A couple of weeks ago, a U.N. report found that Colombia has continued to reduce the amount of coca produced within its territory, with the land under coca cultivation falling 16% in 2009, and down nearly 60% over the last decade. Even better, for the first time in some years, Colombia has shed the embarrassing title of the world´s top coca producer to Peru. In the Andean region in general, overall coca production also fell slightly. The report provided an opportunity for the Colombian government and its American backers to pat themselves on the back. Despite bad news from Mexico and Afghanistan, it would seem that the war on drugs is being won in Colombia.
Not everyone was happy with the report. The Peruvian government objected to the U.N.’s methodology. If the report had used a different methodology – something to do with the way the coca leaves are dried – then Colombia would still be the top producer. More convincingly, if coca production were estimated by the approximate
land area under cultivation, Peru still lags far behind Colombia, with 59,000 hectares compared with 68,000.
Overall, the report produced a number of intriguing and media-friendly storylines: Peru is publicly feuding with the U.N., Colombia is winning the war on drug production with American support, and the Andean region is slowly dealing with its drug trade. To me, however, by far the most intriguing thing about the U.N. report is the fact that we care about it at all. Indeed, if history has taught us anything about estimates of drug production, it is that they are totally meaningless.
Reducing drug production is really a means to two more important ends. The first, which directly concerns governments in countries with large numbers of drug consumers (namely the United States and Western Europe), is to reduce the availability of illicit drugs on their streets. By far the best way to measure this is to track consumer prices. For example, if cocaine is cheap and easily available in New York City, then it matters very little from the American point of view whether the U.N. “estimates” that Andean countries have more or fewer hectares dedicated to coca production.
By this measure, coca production is booming. Cocaine is far cheaper in the United States than it was during the 1980s, when it was fashionable among American elites and when Pablo Escobar ran a criminal empire out of Medellin. One important reason, among many, is that coca producers (like producers of any agricultural product) are constantly working on innovations to improve the plant´s productivity. Today, growers can probably get two to three times as much cocaine out of a single hectare as they did twenty years ago. In other words, even if the number of hectares used for cultivation has indeed decreased, an equal or larger amount of white powder ends up on streets in wealthy countries.
The second goal, which more directly concerns the governments of the Andean region, is to reduce the level of violence and corruption associated with the drug trade. Levels of drug-related violence in Colombia are indeed lower than they were ten years ago, but to attribute that reduction in violence to a reduction in coca production would be to ignore the obvious lessons of history. The late 1980s and early 1990s were extremely violent periods in Colombia, but coca production in the country was almost negligible during that time. In other words, there is a massive empirical disconnect between coca production and drug-related violence.
Even today, though rates of violence are relatively low, drug production and drug-related violence seem to be trending in opposite directions. Just days after the U.N. showed that coca crops are declining in Colombia, gunmen fired indiscriminately into a crowd at a nightclub outside Medellin. The massacre, in which eight people were killed, was blamed on rival drug gangs. There is now growing evidence that police were present at the scene of the crime, suggesting possible links between law enforcement officials and criminal groups. In his last few weeks in office, President Uribe has urged the country to deal with the growing power of new drug trafficking networks.
Why this disconnect between drug production and violence? One reason is that the most lucrative stages of the drug trade are processing and transport, not production. In other words, the perpetrators of the bulk of cocaine-related violence anywhere in the world are not growers but traffickers. Mexico, where a wave of drug-related violence has killed over 20,000 people over the past four years, does not produce any coca at all. Another reason for this disconnect is that criminal groups dedicated to the drug trade continue to engage in other activities even after their trafficking routes are shut down and their leaders are eliminated. Medellin, for example, remained a very violent city even after the dismantling of the so-called Medellin cartel, partly because Escobar´s former foot soldiers moved on to new criminal activities like small-time murder for hire and extortion.
In short, drug production figures are only marginally relevant to the two central goals of the war on drugs. Worse yet, they are inherently inaccurate. Never mind Peru´s technical disagreements with the U.N. Even if the U.N. were to fine-tune its methodology, it is still virtually impossible to “measure” the amount of drugs produced in any given country. By definition, drug production is hidden from the authorities. The U.N. and other groups can try to estimate production, but their final reports are largely the product of guesswork.
An added problem with drug estimates is the strong political pressures that can shape them. To illustrate my point, it may be easier to discuss an analogous situation in estimates of economic performance. I recently heard an Italian economist cast doubt on international organizations’ predictions of economic growth. When one of these institutions (say, for example, the International Monetary Fund) publishes such a prediction, it makes sure not to veer too far from the domestic government’s own predictions for fear of angering national officials. From the IMF’s point of view, the cost of a row with Italy over pessimistic predictions about economic growth is much higher than the cost of slightly overestimating growth.
The same dynamic is likely even stronger in the realm of drug production figures, where the cost of pessimism is high but the cost of optimism is almost nonexistent. If the U.N. were to give a very high estimate of drug production in the Andes, it would risk angering Andean governments and their allies. By contrast, nobody can hold the U.N. accountable for publishing low estimates of drug production in Colombia or anywhere else, because nobody knows what the real figures are. The entire industry of estimating drug production is based on a perverse set of incentives that encourage optimism and discourage pessimism.
Given these pressures, it is hardly surprising that most governments and other investigators produce almost identical figures of drug production. Disagreements are very costly. In the case of Colombia, they may be especially costly, as the country’s anti-drug effort is heavily backed by the United States. In short, plain guesswork and political pressures are as important to drug estimates as real, hard information. This is not to say that the U.N. report is entirely wrong. For all we know, drug production is rising in Peru and declining in Colombia. But this is hardly a cause for celebration. Thirty years into the Andean war against cocaine, we should already have learned that coca crops can shift from one country to another with little effect on levels of violence, corruption or consumption.