The governments of Colombia and the US in 2018 agreed to cut cocaine production in half by 2023. Here’s how that became a catastrophic failure.
Fifteen months before US assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon and Colombia’s former Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin met in Bogota in March 2018, Colombia’s FARC guerrillas began their demobilization.
Three weeks after the beginning of Colombia’s peace process, US President Trump took office and made it clear he had no intention to fulfill commitments made by his predecessor Barack Obama to support the peace process that included a new counternarcotics policy, the substitution of coca crops, as part of a strategy called “Peace Colombia.”
The crop substitution program was also opposed by former ambassador and the director of the International Narcotics and Law Affairs chief, William Brownfield, another associate of Uribe and of the cousin of Pablo Escobar, Senator Jose Obdulio Gaviria.
US Congress overruled the White House’s proposed budget cuts and President Juan Manuel Santos kicked off the crop substitution program in May
Former ambassador Kevin Whitaker was present at the ceremony, but by then relations between Trump and Santos had strained and the DEA began a covert operation to undermine the peace process.
Trump under pressure over opioid crisis
In June 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Colombian newspaper El Tiempo he wanted Colombia to resume the aerial spraying of coca, claiming the increase in Colombia’s cocaine production was causing a surge in drug overdoses in the the US.
Santos had stopped this strategy in 2015 because of health concerns and broad consensus that this strategy was entirely ineffective.
US AID, however, never measured the effectiveness of the strategy being implemented as part of the peace process, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had said in an evaluation of the failed “Plan Colombia” strategy in 2008 already.
One principal challenge is determining which combination of military and nonmilitary programs will have the greatest affect on combating the drug trade in Colombia. Program activities in the past have relied heavily on the use of aerial spraying as a key tool for driving down coca cultivation levels, and the vast bulk of U.S. counternarcotics assistance has gone to eradication and interdiction efforts. However, coca cultivation reduction goals were not met. As a result, Congress directed a decreased emphasis on aerial eradication, while directing that more be spent on alternative development and in other nonmilitary program areas. However, USAID does not currently measure the effect alternative development has on this goal or the extent to which its programs are self-sustaining.
Government Accountability Office
According to Bogota Mayor Claudia Lopez, who was running for president at the time, cocaine production in Colombia “is increasing because drug use in the United States has skyrocketed.”
Lopez was right. A month after Tillerson’s pressure on Colombia, the US government declared the opioid crisis a “national emergency.”
GAO investigating State Department irregularities
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) began investigating the US government’s drug policy in Colombia in September 2017 as both Santos and US Congress were questioning the effectiveness of the strategies promoted by Trump and Tillerson.
Brownfield, who had been pushing the ineffective strategies and socializing with the former Medellin Cartel associates, resigned immediately.
Two months later, the State Department told the GAO that “a significant number of FARC members have refused to demobilize and key FARC leaders have been accused of violating the peace agreement through continued involvement in the drug trade and other illegal activities” two months later, which was false.
The DEA, together with Colombia’s notoriously corrupt former chief prosecutor Nestor Humberto Martinez, were fabricating evidence in an apparent attempt to sabotage the peace process, Colombia’s war crimes tribunal would later find out.
Meanwhile, relations between Santos and Trump were getting worse because the US President refused to support the Colombian peace process and continued pushing for military intervention in Venezuela.
In September, the US Congress approved a $391.3 million against the will of the president who wanted to cut aid. Days later, Trump threatened to decertify Colombia for refusing to cooperate with his “counternarcotics” efforts.
By then, the US opioid crisis was killing 70,000 Americans a year, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin expressed her despair about Trump’s ignorance about counternarcotics and persistent efforts to resume a counternarcotics strategy that never worked.
When one says why eradication, why it achieves so little, why it takes so long, they do not see the difficulties that this country has. This is not in a flat territory, this is in the mountains, where legal meets illegal, that is the great challenge we have.
Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin
“Anything can happen with the US,” said Holguin, whose government was now working with the UN while Trump sought to replace his ambassador to Colombia, but was hindered by the radical wing of the Republican Party and a State Department that had become entirely dysfunctional.
Tillerson traveled to Colombia in February 2018, making it clear that “we really don’t agree on how to do this.”
After Santos agreed to cooperate with the US government with their Venezuela policy, Tillerson agreed to review drug policy and the March 18 meeting was set.
After the meeting, US assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon and Holguin said they had agreed on an “integral and comprehensive” strategy to cut annual cocaine production, which was an estimated 1,1058 tons in 2017, in half by 2023.
DEA hoax nearly destroys peace process
Three weeks later, Colombia’s prosecution arrested one of the FARC’s political leaders, “Jesus Santrich,” on trumped up charges invented by a Trump minion in the US Attorney’s Office in Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman, plunging the peace process in an unrepairable crisis.
In June, Ivan Duque won the 2018 elections after the drug trafficking organization of Marquitos Figueroa vowed to by him votes. The mafia puppet immediately promised to end the crop substitution program.
Presumably ignorant he was now engaging in counternarcotics with a mafia associate, Trump praised his Colombian counterpart at the UN, claiming “all of us must work together to dismantle drug production and defeat drug addiction.”
Newly elected President Duque, Colombia, campaigned on an anti-drug platform, and won a very, very impressive victory. Congratulations.
US President Donald Trump
In November that year, US Congress agreed to invest $428 million in Colombia in 2019.
Effectiveness counternarcotics never measured: GAO
Consequently, “the US Government lacks key information to determine the most effective combination of counternarcotics activities.”
The Department of State (State), which has lead responsibility for U.S. counternarcotics efforts, has not evaluated the effectiveness of its eradication and interdiction activities, as called for by its evaluation policies. Additionally, State has not conducted a comprehensive review of the U.S. counternarcotics approach, which relies on a combination of eradication, interdiction, and alternative development. Without information about the relative benefits and limitations of these activities, the U.S. government lacks key information to determine the most effective combination of counternarcotics activities.
Government Accountability Office
Cocaine trade keeps booming
Trump’s new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, apparently never read the GAO report, and claimed in January 2019 that “we will continue to work with you… to achieve our joint objectives to cut coca cultivation and coca production by 50 percent between now and 2023″ without a word about crop substitution.
Relations began deteriorating again in April after Colombian congressmen accused the US Congressmen of extorting them over the war crimes tribunal and the US president began insulting his Colombian counterpart for the third time.
“More drugs are coming out of Colombia right now than before” the narco associate was president, Trump found out.
Months before, starving farmers had already warned that they had no other option but to resume cultivating coca because the Duque administration had pulled the plug from the crop substitution program.
The death of Colombia’s counternarcotics policy
War crimes tribunal discovers evidence alleged DEA hoax
Whitaker was called back from Washington just before the war crimes tribunal ordered the release of Santrich and ordering an investigation into the alleged illegal activities of the DEA agents and the chief prosecutor, who was forced to resign in May.
In an apparent attempt to appease Trump, Duque vowed in June last year he would resume aerial spraying of coca “in months” even though the court had banned this in 2017.
A month later, the Constitutional Court humiliated the president, because he had done literally nothing that would allow the resumption of aerial spraying, according to newspaper El Espectador.
The new ambassador, Philip Goldberg, was appointed arrived in September.
New GAO report spots irregularities in narco assets
Goldberg barely sat down or the GAO dropped another report, this time about the lack of transparency about what happens with confiscated assets belonging to alleged drug trafficking organizations put on the so-called Kingpin List by the Treasury Department’s Office for Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
As required, OFAC reports annually to Congress on Kingpin Act designations and corresponding agency expenditures, but it has provided limited guidance to partner agencies on expenditure data they report. As a result, agencies use different methods to calculate the personnel and resource costs associated with their Kingpin activities. For example, the department of Homeland Security said it only reports personnel expenditures when it is the lead investigative agency, but the Department of Defense reports personnel expenditures when it is not the lead. Furthermore, OFAC has not reported the limitations in agency data in its congressional reports. This lack of clear expenditure information could hinder oversight of the Kingpin Act.
Furthermore, the GAO found that the OFAC has been confiscating the assets of less and less alleged narcos and their money launderers.
Meanwhile, three OFAC officials are investigated for bribery while the GAO investigation was ongoing, according to newspaper El Espectador.
Nevertheless, US Congress agreed to invest another $448 million, the highest amount in nine years, without anyone having an idea what to do with the potential coca cultivation that had reached a new record high, 1137 tons.
Instead of reducing cocaine production by 528 tons in five years, the two governments now had to reduce it by 609 tons in three years without a strategy.
The human cost of forced eradication
Because aerial spraying has been banned, both governments refuse to take part in the peace process and neither are going after the drug traffickers and money launderers, the only way to combat cocaine production is to manually eradicate coca, which cost the lives of more than 50 eradicators last year, according to the White House.
Colombia’s defense minister told his US counterpart Mark Esper he would step up forced eradication to 130,000 hectares a month, 36% more than security forces have ever been able to eradicate in a year.
Just like the 50% decrease in cocaine production in 2023, a target the security forces will likely not reach unless they use fraud, a common method to food the Americans, eradicators have told local media.
Even Colombia’s President’s Office admitted to Congress that the joint counternarcotics strategy is useless.
They calculated forced eradication between 2005 and 2014 at a cost of COP23 million/hectare when eradicated manually and COP72 million/hectare when eradicated by aerial spraying. This what was approximately:
- COP7.9 trillion ($2 billion) in forced eradication
- COP79.9 trillion ($20 billion) in eradication through aerial fumigation
- Which amounts to a total of COP88 trillion ($22 billion) in 10 years and COP8.8 trillion (2.2 billion) on average per year
Comparing this data with the estimated cost of substitution with the families directly included at a rate of COP40 million ($10.3 thousand) producing families out of an estimated total of 80,438 direct producer families, this would imply an investment of COP2.9 billion ($748 thousand).
Based on the above, it can be said that the cost-benefit ratio of substitution is more reasonable than eradication because the results achieved are expected to be sustainable over time.
The evidence of mafia ties piles up
Weeks after Trujillo had left Washington, evidence emerged that Duque’s 2018 campaign was sponsored by money launderer Jose Guillermo Hernandez and that the ambassador to Uruguay, Fernando Sanclemente, had three cocaine labs on his family estate.
Two months later, transnational crime website InSight Crime releveled Vice-President Marta Lucia Ramirez was tied to former Medellin Cartel narco “Memo Fantasma.”
Counternarcotics equipment delivered by the US government has been used by Colombia’s army to spy on critics instead of drug traffickers. In fact, evidence and multiple witnesses indicate the army is actively involved in drug trafficking.
The US Embassy has refused any cooperation in drug trafficking investigations and has not requested the extradition or the seizure of assets of one alleged drug trafficker over the past year.