WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
21 Sep 2012 | Commentary

Washington in Wonderland: United States Slams Bolivian Drug Control Efforts Lauded by UN

By Kathryn Ledebur and Coletta A. Youngers*

Literary critics cite Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as one of the best examples of the “literary nonsense” genre. The U.S. government’s attempt to cast Bolivia’s recent drug control progress as a setback is a vivid example of Washington’s drug policy nonsense. The White House’s September 14 determination concludes that Bolivia has “failed demonstrably during the previous 12 months to adhere to [its] obligations under international narcotics agreements,” basing their arguments on a misconstrued interpretation of declining coca cultivation and what appear to be wildly exaggerated potential cocaine production projections. The lack of transparency about how U.S. officials calculate cocaine production estimates, combined with the contention that Bolivia is producing more cocaine than Colombia—despite having far less land under coca cultivation than Colombia or Peru—further undermines U.S. credibility and isolates Washington from a region calling for a candid, open debate on drug policy alternatives.

The U.S. government’s failing grade for Bolivia stands in stark contrast to the 2011 Coca Cultivation Survey released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on September 17, 2012. According to the UN, coca cultivation in Bolivia fell to 27,200 hectares [1] in 2011 from 31,000 hectares in 2010—a 12 percent decrease. The report notes that coca cultivation declined in every important coca-growing region in the country, bringing the overall area under cultivation to near the 2005 level. The UN attributes this “significant” decrease to “effective control” through cooperative coca reductions and eradication. The UN also reports a more than 25 percent increase in the number of coca hectares eliminated and a significant 13 percent reduction in overall coca leaf yields, down to 48,100 metric tons in 2011 from 55,500 metric tons in 2010.

Interestingly, the U.S. government reported a 13 percent decrease in coca cultivation in Bolivia. The presidential determination states: “The 2011 U.S. government coca cultivation estimate for Bolivia of 30,000 hectares was slightly lower than the 2010 estimate of 34,500 hectares.” Slightly lower? The U.S. State Department’s March 2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) referred to the 500 hectare reduction from 2009 to 2010 as “slight.” Yet a reduction that is nine times larger receives the same description. Moreover, in a July 2012 interview, the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia’s Chargé d’Affaires, John Creamer, stated that there had been an “impressive net reduction in the number of hectares of coca in 2010 and 2011.”[2]

The determination’s obviously false assertions include: “The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated 31,100 hectares of cultivation for 2011, a slight increase over its 2010 estimate of 30,900 hectares.” Yet three days later, UN estimates flatly contradicted the U.S. determination. The false assertion that the UN reported increased cultivation served to help justify the determination’s next statement: “While Bolivia has not yet reversed the increases in net coca cultivation of the past several years, it appears that production has stabilized.” In fact, U.S. estimates themselves show a net reduction for two consecutive years. That combined with a 13 percent decrease from one year to the next can hardly be characterized as “stabilized.”

Further undermining U.S. credibility, the presidential determination asserts that “Bolivia remains one of the world’s largest producers of coca leaf for coca in the world and other illegal drug products.” In fact, of the three countries with measurable levels of coca growing, Bolivia is the smallest producer of coca leaf used to manufacture cocaine. According to the U.S. government’s own estimates, Bolivia had 30,000 hectares of coca. Bolivian law destines 12,000 hectares for traditional and legal uses, leaving 18,000 hectares for the illicit market.[3] In contrast, with 83,000 hectares in 2011, Colombia provides more than four times as much coca to the illegal market. Although the other coca-producing country, Peru, also has significant traditional consumption, its coca crop is also almost twice as big as Bolivia’s.[4] The other “illegal drug products” Washington refers to remain a mystery.

As a result of an effective coca crop monitoring strategy—one that benefits from cooperation from coca farmers—the U.S. and UN estimates of coca cultivation in Bolivia converge, in contrast to the estimates for the other countries. Given the efficient monitoring systems in place in Bolivia, it is hard to manipulate the estimates for land area under coca cultivation. But that is not the case for estimates of potential cocaine production. Although Washington has long put forward coca eradication as the primary indicator of “success” in Bolivia’s drug control efforts, not long ago the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) began to put forward the idea that “the important measure is not cultivation. It is production potential—the amount of cocaine that can be produced from the cultivation of coca that is the important measure.”  

Even as the land under coca cultivation has fallen, the U.S. government announced a stunning increase in Bolivia’s potential cocaine production, rising from an estimated 195 metric tons, which held steady from 2008 to 2010, to 265 metric tons. (The UNODC did not provide any data on potential cocaine production in its most recent report on Bolivia.) In other words, even with the U.S.-estimated 13 percent reduction in coca hectares and the 13 percent decline coca leaf yield reported by the UN, the U.S. government asserts that potential cocaine production increased by 36 percent. WOLA Senior Associate Adam Isacson calculated that 265 metric tons from 30,000 hectares of coca is an astonishing 8.83 kilograms of cocaine per hectare of coca, in stark contrast to Colombia where U.S. data shows 2.70 kilograms per hectare. In other words, they claim the Bolivian coca leaf is yielding three times more cocaine than Colombian coca leaf. (Given that a sizable proportion of Bolivia’s coca yield is produced for traditional, legal purposes, the coca-to-cocaine conversion ratio implied by the U.S figures is even higher.[5]) The U.S. claims that the amount of cocaine produced in Colombia fell between 2010 and 2011 by 25 percent, from 270 to 195 metric tons. By contrast, the UN calculated Colombia’s potential cocaine production at a whopping 345 metric tons for 2011, using U.S. government data for the conversion from paste to cocaine.[6]

U.S. officials claim that the increase in potential cocaine production in Bolivia is due to more efficient processing methods (ironically, the same methods used in Colombia) and the growing maturity of existing fields, which contribute to higher yields. Even if that is the case, it would hardly account for such a dramatic increase. Moreover, just six months ago, the U.S. government claimed that they have been unable to carry out yield studies in Bolivia, previously conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which was expelled from the country in November 2008.[7] Most disturbingly, the U.S. government provides no information whatsoever about how they derive these statistics, giving credence to allegations that the numbers are simply concocted to serve political purposes.

Despite Washington’s sharp condemnation of Bolivia in its 2012 determination, counter-drug cooperation continues between the two countries. In fact, since the 2011 determination, the U.S. and Bolivia have signed a bilateral framework agreement and a trilateral Memorandum of Understanding with Brazil. Indeed, as noted on the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia’s web page, “President Obama said during the Summit of the Americas that the U.S.-Bolivia-Brazil agreement for tracking coca cultivation in Bolivia is the kind of regional cooperation we need.” 

The Obama administration’s decision, in an election year, to once again denounce Bolivia as a poor partner in drug control—despite the clear evidence to the contrary—may not come as a surprise. The drug “certification” process has long been decried and derided in Latin America as a heavily politicized exercise whereby the United States unilaterally asserts its authority to cast judgment. The blatant disregard for the facts that permeate this latest determination on Bolivia can only deepen sentiment in the region that Washington drug policy officials are disconnected from reality and spinning their own Adventures in Wonderland.

AIN and WOLA will be conducting a fact-finding mission to the Bolivian Chapare next week and will produce a more detailed report on this topic.

*Kathryn Ledebur is Director of the Andean Information Network and Coletta A. Youngers is a Senior Fellow at WOLA

[1]A hectare is roughly 2.5 acres.

[3]The Bolivian government has adopted a ceiling of 20,000 hectares for legal coca production.

[4]According to US statistics, Peru had 53,000 hectares of coca in 2010. No U.S. estimates have been published for Peruvian coca cultivation in 2011.

[5]The USG estimates for coca leaf, cocaine, marijuana, opium, and heroin production are potential estimates; that is, it is assumed that all of the coca, marijuana, and poppy grown is harvested and processed into illicit drugs. This may be a reasonable assumption for estimating potential production Colombia. In Bolivia and Peru, however, the USG potential cocaine production estimates are overestimated to some unknown extent since significant amounts of coca leaf are locally chewed and used in products such as coca tea. International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, “Methodology for USG Estimates of Illegal Drug Production,” 7 March 2012.