Cocaine and Latin America: Stubborn Persistence

| Adam Isacson
Adam Isacson
Senior Associate, Regional Security Policy, WOLA

In 1991, a gram of cocaine sold on U.S. streets for about $225. In 2012, after adjusting for inflation, it sold for $186. Cocaine supply is satisfying demand as well as ever, despite tens of billions of dollars spent on interdiction, law enforcement, and foreign counter-drug aid.

Only three countries in the world produce cocaine on a large scale. The U.S. government estimates that the Andean nations of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia produced about 915 tons of cocaine in 2014, from coca bushes planted on 206,500 hectares (800 square miles) of territory.

Why Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia? Many parts of the world have soils and climates that would favor coca, an easy bush to grow. The Andean nations have been the world’s cocaine epicenter since the 1970s, though, for at least five reasons.

First, the indigenous citizens of Peru and Bolivia have been using coca leaf as a mild stimulant for centuries, perhaps millennia. Second, these Andean states are sandwiched between the world’s number-one cocaine consumer, the United States, and its number-two consumer (and number-one crack consumer), Brazil. Third are ungoverned spaces: coca is cultivated and cocaine produced in remote rural zones where the national government has little or no presence; and such zones abound in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. Fourth are well-networked criminal groups, which have been a factor since the late 1970s, when Colombia’s Medellín and Cali cartels came to dominate the trade. Today, Colombia’s trade is controlled by a web of leftist guerrillas, rightist paramilitary groups, and lower-profile organized criminals. In Peru and Bolivia, where most cocaine goes to non-U.S. markets, the business is run by smaller organized-crime groups, often clan-based, along with Brazilian criminal organizations. A fifth ingredient is official corruption, which creates a fertile environment for narcotrafficking. Financial flows between the narco-economy, the legitimate economy, and government officials are a critical but poorly explored vector.

These, along with global demand, are intractable and complex phenomena. Confronting them is essential but yields results very slowly. Instead, cocaine producing and transshipment countries have tried a variety of “soft” and “hard” strategies, and some have shown more promise than others.

Policymakers, especially in the United States, have pointed to eradicating coca plants as a solution. The bushes, after all, are out there in the open and do not move. Each year, all three Andean countries send teams of eradicators into coca-growing zones, where they pull tens of thousands of acres of plants up by the roots. A U.S.-backed program sprayed herbicides over hundreds of thousands of acres annually in Colombia for 20 years until last October, when the program was halted due to public health concerns. Eradication programs often show initial gains, with notable drops in coca cultivation statistics. Over time, though, producers adjust – they grow in other ungoverned zones, they scatter their plots, or they simply replant – and coca cultivation recovers. Since the mid-1990s, Colombia’s coca crop assumes a letter “W” shape on a graph as eradication increases and growers adjust—the ebb and flow of production.

Forced manual eradication, meanwhile, is dangerous work, as criminal groups attack the operations; dozens of eradicators and their police and military escorts have died in Colombia. It also generates social conflict: fifteen years ago, Bolivia’s hard-line coca eradication campaign propelled its opponents, especially the national union of coca cultivators, from obscurity into the national political spotlight. The union’s leader, Evo Morales, has been president of Bolivia since 2006.

The frustrations of forced eradication have led some Andean governments to attempt voluntary eradication programs. Under a policy called “social control,” the Morales government in Bolivia allows farmers to have a small plot of coca for legal use, but eradicates much of the rest. Social control hasn’t stopped illegal coca-growing or cocaine production in Bolivia, but it has reduced it significantly.

Now Colombia, the largest coca cultivating country, is taking giant steps toward voluntary eradication. A new strategy document and a May 2014 draft accord with the FARC guerrilla group commit the government to seeking agreements with coca-growing communities nationwide. In exchange for eradicating coca, growers will receive services that the government has historically neglected to provide. Communities that refuse these agreements, or that are found to be cheating, will see forced eradication.

Before embarking on this ambitious plan, Colombia is awaiting a final peace accord with the FARC, which is likely sometime in 2016. In the meantime, though, FARC members are reportedly encouraging Colombian farmers to plant coca in order to benefit from the new program. And Colombia’s government, which stopped fumigating and has reduced manual eradication in recent years, has replaced those efforts with nothing else, at least for the time being. Many coca-growing areas see neither carrot nor stick. As a result, in 2015 the United States measured 159,000 hectares (393,000 acres) of coca in Colombia, the third-largest annual measurement ever.

Colombia’s new coca bonanza, along with increased paramilitary group activity and a rise in attacks on human rights workers, is contributing to a sense that the government’s territorial control is weakening in rural areas. This in turn raises concerns about whether the government will truly be able to honor voluntary eradication agreements with more than 60 thousand coca-growing households all over post-conflict Colombia.

The approach that Colombia is choosing is correct: there is no substitute for a functioning state presence, with the cooperation of organized communities, and minimum impunity, in historically ungoverned coca and cocaine production areas. But pursuing it will require not just a good planning document, but a large commitment of resources and the political will to see it through for the long term. Without them, we can expect further increases in cocaine production, and critics of the new approach, possibly including the U.S. government, will demand a return to the old strategy of “enter, eradicate, and leave.” That would be a tragic outcome.  Avoiding it will be a key test of Colombia’s post-conflict reinvention.

The Author is Adam Isacson

Adam Isacson joined the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) in 2010 after 14 years working on Latin American and Caribbean security issues with the Center for International Policy. At WOLA, his Regional Security Policy program monitors security trends and U.S. military cooperation with the Western Hemisphere.

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