by Michael Martelle. Michael is a masters student studying Security Policy at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets members of a special forces team during a counter-narcotics tour in Bogota, Colombia, on August 12, 2013.
International trends in the trade of coca and cocaine have generally been determined by shifts in demand and supply-side pressures. Supply-side pressure usually takes the form of governmental eradication and interdiction efforts which contribute to the “balloon effect”, the phenomena in which increased pressure in one location leads to increased illicit activity somewhere else. In this manner, localized pressure is more likely to force a move in illicit production rather than trigger a wider decrease. This pattern was illustrated particularly clearly when the “air bridge” between coca fields in Peru and processing facilities in Colombia was the subject of increased aerial interdiction. Coca cultivation shifted from Peru to Colombia for the duration of the interdiction campaign (United Nations and Office on Drugs and Crime, “World Drug Report 2016“, 2016, p. 35).
Colombian interdiction has been particularly effective, and between 2009 and 2014 was responsible for 56% of South American seizures and over a third of seizures globally. Much of this was made possible by foreign military aid, particularly from the United States as a part of Plan Colombia. With this assistance, Colombia was able to develop strong air and sea interdiction capabilities as well as grow and develop the security forces needed to combat insurgent groups as well as undertake an aggressive, though controversial, eradication campaign.
A primary strategy of Colombia’s eradication efforts since the birth of Plan Colombia has been aerial spraying of the chemical glyphosate, though it is also one of the most expensive options available. Economic estimates suggest it costs US$ 240,000 in aerial eradication to prevent growth equal to a kilogram of marketable cocaine. Conservative systematic evaluations conclude that 32 hectares of coca must be sprayed aerially to affect the destruction of 1 hectare. As the total cost of spraying one hectare is US$ 2,400, the cost of spraying 32 hectares and eliminating 1 is over US$ 57,000, while the gate price of a hectare of coca is only US$ 450. In addition to being an inefficient eradicant, glyphosate is linked to environmental and public health concerns and its use contributes to negative sentiment in regions where the Colombian Government struggles to establish political and administrative legitimacy (Daniel Mejía, “Plan Colombia: An Analysis of Effectiveness and Costs“, Brookings Institution, 2015).
Cultural politics over the licit or illicit nature of coca cultivation (it is an indigenously occurring crop in much of the Andes network of mountains) significantly complicate reactions to government eradication efforts. Andean communities have followed the practice of chewing hoja de coca, or mambeo (coca leaves) for centuries, and the Colombian Constitution protects the right of traditional use cultivation for indigenous communities. This right has been called into question, however, when indigenous groups market coca products outside of their geographically-defined reserves. In 2007 then-President Álvaro Uribe drew condemnation for the decision to outlaw all supply of legal coca products beyond reserve borders. The effectiveness and perception of eradication efforts is also limited by the economic realities facing farmers. Once coca crop has been destroyed, farmers face the same choice between coffee and coca and find coca is still the easier way to make a living (Laura Pereira, “Becoming Coca: A Materiality Approach to a Commodity Chain Analysis of Hoja de Coca in Colombia“, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 31, no. 3, November 2010, 384–400).
Because of these political challenges, and to support efforts to bring the conflict with FARC to a peaceful conclusion, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in 2015 shifted the nation’s counter-narcotics strategy to be more holistic and backed away from eradication campaigns (June S. Beittel and Liana W. Rosen, “Colombia’s Changing Approach to Drug Policy“, CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service, 10 March 2017). This was followed by a national increase in cultivation, as advocates of eradication expected. A second contributor to increased cultivation, however, could have been the belief that regions with higher levels of coca cultivation would receive more in the way of post-peace development investment and subsidies.
A Colombian anti-drug policeman stands guard in front of workers while they eradicate coca leaf plantations (Photo: Jose Gomez / Reuters).
Investment and subsidies may be the most effective way to limit illicit cultivation, however. The high cost and limited effectiveness of eradication alone have raised the prospect of combining eradication with investment in a “carrot and stick” approach. While eradication has been found to deter expansion of coca production, it has not proven to be consistently effective in persuading farmers to decrease or convert the amount of land used for coca. Social investment and development has shown a stronger negative correlation with coca crops. Given the significant marginal profit between coffee and coca and the lack of market access in regions with intense coca cultivation even combining eradication with incentives would require a significant investment to change the financial calculus of farmers (50 cents spent in social investment yields only a .09 hectare decrease in cultivation). Economists have suggested that moral costs in fact play a significant role in deterring cultivations, and theorize that awareness campaigns could increase the effectiveness of anti-drug policies (Marcela Ibanez and Peter Martinsson, “Curbing Coca Cultivation in Colombia — A Framed Field Experiment“, Journal of Public Economics 105, September 2013).
Colombia has benefited from decades of American training and assistance in counter-narcotics, counter-terror, and security. This has led to a high level of effectiveness and professionalism when compared to other military and police forces in the region, particularly among Colombian special forces and specialized counter-insurgency/counter-narcotics units. The specific strengths of the Colombian military can be deduced from international training exercises. Most of these exercises have been in counter-narcotics, humanitarian operations, and naval operations through the annual RIMPAC and UNITAS exercises. Colombia is also a regular participant in the Fuerzas Comandos special operations exercise conducted by United States Southern command, where in 2016 it took first place in an international skills competition. The short length of these exercises, however, leaves unproven Colombia’s ability to project and sustain a presence far from established support (such as former FARC territories) for long periods of time, and recent difficulties in establishing security in former FARC territories suggest it is underdeveloped. Given the overall level of training in Colombia’s military it is likely that if the projection problem could be solved with training it would have been resolved already.
Navy Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command, presents the first place trophy to the Colombia team that won the Fuerzas Comando 2016 competition. Fuerzas Comando is a U.S. Southern Command sponsored multinational special operations skills competition. (Photo: Jose Ruiz, SOUTHCOM Public Affairs).
The Colombian military has the capability to access its rural territories for short operations but not to maintain a permanent or semi-permanent presence to establish state institutions (Carl Meacham, Douglas Farah, and Robert D. Lamb, “Colombia: Peace and Stability in the Post-Conflict Era“, Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 2014). This suggests that the problem is not “how far” but rather “how often” and “with how much” they can transport resources. If improvements to the infrastructure of these regions is not made, the limited roads and airstrips will continue to be insufficient for what the Colombian military needs and rotary wing transportation will continue to be heavily relied upon.
Currently the heaviest transport helicopters in Colombia’s military are 86 Sikorsky UH-60/S-70i Black Hawk and 20 Mi-17 variants (according to the Military Balance 2017), both categorized as medium multi-use aircraft. Reliance on these platforms for maintaining a sustained presence in rural regions coming back under state control would be costly in fuel and maintenance (the UH-60 fleet in particular is aging). Maintaining this fleet under sustained transportation missions in the future will require an increase in maintenance funding beyond the current level, which was only reached with US support under Plan Colombia.
The recent ratification of the peace agreement by Colombia’s legislature now allows the Colombian-American cooperation to continue in the form of Paz Colombia, the successor to Plan Colombia. This package, $4.5 billion over 10 years, is intended to improve counter-narcotics efforts while supporting FARC reintegration, assist in the expansion of state authorities into the rural territories, and assist the judicial system in adjudicating cases that came from the conflict. These funds could help support either rotary aircraft operations or infrastructure development.
The solution to this problem must eventually be sustained without foreign assistance, and infrastructure development is likely the most effective option available to Colombia. Sustaining helicopter transportation indefinitely will continue to be resource intensive, while a substantial infrastructure development project would carry an immediate cost. Once completed it would only incur maintenance costs which would be supported by an improved economy in what are now severely impoverished territories with little to no market access.
Colombian special forces troops charge out of a military helicopter during a crackdown on an illegal gold mine at Puinawai Nature Reserve in May 2015 as part of Operation Anostomus, an offensive against illegal mining launched by the Colombian government in the jungles of the departements of Guainia and Vichada. The areas of illegal mining activities are mostly controlled by armed groups, guerrillas and criminal gangs.
Though Colombia is one of South America’s most dynamic economies, its infrastructure is currently ranked 10th of 12. A significant challenge is Colombia’s difficult geography. Colombia’s population centers (Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín) are all in the mountainous Magdalena River region that lies between the port cities of the coastal plain and the inland expanses of fertile jungles and plains. This adds significant transportation costs to the export of agricultural products, principally coffee, and contributes significantly to economic disparities between urban and rural territories.
While the peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC rebels is an encouraging advance in stabilizing the nation, coca cultivation will likely continue in impoverished regions with a weak security presence. The demobilization of FARC coupled with the inability of Colombia’s military and police to establish a meaningful presence in the remote rural territories will present an opportunity for other leftist insurgencies, paramilitary groups, and dissident FARC members who have not bought in to the peace process. These individuals could choose to continue participating in the coca trade, fomenting continued instability and establishing new criminal and insurgent networks due to grim economic prospects in the rural territories and the opportunities of coca cultivation.
A sizable funding package was announced in 2013, allocating nearly $30 billion for roads (the Fourth Generation, or 4G, Road Infrastructure Program) as part of $70 billion in overall transportation infrastructure development through 2035. This package is intended to improve economic dynamism, improve trade, and increase foreign investment by improving transportation between the Magdalena River region (the mountainous belt that stretches from the Ecuador border in the south to the South Caribbean Sea in the north and contains Colombia’s population centers) and the coastal port cities. There is a clear need for an infrastructure package, as the cost of shipping goods from Bogotá to the Colombian port city of Buenaventura is more expensive than forwarding the same goods to Shanghai. This cost puts an incredible strain on the agriculture industry, as most of Colombia’s land lies inland of the Magdalena River. ￼
4G may have limited impact on the military’s logistical difficulties or the local economies of rural territories, however, unless it is expanded beyond the highway system to include secondary and tertiary roads inland of the Magdalena River. While 4G may do some to decrease the cost of exporting agricultural goods (at least some of the route will include improved highways), its effect on logistical problems in the territories themselves will be limited without improvements to secondary and tertiary roads.
Colombia’s Fourth Generation (4G) road infrastructure program is the largest of its kind in Latin America today. It involves 47 projects spanning 8,000 kilometers of roadway and 3,500 kilometers of four-lane highways as well as expansion of ports and railways, all of which are to be completed by the end of the decade.
An understanding of the economic and political motivations to coca cultivation and coca-related violence is vital to effectively addressing coca cultivation in Colombia. Though a political agreement has been reached with FARC, many of the farmers doing the physical cultivation of coca plants in FARC territory are motivated by economic factors that are currently unaddressed. The agreement with FARC also does little to address the actions of profit-motivated actors such as narco-traffickers, international drug cartels, and Colombian paramilitary organizations, not to mention dissident FARC members unwilling to reintegrate into mainstream society. The demobilization of FARC will leave Colombian security forces to deal with willing cultivators and organizations eager to capitalize on the removal of a chief competitor.
To prevent this from occurring, the Colombian military and police will need to move quickly and effectively to establish security and administrative services in former FARC territory and fill the power vacuum Colombia’s largest guerrilla organization has left behind. Sustaining a presence in rural regions with poor infrastructure has proven to be difficult, however, and will be prohibitively expensive (unless US military aid is continued indefinitely) without significant infrastructure development.
Infrastructure development will also alleviate the economic difficulty in regions of intense coca cultivation. In communities with little to no market access, deterrent strategies such as eradication are of limited effectiveness due to the massive difference in potential profit between coca and legal crops such as coffee. Pairing deterrent measures with a strategy of investment and infrastructure development designed to decrease the transportation and operational costs of farmers and make licit crops economically viable has been shown to be more effective in decreasing coca cultivation than eradication alone.
The war against FARC was in many ways simpler than the post-peace era will be. The Colombian Government was previously able to utilize assertive, decisive, and violent strategies in FARC territory while allowing the guerrilla organization to “own” the economic and societal effects. That era of simplicity has ended, and holistic multi-dimensional strategies must be adopted if Colombia is to wrest control of former FARC territories from hungry competitors and effect a significant decrease in the Colombian coca trade.
Michael Martelle, “Motivations and Effects of Coca Cultivation in Colombia“, offiziere.ch, 10.08.2017.