Colombia and Drugs: Rex Tillerson’s ‘Coca Confusion’

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Photo by Colombia National Police via Flickr

“We are at a challenged place with them right now,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said of Colombia at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing earlier this month.

This is a remarkable thing to say about a country that has been the United States’ closest ally in Latin America for nearly 20 years. But it’s probably true, and it’s mostly the U.S. government’s own doing.

Colombia is not the only “challenge.”

Despite a return to hardline drug-war rhetoric, the U.S. has weakened its partnership with other key allies in the war on drugs in the hemisphere. Funding cuts have already depleted the State Department’s team of Latin American experts in the region, and are raising questions about the future of many regional programs aimed at combating drug trafficking into the U.S.

But Colombia should be of particular concern to Washington’s “drug warriors.”

The country came up often during Tillerson’s schedule of congressional hearings during the week of June 12. Latin America’s third most-populous country is at a critical moment. On June 20, a peace process culminated with the full disarmament of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), by far the hemisphere’s largest guerrilla group. Violence right now is near 40-year lows.

On the other hand, new organized-crime groups are popping up, while cultivation of coca, the plant used to make cocaine, is at or near all-time highs.

Instead of the challenges of implementing peace, it was the coca issue that dominated discussion during Tillerson’s congressional appearances. The Secretary told Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) on June 13 that he sees “flaws” in Colombia’s November 2016 peace accord and is urging President Juan Manuel Santos to revive a U.S.-backed program, suspended in 2015, to spray herbicides from aircraft over the remote rural areas where farmers grow coca.

“We have told them, though, we’ve got to get back to the spraying; we’ve got to get back to destroying these fields,” Tillerson said. “(We’ve told them) that they’re in a very bad place now in cocaine supply to the United States, and the president talked to President Santos directly about that.”

Tillerson’s comments struck a nerve in Colombia, and were widely covered in Colombian media. It put on the defensive officials in Santos’ administration, which suspended the spraying program after a 2015 World Health Organization literature review concluded that the chemical used in the aerial spraying—glyphosate—is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

With U.S. support, Colombia had sprayed glyphosate mixtures over 1.7 million hectares (about 4.25 million acres) of territory between 2000 and 2015. The coca-producing nations of Peru and Bolivia do not allow aerial spraying: Government representatives eradicate the crop on the ground.

The aerial fumigation program’s defenders in Colombia argued that the FARC conflict made on-the-ground conditions too unsafe.

After 20 years of spraying, the results were mixed. Especially in the early 2000s, fumigation proved capable of causing short-term drops in coca cultivation. But farmers in abandoned, neglected coca-growing zones found ways to adjust, even as they complained of health effects from the chemicals sprayed from overhead.

With no other economic options in stateless territories, they nimbly replanted, at times moving to new areas. A decade ago, when the spray program was at its height, U.S. analysts concluded that Colombian coca cultivation had recovered to levels last seen before the spraying intensified.

Post-2007 decreases in coca owed more to an increased on-the-ground presence of Colombian government personnel, and to manual eradication.

Tillerson’s call to revive fumigation had a consequence that the program’s backers surely didn’t intend. Top Colombian officials responded with media statements defending the 2015 decision to suspend aerial eradication, characterizing it in strong terms as a failed program.

These included President Santos, Environment Minister Luis Gilberto Murillo, eradication chief Eduardo Diaz and—most damagingly—Vice President Gen. Oscar Naranjo, a longtime former National Police chief who supervised the spraying program near its height.

“Every strategy runs its course,” Gen. Naranjo told El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper.

Later in the week, the situation became more muddled: it appears that Secretary Tillerson misspoke. On June 14, he spoke to a House committee about “being able to secure areas so people could go in and actually spray these fields; because they have to be sprayed largely from the ground, it’s difficult terrain to spray them from the air.”

Having eradicators wear herbicide sprayers on their backs is still unlikely to reduce coca significantly if it is not paired with a government presence providing basic services, like roads and land titles, in coca-growing zones.

Still, in his later remarks, Tillerson was endorsing something that Colombia is already doing. Officials report eradicating over 15,000 hectares, mostly with this on-the-ground spray method, so far in 2017.

An e-mail response from the State Department to the investigative website InsightCrime made Tillerson’s walk-back more explicit: “The Secretary never talked specifically about aerial erad[ication]. He mentioned ‘spraying’ more generally, and of course coca eradication in Colombia has included both aerial spraying as well as land-based spraying (with officers on-the-ground using backpack units).”

The coca confusion, and resulting damage to the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship, points to larger dysfunction in the Trump administration’s foreign policy apparatus.

The State Department has no lack of seasoned officials with years of working on Colombia, who could explain to higher-ups both the history of eradication techniques and the Colombian government’s plan, within the context of the 2016 FARC peace accord, to eradicate coca in a less confrontational manner.

Unfortunately, the State Department is badly depleted right now, with a severe lack of mid-level officials including an assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs. It’s evident that the mid-levels are not transmitting important knowledge to the upper echelons.

With greater communication and less dysfunction, it’s more likely that even the hardline Trump administration would view the current moment as an opportunity more than an emergency.

Instead of scolding and “pressing” Colombia (Secretary Tillerson’s word) to readopt an old solution whose record is mixed at best, or making the bilateral relationship all about cocaine (essentially bringing us back to the 1990s), the U.S. could be doing more to help make the plan laid out in the peace accords a reality.

Adam Isacson

Colombia needs financial and technical help to follow through on its commitments to work with tens of thousands of families in neglected rural areas, getting them to stop growing the crop. As foreseen in the peace accord, Colombia’s government has signed agreements covering about 80,000 families and over 60,000 hectares of coca—but its ability to follow through is uncertain.

For the U.S. to play a useful, forward-looking role, the State Department needs to get its act together, with responsible officials in place and more fluid internal communication so that the Secretary is able to convey a more coherent message to Congress and the Colombian government.

Adam Isacson is Senior Associate for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). He welcomes readers’ comments.

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