We didn’t need any more data to definitively expose the many shortcomings of the US-led global prohibition on narcotics – but we got one today, courtesy of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
New figures show that cocaine production in Colombia reached an all-time high for the second straight year in 2016, as coca cultivation in the South American country surged 52 percent, spanning 146,000 hectares, compared with 96,000 in 2015. The 2016 crops produced an estimated 866 metric tons of cocaine, an increase of 35 percent compared to 2015. Meanwhile, cocaine use appears to be increasing in the two largest markets, North America and Europe.
While the UNODC said the survey results were “disappointing,” it noted that there were “some positives” in the report, including an increase of 49 per cent in seizures of cocaine – from 253 tons confiscated in 2015 to 378 tons in 2016. Of course, each seizure inevitably means some low-level trafficker – possibly working under the threat of violence – is being jailed, at an enormous cost to the public, while the seizure has little impact on the larger organization.
The rise in production comes as FARC, a communist insurgency that controlled patches of the Colombian countryside for more than 50 years, renounced drug trafficking under the terms of a peace agreement that was ratified by Colombia’s Congress in November. The group started disarming in March, but doubts remain: Can the group’s members will be able to work regular jobs. Meanwhile, FARC, which once supported itself mainly through selling drugs and kidnapping wealthy individuals, is transforming into a political party.
In any event, one Colombian law enforcement official who spoke with the Guardian sounded optimistic about the country’s ability to work with FARC to reduce coca production.
“José Ángel Mendoza, the head of Colombia’s counter-narcotics police, said Colombia faced “a difficult historical moment”, but stressed that the figures reflected the state of the country on 31 December 2016.
Since then, the government has put in place an ambitious plan to eradicate 100,000 hectares of coca by the year’s end. Half of that amount is to be forcibly eradicated, and the other half removed through crop substitution agreements with coca farmers.
The substitution program is part of a peace deal with Farc rebels, who renounced drug trafficking as part of their demobilization deal. During much of the group’s 53 years as an armed insurgency, it financed its fight through the drug trade.
Former combatants have committed to work with the government to convince farmers to replace coca crops with another way to make a living.”
This forced eradication program is already yielding results, the Colombians say.
“Already 40% of the goal of forced eradication has been met, and 86,000 families – who account for as much as 76,000 hectares of coca – have signed on to crop substitution programs in exchange for subsidies of about $11,000 per farmer over the course of two years, according to the government.”
As VICE noted, at a joint press conference in May, President Trump pushed for Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos to increase eradication efforts. Santos won the Nobel peace prize late last year for his work on the FARC deal.
Trump said Colombia is one of the US’s closest allies “in the hemisphere,” before reaffirming US support for destroying cocaine crops and refineries by providing DEA personnel and resources to augment localized eradication efforts.
“We have a problem with drugs and you have a very big problem with drugs,” Trump reminded Santos.
“Recently, we have seen an alarmed — and I mean really a very highly alarmed and alarming trend,” Trump said. “Last year, Colombia coca cultivation and cocaine production reached a record high, which, hopefully, will be remedied very quickly by the President. We must confront this dangerous threat to our societies together.”
Trump has said he believes his wall will help keep drugs out of the US ("walls work, just ask Israel"). Unfortunately, Trump and the Republicans' plans for reducing the flow of illegal narcotics are no different from their predecessors. Once FARC has left the countryside, a new criminal group will take its place – an organization possibly more violent and unpredictable than the one that preceded it. Indeed, as long is there is demand, somebody will find a way to meet it. Maybe it's time for governments to acknowledge that prohibition has failed, and that regulation could be a more productive strategy.
To be fair, if Santos does manage to engineer a sharp drop in Colombia’s cocaine exports with his voluntary crop-rotation plan, he might earn a Nobel Prize in economics, too.