March 1, the U.S. State Department reported dramatic reductions in coca
cultivation in Colombia during 2002 and 2003. According to the figures,
cultivation dropped to 293,000 acres last year from 436,000 in 2001. Bush
administration officials are now claiming that Plan Colombia is working and
that U.S. drug policy is on the right track. What the report fails to
explain is how such a dramatic reduction in supply over the past two years
has not translated into significant changes in the availability, price and
purity of cocaine on the streets of U.S. cities. As a result, the report
doesn’t address the possibility that its data might not be entirely
accurate, nor does it account for shifts in coca cultivation techniques or
the impractical costs of Plan Colombia.
The State Department’s figures amount to a 144,000 acre reduction —33 percent — in Colombian coca cultivation over the two-year period. According to Adam Isacson of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for International Policy, “If we conservatively assume that two-thirds of the State Department’s anti-drug spending has gone to eradication—contract pilots and support personnel, herbicides, military and police units to protect the spray aircraft—then the United States has spent $17,800 for every acre of coca reduced.”
Even if the State Department’s figures are correct, Plan Colombia has proven to be an extremely expensive strategy for eradicating coca (see Plan Colombia: A Closer Look). Most of the industrial-sized coca plantations were fumigated in the early days of Plan Colombia. As a result, over the past two years, most of the coca in southern Colombia has been cultivated on two to three acres plots, earning individual farmers approximately $2,000 a year. Theoretically, U.S. taxpayer dollars could have paid each coca-growing peasant $40,000 dollars—enough to support a rural family for 20 years—to not grow coca. Of course, any such strategy would have avoided untold environmental damage, the displacement of thousands of families by aerial fumigation, and the subsidization of U.S. corporations to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars for chemicals, helicopters, weaponry and mercenaries.
Also, if we are to accept the State Department’s figures that show a 33 percent reduction in Colombian coca cultivation—an overall 30 percent reduction when the net increase in cultivation in Peru and Bolivia is included—it is difficult to comprehend why such success has not affected the flow of cocaine to the United States. According to recently released figures by both the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), there has been no significant increase in the cost of cocaine in U.S. cities since the late 1990s—before Plan Colombia was launched. Additionally, the ONDCP says there has been little change in availability and purity.
Given the “free trade” ideology of the Bush administration, one would assume that officials would question why such a reduction in supply has not resulted in product shortages and higher prices. The only answer offered up by Drug Czar John Walters is that narco-traffickers have stockpiled enough cocaine to offset the reductions in cultivation. As a result, said Walters, a shift in the availability and prices of cocaine in U.S. cities would not likely occur for another six months to a year. However, Walters said the same thing last July. It is difficult to believe that traffickers have stockpiled enough cocaine to endure more than two years of decreasing production.
The more likely answer to the apparent disconnect between cultivation in Colombia and price and availability in the United States is that the State Department’s figures are simply inaccurate or meaningless. One reason the figures could be wrong is that the satellite imagery used to determine the amount of coca cultivation might not be focusing on remote areas to which coca cultivation has shifted in response to Plan Colombia’s spraying operations. Another possibility is that the figures are correct, but do not take into account new strains of coca that yield more cocaine from fewer leaves. Also, coca growers in Putumayo—the most heavily sprayed department in southern Colombia—have shifted cultivation from large wide-open fields to smaller plots surrounded by rainforest, making it more difficult to detect.
Despite ample evidence supporting the above reasons for the continued flow of cocaine to the United States, the State Department insists that Plan Colombia is proving effective. In a March 23 article, The New York Times unquestioningly regurgitated government claims when it wrote, “Counternarcotics officials in Colombia and Washington say they have virtually eliminated coca production from Putumayo Province and other formerly high-yielding regions.” However, when I traveled to Putumayo in early March, it was not difficult to find coca. During a couple of hours, I visited five different coca fields located only five minutes downriver from the Colombian Army base in Santana. These plots were situated in the midst of rainforest. I also saw coca fields alongside the main road between Puerto Asís and Orito, two of the largest towns in the region. While coca may not be as prominent as it was back in 2001, it is far from “virtually eliminated” in Putumayo.
Clearly, the State Department is eager to put a positive spin on its fumigation efforts in Colombia. But when taken out of context, the amount of acres fumigated is irrelevant if it fails to affect the price, availability and purity of cocaine in U.S. cities. What is relevant is the fact that the U.S. drug war is placing an unnecessary financial burden on U.S. taxpayers, while devastating the lives of impoverished Colombian farmers who still have no viable economic alternatives.
Garry Leech is the editor of Colombia Journal, where this article first appeared (www.colombiajournal.org), and author of Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention.
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