“Trump´s warning is a huge diagnostic error”

Two members of the police force among coca paste

Should aerial fumigations with glyphosate be resumed due to the increase in the number of coca plantations? Analysis by Hernando Zuleta, director of the Security and Drugs Research Center (Cesed).

Should aerial fumigations with glyphosate be resumed due to the increase in the number of coca plantations?
Hernando Zuleta
Security and Drugs Research Center (Cesed)
Faculty of Economics


The simple answer is no. Trump´s warning is a huge diagnostic error. If the drug-trafficking problem is essentially due to cocaine consumption, then the real issue is the amount of cocaine that goes on the international market. Therefore, the number of coca plantations is not a good measurement indicator as, to know how much cocaine is on the market, the seizures of coca leaf –cocaine paste and cocaine hydrochloride– need to be factored into the situation.

When the seizures are taken into consideration, there is actually no significant increase in the amount of cocaine on the international market. The emphasis on the antidrug policy is what has changed rather than the success of the policy. The Colombian government is, in part, responsible for this diagnostic error as it continues to measure the area of illegal plantations. This is despite the fact that ever since 2006 the model used to fight against drug-trafficking has changed.

Spraying with glyphosate is inefficient as the cost of eradicating a hectare by aerial spraying is higher than the market price of the coca leaf that is grown in this area. This means that it would be cheaper for the government to buy the coca leaves and then destroy them than it would be to rely on aerial spraying. Also, this type of eradication puts the health of communities neighboring the sprayed areas at risk. Spraying an area only leads to the coca farmers moving to a different area to continue growing.

Spraying a coca plantation does not mean that the number of plantations in the country will decrease. The discussion has focused on the negative aspects of glyphosate in terms of health or if the government really has the desire to eradicate the plantations, but no emphasis has been put on the facts regarding spraying and how ineffective it is in terms of its main objective: reducing the number of plantations. This lack of information does not allow any advance in the discussion of how to combat illegal plantations.

Meanwhile, Luis Carlos Villegas –the Minister of Defense– suggests the hypothesis that the FARC encouraged the area of coca plantations to be increased during the peace negotiations. There are indeed arguments that explain how this is one of the reasons for the increase as, during the peace agreements, important benefits were promised to growers who replaced coca plantations with another crop as part of the peace agreement framework. According to our own calculations, the return from a hectare of land would be better for those who accepted the agreement than for those who used the land to continue growing coca. As such, it is possible that the FARC stimulated the increase in plantations in order to gain more political returns from the replacement programs; however, the information available does not allow us to assert that this is the main determining reason for the increase.

If the FARC played an important role in the increase in the number of illicit plantations during the peace process, you would expect that the coca plantations would drastically increase in the following months. This is due, in part, to the Census of Coca Growers and also the implementation of the replacement programs that are part of the peace agreements. When families begin to plant replacement crops, there should be no incentives for new plantations and the figures should decline.

It is very important to consider punitive measures, which can be understood as seizures and the destruction of infrastructure. These are more significant factors in explaining the increase in the number of coca plantations over previous years rather than spraying with glyphosate. This is because, if there is a reduction in the number of seizures and destruction of drug-trafficking infrastructure, the expected value of the drug business increases as there is less risk of losing the product; thus, the production of coca leaf will also increase. This observation is supported by significant fall in the number of seizures in 2010, which was accompanied by a rise in the number of coca plantations reported by the Integrated Illicit Crops Monitoring System (SIMCI for its acronym in Spanish).

Colombia has made a huge effort over recent years to impose punitive measures on drug-trafficking. The Colombian Navy is currently working together with the Panamanian and Mexican navies as well as those of neighboring countries to try to improve the implementation of maritime punitive measures. However, the United States has not been influential in terms of cooperation despite the technology it has at its disposal to help implement a process of more efficient punitive measures. While Colombia and other Latin American countries’ effort can be seen in the data on punitive measures, taking into account Foreign Minister María A. Holguín’s warning, the U.S. government needs to be more active on this front.

Furthermore, there are the illegal plantation replacement programs, which are progressing very slowly and depend on the diversity that exists in the particular region. These programs will not yield significant short-term results; however, the results that are achieved will be due to the will of the communities as well as how well the program is managed. There are, however, regions that need to be more carefully considered, and the presence of violent armed groups delay positive results in terms of the voluntary replacement of coca. Obtaining clear results in some regions is of vital importance for wide-spread adoption in the rest of the areas in which there are illegal plantations, but no short-term successes should be expected. With this in mind, in 2017, there will be an important reduction in the number of coca plantations, but the number will not be as big as the government hopes.


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