimates a decline of 39 percent between 2007 and 2008 alone. Likewise, the two sources calculate that there has been a major decline in leaf yield per hectare in Colombia as a result of eradication. The estimated size of the narcotics economy in Colombia has also dropped substantially.

    Q4: What is responsible for these improvements?

    A4: A number of factors have led to an improved counternarcotics situation in Colombia. Over time, the most important has been the ability of the Colombian government to extend effective control over much larger areas of national territory. This denies the drug traffickers and their allies in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group access to land, a rural workforce, precursor chemicals, and trafficking routes. Other factors include aerial and manual eradication efforts against coca, the latter being increasingly prevalent, as well as improved law enforcement. The U.S. role in helping Colombia deal with the threat posed by narcotics has been very positive.

    Q5: What is the outlook for the narcotics problem in Colombia?

    A5: Drugs continue to be a difficult problem. Colombia remains the largest producer of coca leaf and cocaine in the world, and drug trafficking constitutes a serious challenge. However, the gains made by Colombia, especially in the area of improving overall security, have eliminated the threat to national stability posed by drugs, reducing it to a law enforcement dimension. That said, Colombia must continue the process of consolidating state control over more areas of the country and invest in counternarcotics efforts to avoid backsliding.

    Peter DeShazo is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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