New Reports Expose Hidden Failures of US Anti-Drug Policy in Colombia

Costs mount as congressional goals go unmet


Lisa Haugaard, LAWG ( 202-546-7010


Anna Cederstav, Earthjustice and AIDA ( 510-550-6700


Astrid Puentes, AIDA ( 510-550-6700

The Washington-based Latin America Working Group (LAWG), the Inter-American Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), and Earthjustice today released analyses of the Andean Counterdrug Initiative and the recent State Department certification to Congress regarding the aerial drug eradication program in Colombia. The US Department of State usually releases its annual report on Andean cultivation of coca and poppy plants, the base materials for cocaine and heroin respectively, in early March.

In line with recent reports from the United Nations, State Department figures will likely show a significant drop in Colombian coca production during 2003. Together with the State Department’s December 2003 certification, which claims that the eradication program complies with environmental and human health controls imposed by Congress, the agency is expected to assert that this information represents the success of its intensive aerial fumigation program, which was stepped up in 2000 after the passage of the $1.3 billion Plan Colombia.

However, the documents released today reveal some of the unspoken failures and hidden costs of the eradication program:


  1. The LAWG report identifies human and environmental effects of aerial spraying, the increase of coca cultivation in other regions, and the failure of the policy to meet its main stated goal: reducing cocaine availability in the United States.


  2. The AIDA and Earthjustice analysis highlights numerous deficiencies of the State Department report to Congress and reveals an anti-democratic trend in Colombian governance associated with the spraying program.

When viewed in this context, the State Department figures can be seen as largely a public relations effort, not confirmation of an effective counterdrug policy.

"The US aerial spraying policy is spiraling out of control," said Anna Cederstav with AIDA and Earthjustice. "With so much invested in the program, facts that contradict the campaign’s ‘success’ are ignored, at high cost to the Colombian environment and US taxpayers. Now the State Department wants to spray in Colombia’s National Parks — will they ever stop?"

"At best, fumigation has caused a temporary dip in coca cultivation levels in Colombia," said Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group. "But the fact remains that fumigation has failed at its main goal — reducing cocaine availability and use here at home — and has devastated small Colombian farming communities in the process. The entire policy needs to be reconsidered."

Among the documents’ main conclusions:


  • The fumigation policy has failed to make even moderate headway toward achieving its stated goal: reducing the availability of cocaine in the United States. Despite significant outlays — Colombia has received nearly $3 billion from the United States since 2000, much of which is used for the spraying program — reports from the State Department, the Office on National Drug Policy, ONDCP, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicate that the price, availability, and purity of cocaine in the United States have remained virtually unchanged since Plan Colombia was signed into law.


  • Focusing on short-term reductions in coca cultivation in Colombia masks longer-term negative trends: coca cultivation is moving. The United Nations Development Program warned this year that the recent drop in cultivation merely represents the "fundamental lag time… while crops are reestablished throughout the region." From December 2000 to December 2002, almost 630,000 acres of land in Colombia were fumigated. State Department figures from 2002 found a resulting 15 percent decline in Colombian coca cultivation, but also showed a 23 percent jump in Bolivian cultivation and an 8 percent jump in cultivation in Peru. Even within Colombia, spraying has spurred a balloon effect, spreading cultivation to provinces and regions previously free of coca, including Colombia’s highly biodiverse national parks. The State Department has signaled its intent to begin fumigating Colombia’s National Parks later this year.


  • Aerial spraying is an extreme and controversial method of fighting drugs, with significant human costs. Even though fumigation was prohibited in Bolivia and Peru, US anti-drug efforts in the 1990s resulted in a decline in coca production in those countries. In Colombia, an absence of short-term food aid or long-term development aid for low-income farmers and their families has exacerbated hunger and desperation when food crops are fumigated along with drug crops. Over 6,500 farmers filed complaints with the Colombian government’s Ombudsman between late 2001 and October 2002, alleging that they lost their legal crops to spraying; to date, only five have been compensated by the United States. According to a Colombian government survey, an estimated 50,000 people, roughly 15 percent of the population in Putumayo, left the heavily sprayed province in 2002. Without adequate alternative development assistance, many began growing coca elsewhere. Interviews with residents suggest that others have been forced into the ranks of the guerrilla or the paramilitaries, who offer steady pay.


  • There is little basis for the State Department’s certification to Congress that the spraying program "does not pose unreasonable risk of adverse effects to humans or the environment." The eradication spraying does not comply with label conditions for correct use of the herbicide, and there has been no impact assessment that supports the conclusions drawn by the State Department. Rather than complying with the congressional conditions, the Department worked with the government of Colombia to weaken the environmental management plan and environmental requirements for the program.

True Costs of a Failed Policy

The State Department’s reliance on short-term indicators in individual countries to measure the success of its eradication program masks the failure of this costly policy. According to the State Department’s annual reports, coca cultivation in the Andean region has stubbornly hovered at around 200,000 hectares since 1988, despite massive appropriations from the United States. The LAWG report recommends a change in the criteria used to evaluate US anti-drug policy, stating, "we need to assess regional and international, not country, production levels… and focus less on outputs and more on the ultimate desired outcome — decreased drug consumption in the United States." By those standards, US fumigation policy has been a resounding failure, and should be immediately and thoroughly reevaluated.

The AIDA analysis recommends that the US Congress withhold funds for the aerial spraying program in Colombia until the State Department demonstrates full compliance with the US congressional requirements.

"The US Congress should not continue supporting a policy that is both ineffective, and that poses severe risks to vulnerable communities, threatening key environmental ecosystems and the national parks in Colombia, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world," says Astrid Puentes, Legal Director for AIDA.

The LAWG report is available on the web at:

The AIDA and Earthjustice analysis is available on the web at:


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