Colombia’s defense ministry has been reporting inflated statistics on the forced eradication of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine, multiple counternarcotics officials told weekly Semana.
Eight civilian eradicators and counternarcotics officials confirmed the fraud that reportedly has been going on for at least 10 years and is known by the United States embassy.
Colombia’s defense ministry told Semana it “has not detected any allegedly false reports in relation to the 2019 eradication,” but was contradicted by one of its own officials.
The economic and human costs are barbaric, and the only way to justify them is to inflate results.
Defense ministry official
Meeting targets without results
The forced eradication statistics are reportedly inflated to guarantee that targets set by Bogota and Washington DC are met, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is given manipulated statistics.
Furthermore, the fraud serves to justify the enormous cost of the notoriously ineffective counternarcotics efforts that cost American and Colombian tax payers $100 million (COP361 billlion) last year alone, the anonymous sources told Semana.
According to an anonymous defense ministry official, the politicians’ fixation on targets is the cause of all evil.
If the minister says that 50,000 must be eradicated this year, 50,000 must be eradicated no matter how. That’s the mistake, the no matter how. We had the perception that the measurement was not accurate, that if there was a target, this was what would be reported.
National Army counternarcotics official
How the books are cooked
The security officials and civilian contractors involved in eradication told Semana they used several tricks to cook the books.
The fraud allows them to meet daily and monthly targets set by their superiors in Bogota, but also allows the Defense Ministry to report fraudulent statistics to the UNODC.
Trick #1: partial eradication
An eradicator told the magazine that, for example, police and coca farmers agreed only half of the crops would be eradicated, allowing the counternarcotics unit to falsely claim they finished their eradication operation while the farmers were allowed to keep half their coca.
The community was pissed off because they were going to eradicate, so a [Police] lieutenant came to talk to the people. They agreed that, for every hectare, 25 percent would be cut above the trunk and the peasants themselves would cut them. Twenty-five percent was uprooted and that was for the photo, to say that 100 hectares were eradicated. And 50 percent was left untouched.
This practice was confirmed by the anonymous counternarcotics expert.
The police are more sophisticated in the process. They tell the coca growers: “You have 100 hectares, we are going to eradicate 50.” The Army does it too, but not that much. And so the community doesn’t confront them. So, they report an area that was only partially eradicated as cleared. And the next year, when the area again appears to have coca, they say that it was planted again, which is nonsense.
Trick #2: inventing eradication
The same eradicator told Semana that in December 2018, before he was sent to Putumayo, he took part in an eradication operation in the southwestern Nariño province. In that operation, eradicators allegedly reported grasslands and plots that had already been eradicated to meet the allegedly impossible target of eradicating 300 hectares in 35 days.
In 35 days, the most they could possibly remove is 100 hectares. In that phase in Tumaco, they reported grasslands, and crops that they had eradicated a few months before. It was a disaster.
Trick #3: Mobile cultivation
The eradicator said that they also used a trick called “mobile cultivation” while he was on the eradication missions in Tumaco in December 2018 and Putumayo in June last year.
The mobile cultivation trick consists of uprooting coca on one plot and then planting it again on a nearby plot. The empty plot would then be photographed and the coordinates sent to Bogota for verification via satellite.
“The important thing was that the bushes were not left with the leaves turned over because the United Nations verified the photo,” the eradicator told Semana.
Trick #4: Falsifying data
A general working for the defense ministry, a former police investigator and an eradicator said that eradication teams also send false or inflated geographical data to Bogota, taking advantage of the fact that the presence of illegal armed groups makes verification impossible.
They report a much larger perimeter as eradicated than actually had crops. The one who does the measurements walks with the GPS to areas where there was no coca.
The UNODC’s verification method using satellite imagery additionally allows security forces to report the eradication after the UN agency had gathered its satellite data for its annual report.
This allows the defense ministry to report inflated eradication numbers without verification late in the year.
When President Ivan Duque was under pressure from Washington last year, for example, eradication in December went up 168% to 12,600 hectares compared to the same month in 2018. It then dropped to 2,366 hectares in January.
Reported coca eradication per month
Source: Defense Ministry
The nine deaths and 60 injuries reported by Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo are likely deflated as his predecessor, Guillermo Botero, reported 12 killed officials and 85 injuries in October last year.
In total, 10,400 soldiers and 1,883 policemen are currently involved in manual eradication operations, according to Semana.
UN improving verification methods to counter fraud
A UNODC official told Semana they have been working to improve the verification of eradication data provided by the government “to ensure an objective and verifiable validation” after noticing anomalies in 2018.
Colombia’s security forces began manually eradicating coca under former President Alvaro Uribe in 2005 after which potential cocaine production went from 640 tons to a record 1,137 tons last year.
Colombia’s potential cocaine production
Counternarcotics experts and the UNODC have dismissed forced eradication as ineffective for years, but neither Washington DC nor Bogota have shown interest in effectively reducing cocaine production through crop substitution and economic development.