How not to curb Colombian cocaine

Over the past four years, Colombia has eradicated nearly 300,000 hectares (more than 1,000 square miles) of coca while seizing more than 2,000 metric tons of pure cocaine and cocaine base, but the country remains plagued by illicit drug activity.


Source: Adobe Photo Stock

Each spring, the State Department issues its International Counter Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), which reviews efforts by governments around the world to curb illicit drug supplies. The purpose (as set forth in the Foreign Assistance Act) is to evaluate whether countries receiving U.S. aid are fulfilling their obligations under UN conventions against international drug trafficking.

Colombia deserves an “A+” for effort. Over the past four years, the government has eradicated nearly 300,000 hectares (more than 1,000 square miles) of coca while seizing more than 2,000 metric tons of pure cocaine and cocaine base, according to the INCSR.

If graded on outcomes, however, Colombia would get an “F.” The country remains the world’s largest illicit coca producer, a distinction it has suffered since the late 1990s. Despite massive eradication–which often means the re-eradication of recovered or replanted crops–coca cultivation has soared, rising to a record 212,000 hectares in 2019.

How have the U.S. and Colombia reacted to these dismal results? By doubling down on crop eradication. The Trump administration threatened to decertify Colombian counternarcotics efforts in 2017–putting a strong U.S. ally in the same category as Venezuela–if it failed to reduce coca cultivation. President Iván Duque has vowed to renew aerial fumigation of coca fields with the herbicide glyphosate, a practice suspended in 2015 because of health and environmental concerns.

The Colombian government argues that massive, forced eradication will help it defeat the country’s remaining armed groups, which profit from the cocaine trade. The U.S. sees eradication as a means of disrupting the illicit cocaine supply chain and thereby protecting U.S. citizens from addictive–potentially deadly–substances.

But destroying coca crops is unlikely to further either goal. Forced eradication can undermine counterinsurgency efforts, which depend on winning support from local populations. As a February 2021 report by the International Crisis Group points out, “forced eradication has criminalized poor cultivators, pushed them to the very edges of Colombia’s territory, and driven them to take the side of local armed groups.”

Moreover, there is little evidence that reducing coca cultivation in Colombia curbs cocaine availability in the U.S. The logic of foreign supply-control policies is that reduced production results in higher U.S. street prices and vice versa. But the purity-adjusted price of cocaine has hovered around USD $200 per gram, despite the ups and downs of Colombian coca cultivation, which fell under aerial fumigation after 2007 only to resurge after 2013.

Instead, aerial fumigation pushed production into Colombia’s national parks, nature reserves, Indigenous reservations, and Afro-Colombian communities, where spraying is prohibited or subject to local consultation. According to an August 2020 estimate, nearly half (47 percent) of Colombia’s coca crop lies within these protected areas.

As drug policy experts Jonathan Caulkins and Peter Reuter have argued, “prices in source countries represent only 1-2 percent of retail prices in developed countries.” Destroying illicit crops is arguably the least effective–and most harmful–counternarcotics tool available. Forced eradication attacks the least profitable and most easily replaced actors in the cocaine supply chain: impoverished small farmers. It destroys livelihoods, fuels violence, and accelerates deforestation while doing little to raise the price of illicit drugs on U.S. streets.

So, what should the Biden administration do to help Colombia counter drug trafficking and other illicit activities? There is no simple, short-term solution. A deeply rooted, multi-causal problem–that has metastasized in the absence of economic opportunity and effective state presence in rural areas–requires a comprehensive strategy based on programs that engage rural communities instead of alienating them.

Fortunately, such strategies are already underway. The 2016 peace accord mandates ambitious rural reforms, including territorially focused development plans, also known by the Spanish acronym PDETs. The PDETs are designed to transform 171 poor, rural municipalities with histories of conflict and illicit economic activity. Local leaders and civic groups set the priorities for these plans–such as rural roads, health centers, education, electricity, or market access–which must then be incorporated into regional and national development efforts.

USAID has supported the PDETs, through programs that provide rural farmers with tertiary roads, land titles, and access to financing. Still, it will take a lot of time and money to break coca’s hold.

COVID-19, tragically, has complicated implementation of the peace agreement’s rural development components. Participatory mechanisms have stalled amid pandemic restrictions, increasing mistrust among local leaders and social organizations, which accuse the government of ignoring community needs and failing to deliver promised assistance. Meanwhile, illegal armed groups have stepped up attacks while brutally imposing their own lockdowns and curfews.

Through its Zonas Futuro program, the Duque government has rightly prioritized security in certain PDETs with high concentrations of coca. What remains unclear is whether the government is committed to the necessary next steps: permanent civilian policing, justice, and economic development.

Forced eradication–including aerial fumigation–has a role to play in any comprehensive strategy. Many communities are afraid to pull up coca crops themselves, for fear of retaliation by traffickers. Aerial spraying may be the safest and most effective means to target the industrial-sized plots that have emerged in some remote regions.

Forced eradication alone is a Sisyphean task, however; most of the illicit crops destroyed involuntarily will simply be replanted. Instead of encouraging Colombians to keep pushing that boulder uphill–only to watch it roll back down–the U.S. must help them break coca’s spell. The only way to shatter drug trafficking’s hold on the Colombian countryside is by providing poor farmers with legal, sustainable alternatives.

Mary Speck is an analyst of Latin American politics and security. She was executive director of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, which finished operations in January 2021.

More Commentary

Scroll to Top