Colombia’s coca cultivation boom may be over, US says, as 2018 holds steady

A soldier eradicates a coca plant. (Image: National Army)

The US estimate of coca cultivation in Colombia held steady in 2018 after five straight years of growing to record levels, according to the US government’s lead agency on drug control.

That five-year run of increases in cultivated acres—from 78,000 hectares in 2012 to 209,000 hectares in 2017—put Colombia under intense pressure from the US to be more and more aggressive in eradicating coca fields. [One hectare equals two-and-a-half acres.]

The numbers in the new release are not yet ‘good news’ for Colombia, in that the estimate, by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, showed only a minuscule drop in cultivation from 209,000 to 208,000 hectares, a drop that’s well within margins of error.

But at least it isn’t ‘bad news’ for Colombia, as another big increase in cultivation surely would have been. A collective sigh of relief at the news may have been heard in Bogota.

And while the US is not likely to ease its pressure to show meaningful decreases, the new data may give Colombia a bit of breathing room as it tries to implement a variety of strategies—some highly controversial—to cut coca acreage.

The leveling off of production was enough for the head of the White House drug office to praise President Ivan Duque, who has recently been criticized from Washington on this issue.

“In working closely with President Duque, we are seeing Colombia make progress in accomplishing our shared goal of significantly reducing coca cultivation and cocaine production,” said Jim Carroll, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy

Francisco Santos, Colombia’s ambassador to the US, said the leveling off in 2018 could mean the beginning of a reversal.

“We hope to see a 20% decrease in the data about 2019 when all the things we are doing show results,” Santos told the Associated Press. “And in 2020 we will see an even larger reduction.”

The two countries have agreed on a goal of cutting cultivation in half by 2023.

In March this year, President Donald Trump complained that Duque “has done nothing for us” and in April claimed “their drug business has gone up 50% since he’s been there.”

But Trump’s tune had changed by last week, when he complimented Duque, “Who’s doing, I hear, a very good job.”


Trump surprisingly praises Duque after trashing Colombia’s president twice


Most international agencies rely on the acreage estimate put out by the United Nations Office on Drugs on Crime rather than the White House. The UNODC chief in Colombia said Wednesday that his office is expected to release its 2018 figures next month.

The two measures parallel each other in the trends they show but differ in the number of acres they report. For 2017, the UN estimated 171,000 hectares of coca cultivation compared with the US estimate that year of 188,000 hectares.

The White House report acknowledged a 40% increase in cocaine users in the US between 2014 and 2017, to about 2.2 million people. US anti-narcotics policies focus on what Colombia should be doing and not what the US should be doing at home.

The report said Duque “has increased Colombia’s counter-narcotics efforts, targeting cocaine labs and traffickers, and quadrupling the number of teams to eradicate 56% more coca per month than under the previous government.”

Some of Duque’s methods have provoked strong resistance among farmers and health experts, because Duque wants the Constitutional Court to permit him to spray glyphosate from airplanes. The practice was banned in 2015 because of health concerns.

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