Hydras, Balloons, Wasted Money in the Andes

(International Relations and Security Network, 06/07/2005)


Over US$5 billion in the past five years has been appropriated to Andean countries for economic aid and to combat the drug trade. This money has neither increased security in the region nor reduced the demand for cocaine and heroin in the US and Europe as was intended. Politicians in Bogotá and Washington argued in 1999 that attacking the supply of cocaine and heroine in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia would raise street prices in the US and Europe, thereby reducing demand and the drug trade in the Andes. The price of cocaine and heroine has never been lower, nor has its purity ever been higher, according to the US Office of National Drug Policy. Overall demand is not declining, and efforts to resolve this problem through military means have complicated matters significantly. Recent news, expert, and official reports about Andean drug trafficking demonstrate that the drug trade continues to evolve. Current policies that focus on supply-side eradication are centered on fumigation. Alternative development and interdiction efforts are included, but they are limited by resources and poor communication among Andean countries. Together, these three strategies are not enough to stymie South America's most pressing regional security issue.


Changing hands


Colombia's intelligence service (DIJIN) and the Colombian National Police seized 15 tonnes of cocaine on 12 May up river from Tumaco on the Pacific coast in the Nariño department. It was the largest drug seizure in Colombian history. The shipment had been prepared for delivery to Mexico, and due to marking on the packaging, which indicated which groups had contributed to the stockpile prepared for delivery, it was evident that most of the drugs belonged to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). The possibility that the AUC and FARC, who have been ideological enemies for more than a decade, are working together to help Mexicans bring cocaine to North American markets could represent a fundamental shift in the nature of the Colombian drug trade. Mexicans have captured some control over the cocaine trade on Colombian soil. Mexican organized crime has displaced Colombian organized crime over the years as Colombian and US authorities have worked to criminal groups in the Andes. With the fall of larger organized crime groups and bosses, dozens of smaller, less powerful groups have filled in the gaps. Both the AUC and FARC have gained some ground in local cocaine production because they have the man power and military might to withstand the offensive military and national police pressure Plan Colombia has allowed Bogotá to bring to the field. The size and logistical capacity to work at several levels of the drug trade - cultivation, processing, transport within Colombia - is beyond the scope of the tiny mini-cartels that have replaced Colombia's large organized crime groups. The Mexicans do not likely care whom they work with, as long as the flow of pure cocaine keeps coming north, according to Colombia's Semana news magazine.


Mexican connections


When Colombian organized crime first began using Mexican connections to smuggle cocaine into the US, they transported packaged, pure cocaine to Mexico, allowed the Mexicans to smuggle it into the US, and then made their street sales through wholesale distribution channels. At that time, Mexican elements retained, either in drugs or cash, some 20 per cent of overall earnings for each load. If the Mexicans wanted to buy a kilo directly from Colombians, it cost them around us$18,000, according to Semana. Since the reduction of Colombian organized crime elements, the Mexicans have come down to Colombia to buy cocaine directly from the AUC or the FARC, taking over the job usually retained by members of Colombian organized crime, according to Semana. Within the current scenario, a kilo of cocaine bought from the AUC or FARC costs the Mexicans some US$2,000 in Colombia. Transporting the cocaine north may cost up to another US$3,000, bringing the overall cost to US$5,000. Semana reports that a kilo of cocaine now costs the Mexicans US$5,000, whereas before it cost some US$18,000. Additional earning of some US$13,000 per kilo is incentive enough to make the trip south to Colombia. This evolution, in part, explains why prices on the street have not increased, despite years of supply-side fumigation efforts in the Andes.


The consequences of plan Colombia


A shift from Colombian to Mexican supremacy in the cocaine trade is an excellent example of the so-called hydra-effect and an unforeseen consequence of Plan Colombia. Named after the mythological dragon that regenerated a head every time one was chopped off, for over a decade, this hydra-effect has played out in Colombia. But what used to be a Colombian dragon now regenerates Mexican heads. Meanwhile, new reports in June show that after years of intense fumigation in Colombia there has been only a 16 per cent drop in overall hectares of coca. The UN concluded that for every hectare of cocaine eradicated in 2004, 22.8 hectares of other crops were sprayed. This is due largely to the displacement of coca crops and poor techniques used to fumigate, such as flying too high and too fast as pilots are afraid of being shot down by FARC rebels. According to Alberto Rueda, a former Colombian drug policy advisor, conservative estimates dictate that it costs US$626.00 to fumigate one hectare of coca. If UN figures are accurate, then it cost some US$14,273 to reduce coca-growing by one hectare in 2004. Clearly replanting has complicated fumigation efforts. After fumigating some 136,555 hectares of coca in 2004, at a cost of US$85 million, the US Department of State did not report any drop in coca cultivation in that year. When spraying is added together with maintenance costs for the planes and helicopters, and operating time for the counter-narcotics brigade's ground-security operations, this US$85 million figure increases to nearly US$200 million.


The balloon effect


A second unforeseen consequence of Plan Colombia is the balloon effect. When squeezed on one side, a balloon will compensate by expanding on the opposite side. In a similar manner, coca plantations eradicated in Colombia popped up in Peru and Bolivia. According to the UN, the insignificant drop in Colombian coca production in 2004 was further offset by a 17 per cent increase in Bolivia and a 14 per cent increase in Peru. In a report released on 7 June, Peruvian National Police officials disclosed that 4,938 acres of opium poppies were currently being cultivated by drug traffickers and indigenous tribes there. They added that the crops were expected to expand because they were grown at altitudes of 15,000 feet or higher, and government authorities lacked the resources to destroy such high plantations. The Colombian government estimates that 17,284 acres of poppies are currently cultivated in Colombia. If this is accurate, then poppy growth in Peru represents over 25 per cent of poppy growth in Colombia. The Peruvian poppy market is quickly expanding due to economics of the market. A 12-kilogram sack of coca leaves in the Peruvian highlands earns US$50, while one kilo of opium tar is worth US$1,000. Such prices and ineffective eradication spell a future for poppy growth in Peruvian highlands. These UN figures contrast with comments made by Plan Colombia supporter and funds appropriator, US House of Representatives International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Illinois). In a recent memo to his committee in May, Representative Hyde stated: "We have not seen this balloon effect on coca, as there has not been substantial replanting of coca in Peru, Bolivia, or elsewhere."


Business as usual


For fiscal year 2006, the administration of US President George Bush requested over US$7o0 million in continued funding for Plan Colombia. This money is destined to support fumigation and Colombian military and police initiatives. Soon after this request, the CIA reported that Colombia's total coca crop numbered over 281,000 acres, only 7 per cent less than the total crop in 1999, despite millions spent in fumigation. In five years of fumigation, there has been a net of only a 7 per cent reduction in Colombia coca crops. Yet this strategy is still the central pillar of the Colombian government's chosen method of combating local drug production. It is clear that fumigation does not work. Coca crops in Colombia proliferate quicker than Bogotá can eradicate them. Displacement of both coca and poppy in other Andean countries creates a regional problem too great for an individual government to handle. Additionally, the current strategy to use force to dismantle drug organizations has left room for the AUC, FARC, and Mexican organized crime to take more control over the Colombian drug trade.


Where is the alternative development?


Poor peasants with little options for economic opportunity are at the core of the cultivation cycles that provide the raw material, coca paste, and opium tar that feed this cycle of instability and the ill-planned policy used to address it. Proponents of the current strategy, in both Bogotá and Washington, argue that alternative development, in conjunction with aggressive interdiction and fumigation, is the key to unraveling this conundrum. They argue that the two go "hand-in-hand". But this carrot-and-stick approach is all enforcement and little reward. According to UN figures, investment in alternative development falls short of matching investments in spraying in most Colombian departments. In the Nariño department, where the DIJIN seized 15 tonnes of cocaine in June, 100,837 hectares were sprayed between 1999 and 2004, costing over US$63 million. It has seen US$11 million in alternative development investment over the same amount of time. In Guaviare, 108,626 hectares were sprayed between 1999 and 2004, a sum of nearly US$68 million. Over the same time, only US$500,000 was appropriated for alternative development efforts there. In Arauca, 17,070 hectares were sprayed at a cost of US$10.7 million. No alternative development money was appropriated for this region.


Realities discount political arguments


These figures, if accurate, show realities from the field that completely discount politically comfortable arguments that promote spraying and alternative development as "hand-in-hand". If this situation is to improve, alternative development efforts must be brought up to match, if not supercede, fumigation and military-based solutions. It is certain that fiscal year 2006 will see more spraying and weak investment in alternative development. Just as certain, the drug trade will continue to proliferate as long as peasants make more money selling illicit crops, and increased purity and low prices drive demand in the US and Europe. Following the current strategy, the Andean drug trade will continue to outpace the prudence of political decision makers who choose to ignore reality in exchange for easy politics and fast solutions to complicated regional challenges.

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