Colombia: Leader in coca and counter-narcotics

By Chelsea Wallis
Oct. 20, 2011 – United Press International

Sen. Dianne Fienstein, D-Calif., points out that 20 percent of cocaine bound for the U.S. is moved by non-commercial plane into Central America before transported north by land. (Chelsea Wallis/MNS)

WASHINGTON, Oct. 20 (UPI) — As drug cartel fighting continues to bloody Mexican streets, the United States is increasingly concerned with new solutions to quell the narcotics surge further upstream.

A panel in Washington this week said Colombia could be part of the drug-trafficking solution as panel members discussed counter-narcotics operations in the Andes, where the majority of the world’s coca for cocaine is produced.

The panelists spoke before U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who is chairwoman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, which was formed to investigate how the United States can work with other countries in battling the illegal drug trade.

As funds for international U.S. narcotics operations wait for approval in the Senate, federal agencies are touting Colombian successes as an argument to obtain the money they request.

One such success is the ability to export training for police and military forces.

“The Colombian National Police have trained more than 9,000 law enforcement personnel from 22 other countries in Latin America and West Africa in tactical and investigative methods,” said U.S. Department of State spokesman William Brownfield, who is also a former ambassador to Colombia.

Panel members said they hope the investment of U.S. training and funds in Colombia will result in increased ability in the region, especially in South and Central America, to combat narcotics.

However, Colombian successes pale when compared with shortcomings, calling into question how much support Colombia could provide to a country such as Mexico.

The intelligence and investigations of drug trafficking and money laundering that lead to extraditions are working well, said U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Rodney Benson.

“Despite these impressive achievements,” Benson added, “Colombian criminal organizations are still responsible for a majority of the world’s supply of cocaine.”

This includes virtually all — 95 percent — of the cocaine seized in the United States, Benson said in his testimony.

“There is a long way to go still,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert in counter-narcotics at the Brookings Institute.

Under intense U.S. eradication policies in the 2000s, she said, coca production simply moved to Bolivia and Peru and there are still many groups involved in drug trafficking in Colombia.

The economics of drug trafficking is inflating prices and creating need, said Sanho Tree, an expert in drug policy at the Institute for Policy Studies. He said he isn’t optimistic about Colombian stability, let alone its ability to offer international narcotics assistance.

“We will never make these problems disappear by making these crops more valuable,” he said, “which is what we’ve been doing for years.”

Crop eradication, which makes the crops scarce, artificially inflates the price. Coca can grow in many different soils and climates and the lack of government infrastructure in isolated areas means drugs offer a better, faster return to poor farmers.

Why not substitute legal crops?

“These are people who don’t have vehicles or roads, no refrigeration to transport things like fruit,” Tree said.

The cultivation of African palm for oil and biofuel was unsuccessful in Colombia because it was destroyed by blight.

“It depends on the place, the people and the luck,” said Brownfield.

But the panelists said alternatives and diversification could offer a solution as long as the farmer can be supported for the two to three years it takes to produce a steady income on legal crops.

Colombia has been supporting farmers in the interim by providing food assistance programs to help with lost revenue, said Adam Isacson, from the Washington Office on Latin America, a non-governmental organization that supports human rights.

Biofuels, cacao, fruit trees and timbers are among crops that have replaced coca.

Brownfield said incentives to countries to reduce coca crops didn’t offer a complete policy. Sanctions from the United States must also be on the table as a deterrent, he said.

Aside from an internal narcotics crackdown, Colombia is offering support to Mexico in the form of police and military training. But neither their current efforts nor the United States’ has deterred Mexican strategy.

“Mexico is following a dangerous assumption that if they decapitate the leader they can alter the scale of organized crime,” said Felbab-Brown. “It’s a naive notion,” she said, that destabilizes territorial boundaries and the balance of power between cartels.

For now, the U.S. priority is a conservative budget. The full Senate is to vote on resources to combat international drug trafficking Nov.18.

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