US report: Colombia coca production still at record high

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The amount of land in Colombia being used to harvest coca — the plant used to make cocaine — is still at a record high despite a renewed campaign to manually eradicate the plant, new data from the White House said Thursday night.

Coca cultivation reached 212,000 hectares (about 524,000 acres) last year, a rise of nearly 2% from 208,000 hectares the year before, according to the figures. Potential pure cocaine production, meanwhile, rose to 951 metric tons, an 8% increase.

“It’s pretty remarkable that they manually eradicated 100,000 hectares last year and didn’t move the needle,” said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. “I guess it means replanting has at least kept pace.”

The findings come as Colombia is facing increasing pressure from the Trump administration to dramatically reduce coca production. President Iván Duque has made quashing the drug trade one of the signature drives of his administration, but the new data suggest his efforts are only stabilizing the problem, not diminishing it.

Coca production in Colombia, the world’s biggest cocaine producer, has been steadily increasing since 2013, when peace negotiations with the now demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia got underway. The levels reached 209,000 hectares in 2017, dipped slightly to 208,000 in 2018 and then rose a bit again last year.

White House officials characterized the 2019 uptick as a “stabilization” and praised Duque’s efforts to manually eradicate the crop — a campaign that cost 10 Colombians their lives and left more than 50 seriously wounded during operations. Eradication by Colombian troops rose 58%, the White House noted, and military forces seized more than 492 metric tons of cocaine and coca base.

“The upcoming year will be critical,” said Jim Carroll, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “We look forward to seeing ramped up efforts, including aerial eradication, make a difference in reducing the coca cultivation and production of cocaine, which will eventually save the lives of American people.”

The high Colombian coca levels have repeatedly tested relations between the two nations, with President Donald Trump at one point threatening to decertify Colombia as a partner in the war on drugs if it failed to reverse the surge in production.

Trump and Duque met for an hour Monday in Washington, with the U.S. leader saying Colombia needs to resume aerial eradication.

“The fact that coca cultivation is steady or slightly up has led to intense pressure on the Colombian government to resume aerial spraying,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Colombia ended spraying herbicides on illicit crops in 2015 over health concerns. Duque’s government is vowing to restart aerial eradication later this year after conducting further studies ordered by the Constitutional Court. The new program is expected to be smaller and more targeted.

“You’re gonna have to spray,” Trump said. “If you don’t spray, you’re not gonna get rid of them.”

Duque has said aerial spraying will be one of several strategies to reduce coca, joining with manual uprooting of coca plants, crop substitution programs for poor farmers and rural development.

Providing remote areas with roads, schools and clinics is a key part of the government’s 2016 peace accord with the leftist FARC rebels and considered a key aspect of addressing the poverty that leads some farmers to turn to coca growing.

The FARC was one of Colombia’s biggest drug trafficking organizations and many hoped that the accord would put an end to the scourge for good. Instead, new illegal armed groups are occupying many of the territories FARC fighters left behind and are battling each other over drug routes.

Colombia has committed to reducing coca cultivation and cocaine production 50% by the end of 2023.

“They’re not on pace to do that,” Isacson said. “This is going to create huge political pressure from Washington to fumigate.”

Juan Carlos Garzon, a director at the Ideas for Peace Foundation, said he believes the increase is a consequence of failing to boost substitution programs and neglecting to manually eradicate in a number of coca-rich areas.

“You have extensive areas of the country with coca in which almost nothing is being done,” he said.

Others pointed to a need to reduce demand in order to make a dent on production. Nearly 2 million people in the U.S. used cocaine in 2018, a 42% increase over 2011, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. U.S. overdose deaths involving cocaine more than tripled from 2012 to 2018, data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention show.

“I think overall this suggests that in spite of having a collaborative government, it is unlikely coca eradication will be successful without a strategy to curb demand in the U.S. and Europe,” said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis.