Last week, the Colombian government released information showing that in 2009 Colombia had around 68,000 hectares of coca production. That is the lowest level since 1996, and it represents a 16% decrease from 2008 levels. Of course, such news was received with great pleasure by many politicians and public officials in Bogota. Colombia’s war on drugs is producing good results, and the downward trend of coca production that started at the beginning of this century has continued. Perhaps, some could say, after all these years, the day will come when Colombia eradicates illegal drug production.
And the truth is that Colombia may well be the only country in the world that has made substantial progress in the war on drugs in the past decade. Despite all their flaws, Plan Colombia and other US aid to the country have helped bring Colombia back from the semi-anarchy of the late ’90s. Since Plan Colombia was first implemented, there has been a 58% reduction in coca production. By 2008, cocaine production had decreased 38% from its peak in the year 2000, and the latest data suggests it may have declined even further in 2009. This is proof that President Uribe’s hardline “democratic security” policy has brought unprecedented control by the state of remote areas of the country. The FARC and other drug-funded groups have lost big money as the programs of aerial and manual fumigation of coca plants have prevented the production of hundreds of tons of cocaine.
But although I welcome these 2009 coca production numbers, I do not want to get my hopes up or celebrate for too long. The 68,000 hectares of coca are more than enough to leave drug traffickers awash with cash to keep causing trouble, as those of us who lived in Colombia in 1996 know full well. Although the Colombian government has done a superb job against drug production, I cannot help but wonder when all this will stop. The government spends a fantastic amount of money fighting drug cartels, eradicating coca plants and destroying cocaine production labs hidden in the immense Colombian jungles. More taxpayers’ money is spent every year patrolling the country’s skies, the seas and rivers, looking for packages of cocaine hidden in some truck, camouflaged in a cargo of flowers, or escaping quietly in a mini-submarine owned by a drug lord.
In order to start having some success in Colombia’s war on drugs, the government had little choice but to expand the defense budget to unprecedented levels, something I discussed in a previous column. And there are no signs that this will end anytime soon. Every year since 2000 the Colombian government has increased the number of coca hectares it eradicates. In 2000, the government eradicated 61,000 hectares of coca; in 2008 that number was about 229,000. That is a good thing, some might say, as it shows that the government is making greater efforts against drugs. But the reality is somewhat more complex. What lies behind these numbers is that in its fight against drugs the Colombian government has found a problem of diminishing returns. For example, in 2003, in order to achieve a reduction in coca production of 16,000 hectares, the government had to eradicate 137,000 hectares of coca; in 2008, the government’s record-breaking eradication left the country with a mere 13,000 fewer hectares of coca than in 2007. That is about 100,000 more eradicated hectares for a decline in production that is 3,000 hectares smaller.
Why could this be? If the government has become better at controlling the national territory, if the FARC has been severely weakened in the recent years, if about 700 drug lords have been extradited to the United States under the Uribe administration, if more money has been devoted to the military than ever before, why is the war against drugs becoming more difficult? Well, there are several plausible explanations. The most obvious one is that drug producers have been learning how to avoid the effects of fumigation. Some coca growers quickly rinse their plants with water after the airplanes hired by the government have sprayed the herbicides on their fields. This can prevent the herbicide (known as glyphosate) from damaging the plants. Coca farmers have also learned to camouflage their crop (planting it in the middle of other crops, or putting plants further away from each other), making identification more difficult from the air, or by satellite.
A third reason for the decreased efficiency of the government’s efforts is that drug eradication leads traffickers to move their fields elsewhere, and to overproduce. This phenomenon repeats itself year after year. In 2008, the UN found that there had been strong decreases in coca cultivation in the departments of Arauca, Vichada, Meta, Putumayo and Antioquia, coupled with strong increases in Nariño, Cauca, Santander and Cordoba. Furthermore, as drug traffickers know that at least some of their crops may be destroyed by the government, they cultivate extra plants in order to compensate for their lost production. Paradoxically, then, eradication creates incentives to produce more coca, not less, thus establishing the need for even more aggressive eradication efforts by the government.
So, I look at the coca production numbers released this week and sigh. I ask myself how much more money the Colombian taxpayer will spend in the war against cocaine. I am almost certain that the impressive results of 2009 were the product of another record-breaking year of coca eradication. And if the government wants to continue with that trend, it seems that in 2010 there will be the need for even more fumigation. But even this offers no guarantee of diminishing production. Nobody should forget that coca production rebounded in 2005 and again in 2007 in spite of increased eradication efforts in both years. So let us rejoice, but keep it real at the same time. Drug trafficking is a monster with many heads. And frankly the Colombian government does not have enough hands to deal with all of them at once.