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Friday, August 10, 2012

Podcast: The Week Ahead: August 10, 2012

Adam looks at Brazil's "Operation Agata" border-security exercise, the capture and release of trafficker "Chepe Luna" in Honduras, and the capture of "Sebastián," the most prominent trafficker in Medellín, Colombia.

Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Podcast: The 25th anniversary of the Esquipulas II accords: Bill Goodfellow on Central America's peace processes

On August 7, 1987, Central America's presidents signed an agreement that brought an eventual end to the country's civil wars. Adam talks to William Goodfellow, executive director of the Center for International Policy, who accompanied the Esquipulas process.

  • The August 14 event mentioned in the podcast is open to the public and will take place at 9:00 AM in the OAS Hall of the Americas. The announcement and RSVP instructions are at CIP's website here.
  • Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Security in Colombia at the Santos government's halfway point

Two years ago today, Juan Manuel Santos began a four-year term as president of Colombia. At this halfway point, commentators in Colombia’s media portray Santos as struggling. He began his term with polls showing his popularity above 80 percent and most of Congress backing him. Now, he is in the high 40s, and cracks are beginning to show in the coalition.

The main reason for this decline is a perception that Colombia’s security situation is deteriorating. A Datexco poll published last weekend revealed 69.3 percent of Colombian respondents disapproving of the Santos government’s handling of national security. In a country that has suffered through a half century of internal armed conflict and drug-related violence, security continues to be the main yardstick for evaluating governments. Santos’s predecessor, Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), consistently maintained an approval rating above 60 percent in the same polls because his government, especially between 2002 and 2008, struck important blows against leftist guerrillas and reduced most measures of violent crime. Much of this owed to a major military buildup and to his government’s negotiations with pro-government paramilitary leaders.

Uribe on the attack

The perception of declining security owes both to a series of guerrilla attacks and to the words of ex-President Uribe himself. Uribe has become one of the fiercest critics of his former ally, who served for three years in his government as defense minister. On his Twitter account, in public speeches, and in media appearances, Uribe has been relentlessly attacking Santos for a perceived slacking off on security. One month ago, in a high-profile speech [PDF] at Bogotá’s exclusive El Nogal social club (bombed by the FARC in 2003), Uribe issued a warning with an implicit message to the armed forces.

“The deterioration of security, the widening breach between the government’s word and the actions Colombians are suffering, make the Executive lose credibility, and risk that, in the medium term, the armed forces’ collective trust and fondness could be disfigured.”

As The Economist noted back in April, “Mr. Santos’s predecessor has become his most powerful opponent. And that could turn into a problem.”

Is security worsening?

Uribe attacks most vociferously on the security issue. But is security really getting worse in Colombia? The country’s most-cited security experts hold conflicting views, but taken together the consensus is that, yes, the security situation probably is worse than it was when Santos took over. The consensus also holds, however, that Santos is not entirely to blame.

There are three principal views of the security situation today.

President Santos and his supporters contend that, despite some setbacks, the overall security picture is not as bad as the media makes it appear. Indeed, as an overview of official data by the investigative website La Silla Vacía indicates, some important measures are going in the right direction: homicides are down 8 percent in the past year, kidnappings are down by 16 percent, there are fewer incursions into towns, and more members of illegal armed groups are being captured. On the other hand, the same statistics show a sharp rise in sabotage of infrastructure, ambushes and attacks, illegal roadblocks, and killings of police. (Crimes that all sides commit against citizens in rural areas, where there is little judicial, media or NGO presence, tend to go unreported.) Whether coca production is increasing depends on which source one consults: estimates published by the UN and the U.S. government diverge.

Supporters of the present government’s security strategy acknowledge the increase in attacks by Colombia’s decades-old guerrilla groups, especially the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. Put in perspective, though, they argue that the attacks’ severity is reduced and the FARC’s chances of recovering their pre-2002 strength is virtually zero. Much of the increase, they add, owes not to audacious guerrilla blows but to small-scale actions like land-mine detonations and sniper attacks. Bogotá’s Ideas for Peace Foundation think-tank, which laid out this view in a September 2011 report [PDF], calls much of the concern about FARC activity “false alarms.”

The government contends that guerrilla actions’ greater frequency — and headline-grabbing nature — is the result of desperation. The Santos government has maintained the military’s state of readiness and defense budget, increased the size of the police, and is carrying out a security strategy called “Sword of Honor,” whose aim is to weaken the most powerful guerrilla units in several strategic parts of the country (among them the departments of Cauca and Arauca, two zones that have seen a spike in violence this year). The guerrillas’ attacks, they say, are an effort to distract the joint task forces carrying out “Sword of Honor” operations, seeking to draw them away and thus reduce pressure on FARC units under intense attack.

There is some similarity between this argument and that used by the government of Felipe Calderón in Mexico, who has argued that Mexico’s sharp increase in violence since 2006 was the cartels’ response to the military and police offensive his government carried out against them. When they have acknowledged the rise in violence, both presidents’ message has essentially been, “It will get worse before it gets better.”

President Santos’s critics on the political center-left, meanwhile, say that security is deteriorating on his watch because he inherited a flawed strategy from Uribe. These analysts, perhaps most prominently those at the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris think-tank, note that FARC attacks began increasing after 2008, when Uribe was still president.

Chart from Nuevo Arco Iris shows increase in FARC actions starting after 2008
Chart from the Nuevo Arco Iris database shows FARC attacks' frequency doubling since 2008.

Nuevo Arco Iris says its database shows FARC attacks more than doubling since 2008, with half the growth occurring during the Uribe years. (The organization counts 1,206 more attacks during the first six months of 2012, ahead of the 2011 pace.) To those who dismiss these events as chiefly landmine or sniper attacks, it responds that the guerrilla actions are taking place ever closer to population centers and roads. It also notes that the FARC are operating in “Tactical Command Units,” small groups operating in civilian clothes and thus much less vulnerable to the Colombian military’s airpower superiority.

Critics on the left say that the FARC are carrying out a long-announced “Rebirth Plan,” effectively ending a tactical retreat that began in the early years of Uribe’s government. While the FARC suffered strong blows during those years, these analysts contend that the military’s offensive never reached the guerrillas’ core strength or structures, much less the underlying reasons for the conflict, like social injustice, corruption, and very weak governance in rural Colombia. They add that the government still lacks a strategy for going after the new generation of paramilitary groups active in much of the country, other than periodic captures of quickly replaced kingpins.

They note that the signature strategy for bringing a government presence into long ungoverned areas is struggling. The National Consolidation Plan, spearheaded by then-Defense Minister Santos during the latter Uribe years, has not received the same emphasis or profile in the current government. Progress toward consolidation has been very slow, the Armed Forces are still largely on their own in many of the “Consolidation” zones, and the long-promised arrival of civilian government representatives has not yet happened. On a recent trip to the most prominent zone in the program, Miami Herald reporter Jim Wyss noted, “FARC patrols were spotted twice while government troops were nowhere to be seen.”

For their part, President Santos’s critics on the right, including Álvaro Uribe, think-tanks like Alfredo Rangel’s Center for Security and Democracy, and retired military officers, emphatically agree that security is worsening — but for a very different reason. The military’s hands, they say, are tied by “judicial insecurity.”

They point to several recent convictions of senior military officers for human rights crimes, as well as the thousands of cases currently before Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s office for widespread extrajudicial executions of civilians during the Uribe years. Right-wing critics say that military personnel, paralyzed by fear of running afoul of civilian prosecutors, are avoiding combat and refusing to go on the offensive. They argue that members of the armed forces should be tried in military courts, which historically have a record of guaranteeing near-total impunity for abuses committed against the population.

Critics like Rangel note a sharp drop in the number and frequency of military offensive operations since 2008 [PDF]. They argue that human rights prosecutions have damaged military morale to the point that many units are carrying out a de facto “sitdown strike,” which has allowed the FARC to make inroads in many territories. This, if true, is terrifying because of its implications for President Santos’s ability to command Colombia’s armed forces.

Are these views of security contradictory, or complementary?

All three of these views of security during the Santos administration may be accurate. They don’t necessarily contradict each other.

The Santos government may be right that the big security picture is getting better overall, and that the FARC are feeling pressure. However, the “Sword of Honor” plan does not seem to have anticipated the obvious result that the FARC would respond by attacking on the margins of the focus areas. There does not seem to have been a plan to mitigate the resulting impact on civilians, like the indigenous communities of northern Cauca department who were so tired of being in the crossfire that they removed soldiers from a hilltop post and detained four FARC members in July. If the “Sword of Honor” offensive doesn’t start making Colombians feel safer soon, perceptions of insecurity will continue to drop in the coming months, and assurances that “it will get worse before it gets better” will ring ever more hollow.

The left is right that FARC remain stronger than thought, that vast parts of Colombia remain badly ungoverned and unjust, and that even if “Sword of Honor” took down the FARC today, it might not significantly improve security in areas like Arauca, Cauca, Nariño, or Guaviare where the Colombian government presence has always been tenuous, banditry and drug trafficking are common, and violence rarely gets punished in the legal system.

The right may be correct that the military is unhappy with a more active effort to punish human rights abuse. But ultimately, Colombia’s civilian leaders need to stand up for the law. This doesn’t mean refusing everything the soldiers ask: it makes sense, for instance, to negotiate a 2006 order that now requires civilian Prosecutor’s Office representatives to be present after every combat incident to verify that no abuses took place. But it is urgent that they resist pressure to give carte blanche to an institution many of whose members allegedly killed thousands of innocent people, and cooperated with paramilitaries that killed many thousands more, during the past ten to fifteen years.

Managing expectations

The Santos government’s popularity problems at its midpoint owe to more than security: charges of corruption in the health system, and a badly botched judicial reform in the Congress, have also taken their toll. There is a common thread, though.

In its first two years, this government has raised expectations with promises of security, reduced poverty, social services like health, reduced corruption, and especially assistance to victims of the conflict and the return of massive amounts of stolen land. Two years in, most of these promises remain unmet.

Important laws have been passed and government agencies are slowly being set up to fulfill many of these commitments. As of now, however, a common perception is that the Santos government has a surfeit of technocrats busily designing the perfect plan from within a bubble in Bogotá, with few concrete results.

Ex-president Uribe, whose popularity rating remains above 60 percent, is capitalizing on this perception. He is spending much of his time traveling to, and backing landowners and allied politicians in, regions all over the country beyond Bogotá, with a discourse that sharpens people’s expectations of what the Santos government can reasonably deliver.

There are two years to go until Colombia’s next president is inaugurated, after an election in which Uribe cannot run and the Datexco poll already shows two-thirds unwilling to vote for Santos a second time. We can already discern the mix of security perceptions, popular expectations, vocal opposition on the right, and perhaps even civil-military tension that is likely to mark the second half of Santos’s term.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Podcast: The Week Ahead: August 3, 2012

Adam looks at cocaine in the Andes (again), Venezuela and Mercosur, the State Department's latest terrorism report, and a new House resolution on Ecuador.

Items mentioned in the podcast:

  • The UN coca report is here.
  • The U.S. coca press release is here.
  • The State Department terrorism report is here.
  • The House resolution on Ecuador is here.

Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.


Tuesday, July 31, 2012

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.

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.

UN and U.S. coca and cocaine estimates (if not visible, refresh this page)

US Data: State Department International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports
UN Data: UNODC Crop Monitoring Reports

Monday, July 30, 2012

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.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Podcast: The Week Ahead: Human rights in Peru, pacification in Rio de Janeiro, coca in Colombia, Oswaldo Payá

Adam looks at a troubling human rights decision in Peru, the pacification program in Rio de Janeiro, coca cultivation numbers in Colombia, and the death of Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá.

Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The UNODC on coca-growing in Colombia

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime today released its estimate of how much coca, the plant used to make cocaine, was cultivated in Colombia last year. The report is making headlines in Colombia because, for the first time since 2007, the estimate for 2011 shows an increase in coca-growing — to 64,000 hectares from 62,000 in 2010.

The data would indicate that, twelve years after the beginning of “Plan Colombia,” the country’s rural coca economy has hit a third plateau. This graphic of UNODC coca estimates since 1999 illustrates the point. (Clicking on this or any other image in this post will enlarge it in a new window.)

Bar chart of coca since 1999

The first, and highest, plateau was the period before 2002. In that year, the FARC lost control of a zone in southern Colombia from which government security forces had withdrawn to allow failed peace talks to take place. Much coca had been planted in that zone. By that year, the United States had delivered, and was using, a much larger fleet of aerial herbicide spray planes funded by “Plan Colombia” in 2000.

This pushed coca-growing down to a second plateau in the 2003-2008 period. Near the end of this period, coca growers had begun adjusting to the hercibide fumigation strategy, which was only rarely accompanied by a permanent government presence on the ground. Plots were smaller, more scattered, better hidden and quickly replanted after eradication.

Starting in 2006 and peaking in 2008, the Colombian government responded by massively increasing manual eradication: sending teams of people to coca-growing areas to pull up the crops by hand. The increase in manual eradication — which, while dangerous for the eradicators, kills the plant and requires more government presence on the ground — was accompanied by a sharp drop in herbicide fumigation. This caused coca cultivation to drop to a new plateau starting in 2009.

Despite a further drop from 2009 to 2010, the 2011 results make apparent that momentum toward reduced coca-growing has once again stalled. Colombia continues to have vast ungoverned spaces in which farmers have few choices as profitable as coca, and in which the likelihood of running afoul of an absent government is very small. Also, due to the danger of manual eradication missions — guerrillas routinely lay mines and IEDs in coca fields — and cuts to Colombia’s budget, the Colombian government manually eradicated 64 percent less coca in 2011 than it did in 2008.

Chart of coca and both types of eradication since 1999

The UN data show more than half of Colombia’s 2011 coca grown in three departments (provinces) in the country’s southwest: Nariño, Putumayo and Cauca. U.S. officials interviewed by WOLA in May expressed concern about a doubling of coca-growing in Putumayo between 2010 and 2011. This violent, impoverished department along the Ecuador border is where Plan Colombia’s first eradication offensive began, in 2000.

Officials blamed the increase on an agreement between Colombia and Ecuador that prohibits aerial herbicide fumigation within 10 kilometers of the Ecuadorian border. A very likely explanation for Putumayo’s increase, though, is the late 2008 collapse of DMG, a money-laundering pyramid scheme in which a significant portion of Putumayo’s population had invested. During the heyday of this criminal enterprise, participants in DMG were making so much money that they abandoned coca-growing. Its collapse, which wiped out the assets of many Putumayans, probably underlies much of their return to the coca trade.

So, of course, does the power of illegal armed groups in Putumayo, where the FARC guerrillas and Rastrojos neo-paramilitary group operate under a nonaggression pact and cooperate on the cocaine trade.

The new coca numbers make plain, once again, that mass eradication in an absence of good governance will not yield permanent, satisfying results against coca cultivation or any other illegal activity. If growers are left without basic government services — from food security to physical security — fumigating them or pulling up their plants will only achieve short-term progress in a specific territorial area.

One final note: these are the UNODC’s estimates of coca growing in Colombia, based on a joint project with Colombia’s National Police. The U.S. government, with CIA in the lead, maintains a separate — and very different — set of coca cultivation estimates. The U.S. government figure for 2011 is not yet available, but here is what its view of the 1999-2010 period looks like.

Chart of coca, by USG estimate, since 1999

The story told here shows fewer discernible “plateaus,” and a more constant — and higher — level of coca cultivation in Colombia.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Podcast: The Week Ahead: Indigenous confrontation in Colombia, El Salvador's constitutional crisis, new Southcom commander, CIDH

Adam covers indigenous groups' confrontations with authorities and guerrillas in southwest Colombia, El Salvador's constitutional crisis, and the nomination of the next Southcom commander.

Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.


Friday, July 13, 2012

Podcast: The Week Ahead: Mexico's security strategy, Colombia violence, DEA hostilities in Honduras, Venezuela campaign rhetoric

Adam talks about the new security strategy of Mexico's President-elect; recent violence in southwestern Colombia; DEA involvement in hostilities in Honduras; and U.S. campaign rhetoric on Venezuela.

Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.