UN and U.S. Estimates for Cocaine Production Contradict Each Other

Last Wednesday (July 25) the UN Office on Drugs and Crime issued a report with its latest findings about coca, the plant used to make cocaine, in Colombia.

The 112-page report explains that, from 2010 to 2011:

  • the area cultivated with coca in Colombia increased, from 62,000 to 64,000 hectares (1 hectare = 2 1/2 acres).
  • because traffickers were able to extract a bit less cocaine per hectare of coca, the country’s production of cocaine dropped slightly, from 350 to 345 metric tons.

The UN agency has not yet produced estimates for the world’s two other coca-growing countries, Bolivia and Peru. Its report got a lot of press in Colombia, though, because for the first time since 2007, it did not show a decrease in coca cultivation. Despite over 100,000 hectares sprayed with herbicides and 34,000 hectares of coca bushes physically uprooted by eradicators, the amount of coca left over actually increased last year.

Cocaine per Hectare Estimates in 2010. U.S. estimate for Colombia is far lower than for other countries.Estimates of coca and cocaine production are only produced by two sources: the UNODC and the U.S. government. Washington had not issued any estimates for 2011 cocaine production when the UNODC released its report. However, five days later, Monday July 30, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy produced a press release.

This 600-word document explains that, from 2010 to 2011:

  • the amount of cocaine produced in Colombia fell by 25 percent, from 270 to 195 metric tons.

The press release doesn’t say how much coca was grown in Colombia last year, or even whether the land area increased or decreased. Nor does it say whether growers were extracting less cocaine from the coca they harvested, and if so why or how much less. The document did tell us that Colombia, the world’s largest cocaine producer since the mid-1990s, has now fallen behind Peru (325 metric tons) and Bolivia (265 metric tons).

This is mysterious because in 2010, the last year for which the U.S. government and UNODC have coca-crop estimates for all three countries, Colombia and Peru show nearly the same amount of coca, and Bolivia shows about half as much as the other two. For Bolivia to be producing more cocaine than Colombia from half as much coca is difficult to fathom.

(All available coca and cocaine data from the U.S. and UN since 1999 is at the bottom of this post.)

The Bolivia result is especially surprising because the country’s coca cultivation, in both U.S. and UN estimates, had stayed about the same in 2008-2010. Why would cocaine producers be getting so much more of the drug from the same land area planted with coca?

Asked that very question by a Bolivian interviewer in mid-July, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires John Creamer explained that Bolivian cocaine producers are using “Colombian methods.” These methods, however, are apparently not at work in Colombia.

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Here, using the data below, is a chart of how much cocaine the U.S. government believes that producers are deriving from each hectare of coca. It shows producers in Colombia getting less than half as much of the drug out of coca bushes than their counterparts in Bolivia and Peru. A hectare of coca in Peru produced 6.1 kilograms of cocaine in 2010. In Bolivia, it produced 5.7 kilograms of cocaine. In Colombia, it produced only 2.7 kilograms. (The difference may be even greater in the 2011 estimates, but since the U.S. government has not issued coca cultivation land-area estimates for 2011, we can’t calculate it.)

Cocaine per Hectare - U.S. Estimate

This discrepancy may be a result of frequent eradication in Colombia, which may force growers to replant more often and thus harvest from smaller bushes. However, the UNODC doesn’t reach the same conclusion. The UN estimate of how much cocaine Colombian producers extracted from coca in 2011 (5.4 kilograms per hectare) is closer to the Bolivia and Peru estimates, and more than twice the U.S. figure. (The UNODC, meanwhile, has not even ventured a guess for Peru’s and Bolivia’s cocaine tonnage since 2008.)

Cocaine per Hectare - UN Estimate

Since the U.S. government is not at all transparent about how it gets its cocaine production numbers, this kilograms-per-hectare discrepancy leaves a strong impression that a political agenda is involved. Washington has a strong incentive to reward close ally Colombia and to show that the billions spent on forced coca eradication since 2000 are “working.” It has a strong incentive to prod Peru, whose center-left government may be tempted to take a nationalistic, independent course, to toe the line of the current strategy. And it has a strong incentive to punish Bolivia which, though controlling illicit coca cultivation far better than neighboring Peru, has a government that sharply (and sometimes unfairly) criticizes the United States and is perceived as opposing other U.S. interests.

We want to think that these numbers are not pulled from the U.S. anti-drug bureaucracy’s nether regions, and are based on a considered, reasoned process. But with no transparency at all over how these tonnage estimates are derived, the U.S. cocaine-production numbers are wide open to charges of politicization.

How much cocaine did Colombia produce last year?

UN Office on Drugs and Crime, last Wednesday:

“[P]otential cocaine production in 2011 remained stable at 345 tons, down 1 per cent from 350 tons in 2010.”

White House Office of National Drug Policy, today:

“[T]here has been a 72 percent drop in cocaine pure production capacity in Colombia since 2001… to 195 metric tons in 2011. The latest estimate is a 25 percent reduction from the previous year.”

The UN (working with Colombia’s National Police) and the U.S. government are the only two bodies that attempt to estimate cocaine production in the Andes. And their estimates of Colombia’s production potential, publicized within five days of each other, diverge by 77 percent

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Tradewinds 2012: A week of military exercises

Between June 14th and 24th, U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), led by U.S. Marine Forces South, sponsored ten days of military exercises in Barbados aimed at “improving cooperation and security” in the Caribbean basin. This was the 28th annual Tradewinds exercise and featured U.S. military personnel and law enforcement officers working with 16 other nations from the region. These nations are: Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados (host nation), Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States.

This is a smaller group of countries than last year’s exercise, which included 21 nations. This year, Colombia, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama did not participate

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The objective [PDF] of the exercise, according to Southcom, is to “enhance the collective abilities of the Partner Nations’ Defense Forces and constabularies to Counter Transnational Organized Crime (CTOC) and conduct Humanitarian Aid/ Disaster Relief (HA/DR) operations.” This translates into the following exercises:

  • Conduct joint, combined and interagency training,
  • Focus on increasing regional cooperation in countering transnational organized crime,
  • Support humanitarian assistance/disaster responses,
  • Conduct interoperability training for multinational staffs,
  • Build capability to plan and execute complex multinational security operations.

Skills Demonstrated:
The above skills were tested later on in the exercise through a five-day command post exercise in which,

Barbados was just hit by a simulated tsunami in the midst of dealing with a virtual terrorist hostage situation, a collapsed stadium and a bombing that damaged an oil tanker causing an oil leak into the bay, all while preparing for the impending threat of a hurricane.

Alongside the exercise, a meeting was held between upwards of 40 diplomats, ministers of national security, chiefs of defense, ministers of defense, agency directors and senior military officials from the region to discuss the areas the combatants were being trained in through the Distinguished Visitor Program. Larry Palmer, U.S. ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean said, “There is a tremendous value to the region for all of these representatives to get this kind of experience – they get to create the kinds of relationships they will need in order to do their jobs when called upon.”

U.S. Southern Command has also been in Peru in recent weeks as part of the ongoing New Horizons 2012 exercise which, paired with the Beyond the Horizon exercises, is taking place between April and October 2012. Both of the exercises are taking place in Peru, Guatemala, and Honduras and are being executed by U.S. Army South and U.S. Air Forces Southern.

This blog was written by CIP Intern Anna Moses.