September 13, 2007

Colombia shifts its eradication strategy

Last fall I attended a security cooperation conference sponsored by the National Defense University. One of the speakers was a Colombian government official who let it be known the Uribe government was investigating the possibility of shifting its drug eradication strategy from aerial spraying to manual eradication. Had I blog back then, I would have blogged about it as it is a significant development. Since that conference nearly one year ago, it appears that the Uribe government has made up its mind.
Colombia's vice president said Sunday that a U.S.-backed program to fumigate coca fields is failing to stem cocaine trafficking and called for anti-drug efforts to shift away from the practice. Vice President Francisco Santos' comments were Bogota's strongest critique yet of Washington's multibillion-dollar anti-narcotics strategy here, and came on the heels of a Senate vote to slash funding for the Colombian drug war.

"After a five-year frontal attack against drug trafficking, the results aren't the most successful or the ones we hoped for," Santos told a news conference.

Here’s the full article. In the interest of balance, let me address the anti-American slant in the quote above. As its underwriter, the United States does bear significant influence on Colombia’s drug eradication strategy. Without US assistance, it is unlikely that Colombia would have enough resources to both fight the insurgency and the drug trafficking. However, to lay the aerial spraying solely at the door of the US is problematic and intellectually dishonest. While the US has influence and funding, Colombia has veto power. It is their country. The aerial spraying may have been proposed by the US (or not, I really don’t know what the genesis of this is), but the Colombian government has always been an eager and willing participant.

I can speculate as to why aerial spraying was initially chosen as the eradication strategy of choice. First, starting up aerial spraying is cheaper than manual eradication. All you need is a few planes, a small crew, fuel, and herbicide. For manual eradicators you would need very many of them and they each would need to be trained, provided with uniforms and equipment, fed, and housed. The cost for all of this is significantly larger. Second, aerial spraying is more efficient. Whereas it would take a platoon of manual eradicators significant time to clear one field (whatever size) of illicit coca, presumably a couple of plane loads of herbicide could do the job in just a few swoops and the pilot can return to base in time for breakfast. Third, it is less violent than manual eradication since you avoid, to a much larger degree, direct conflict between the eradicators and the coca growers, traffickers, and guerrilla forces (which ever the case may be). Sure, there may be a plane crash or a shoot down here and there, but by and large, it is a significantly less violent form of eradication.

There are some downsides to this strategy, however, and these may have contributed to the decision to stop aerial spraying. First, aerial spraying is susceptible to countering tactics. In this case, coca growers developed an early warning system so that they had time to cover their crops while the plane was in-bound. This neutralized the herbicide as it never reached the coca leaves. Similarly, once the plane left, cultivators would immediately wash out the herbicide with buckets of water thereby limiting its effectiveness. Second, aerial spraying was effective when cultivators planted in open fields on hill sides. But cultivators quickly adapted and began planting inside national forests where the canopy limited somewhat the growth of their crops but also negated the government’s ability to spray. Also, if you really want to be sure a crop is eradicated, there is only way to do it: rip it from the soil, roots and all. In short, as the “enemy” adapted, aerial spraying reached its culmination point. It simply was no longer as effective as when it was first employed.

Coca eradication is a significant challenge. Ask the Bolivians. Given the risks associated with manual eradication, expect to see increased violence in the Colombian countryside and, as well, increased allegations of human rights violations. And also, much slower progress. On the plus side, maybe some of the demobilized paras can now be gainfully employed.

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