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A dry corn field receives some rain from a passing thunder storm near Blair, Neb., Wednesday, Aug. 8. (Nati Harnik/AP)

Effects of US drought trickle down through the Americas

By James BosworthGuest blogger / 08.09.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, bloggingsbyboz.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

With climate change in the United States leading to a major drought this year, the prices of corn and other agricultural commodities are near record highs. The general analysis is that this is bad for food importing countries in the Caribbean and Central America, but good for major commodity exporters like Brazil and Argentina. It should be great times for those exporting countries.
 
That optimistic scenario for the Southern Cone is probably correct, but here's the glass half empty approach. Several weeks ago, truckers were on strike in Brazil, slowing down the transport of corn and soy. This week, port inspectors in Brazil are on strike, which could lead to delays in exports. In Argentina, the government is again talking about raising export tariffs, a move that led to significant protests in 2008 during a previous commodity boom and would likely do so again. And, of course, Paraguay is in recession territory and just had its president tossed out, partially sparked by a land conflict, even as commodity prices were moving higher.

Commodity exports are good for GDP when prices go up, but that doesn't mean everyone benefits. In fact, it could be that the increased income leads to increased demands from all sectors (government, businesses, unions, citizens) for a piece of the pie. Stability depends on the ability for governments and societies to peacefully resolve those tensions

James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in Managua, Nicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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Accused of lying about military past, two Central Americans face extradition

By Mike AllisonGuest blogger / 08.09.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, centralamericanpolitics.blogspot.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Jorge Orantes Sosa is accused of having participated in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre in which the Guatemalan army killed over 200 civilians. Yesterday, a Canadian judge denied an appeal to block his extradition to the United States where he faces perjury charges.

According to court records supplied by the United States for the extradition hearing, Sosa misled American authorities about his military service and participation in the crimes when he applied for U.S. citizenship in California in 2008.

Sosa is accused of being one of several commanding officers of a squad of “Kaibiles,” an elite commando force accused of massacring the villagers of Dos Erres in December 1982.

Former Salvadoran general Inocente Montano is set to appear in a Boston courtroom today related to his lying on immigration papers. He faces the possibility of jail time in the US and, eventually, extradition to Spain for trial once his immigration charges are resolved in the US. He is not wanted in El Salvador. Sosa, on the other hand, is wanted by authorities in Guatemala who are looking to try him for war crimes.

I sincerely hoped that the legal proceedings begun in Spain, Guatemala, and elsewhere in Latin America would force Salvadorans to begin to chip away at the impunity that has reigned since 1993. While there have been important apologies by President Funes for the Salvadoran state's roles in the Romero assassination, Mozote massacre,  and Jesuits murders, it doesn't look like he or the country are prepared to do much more.
  
Perhaps it's possible that Mitt Romney and Bain Capital's alleged ties to Salvadoran death squads will force a reexamination of the US and Salvadoran state's roles in 1980s El Salvador. I'm not sure about this one yet.

Mike Allison is an associate professor in the Political Science Department and a member of the Latin American and Women's Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.  You can follow his Central American Politics blog here.

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Police officers salute during a graduation ceremony at the national police academy in Guatemala City, August 1. (Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters)

Guatemalan police graduates ready to protect and serve ... without guns.

By Hannah StoneInSight Crime / 08.08.12

InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Hannah Stone's research here.

Guatemala does not have enough guns to arm the latest crop of police graduates, pointing to the financial factors holding back the reform and expansion of the force.

Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla said that the authorities were trying to find guns to equip 1,503 new police agents who graduated on August 1. He suggested that they could share guns with off-duty police, and said that there would be enough guns once repairs had been made to some broken ones, reported Siglo 21.

Lopez also said that most of the new officers would be deployed in Guatemala City and in the province of Escuintla, in the south of the country, where crime has been on the rise.

Related: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz!

On the same day, the authorities opened the new Officer Training School, which police reform commissioner Adela Camacho said was “the first step to professionalize the institution,” as Siglo 21 reported.

Colombia police helped the Guatemalan force to design the training school. The course will take a year, and the first group will be 80 existing police officers. Camacho also announced that universities around the country would begin offering a degree in police management.

InSight Crime Analysis

The opening of the new officers school is a success for President Otto Perez, who had promised to set up the facility early in his administration. A recent International Crisis Group report on police reform pointed out that the lack of such a school was one of the things holding back the professionalization of the force, as those promoted to officer often received little extra training. This means the police are short on qualified leadership. Crisis Group recommended the training of more supervising officers as a key part of combating corruption in the force.

However, despite the advance represented by the new school, the fact that a crop of new police agents do not have guns points to the financial constraints facing the authorities in carrying out police reform. Perez has promised to add 10,000 new officers to the police, but they will not be effective without the resources to train and equip them properly.

–  Hannah Stone is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.

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Argentine and Venezuelan oil partnership sets up potential conflicts with Europe

By James BosworthGuest blogger / 08.08.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, bloggingsbyboz.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Presidents [Hugo] Chavez and [Christina] Fernandez de Kirchner signed an agreement for an energy partnership between their two state oil companies. The move sets up two conflicts with Europe.

UK: The two companies have pledged to explore the possibility of deep water drilling off the coast of Argentina, including into waters claimed by the UK via the Falkland/Malvinas islands. Any actual drilling would occur many years in the future, but even the initial planning could upset the UK and increase tensions.

Spain: The more immediate and interesting conflict is against Spain. Repsol, the previous owner of YPF before Argentina's nationalization, has warned Venezuela that partnerships with YPF could create legal and financial problems for PDVSA. Venezuela, meanwhile, has warned Repsol that it may pressure the Spanish company and threaten its operations in Venezuela if it is too tough on Argentina in trying to recoup its lost investments. The dueling threats along with the new PDVSA-YPF agreement make Venezuela a key third party in the Argentina-Repsol dispute.

James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in Managua, Nicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez waves to supporters during a campaign rally in the Antimano neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, Aug. 3. (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

Venezeula: Leftist collectives keep the peace, but raise fears during election year

By Elyssa PachicoInSight Crime / 08.07.12

Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Elyssa Pachico’s work here.

In a particularly tense election year for Venezuela, there are new fears that the militant collectives in Caracas' 23 de Enero barrio are stirring trouble, with no sign the groups will disappear so long as they are the only competent force providing the neighborhood with security.

The barrio of 23 de Enero in Caracas is a bastion of support for President Hugo Chavez, with even a few giant man-shaped Chavez balloons billowing off the rooftops of several buildings to prove it. The leftist barrio is famous for its militancy, including its plaza dedicated to the leaders of Colombian guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which features a statue of independence hero Simon Bolivar as a machete-wielding peasant.

23 de Enero is a stronghold for radical self-defense collectives, who train their recruits in Marxist-Leninist ideology and who are known to patrol the neighborhood late at night toting walkie-talkies and wearing dark bandannas across their faces. One of the largest of these collectives, La Piedrita, gained notoriety earlier this year after several children posing with (allegedly plastic) M-16 rifles were photographed in front of a neighborhood mural depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary carrying guns. The images caused an outcry, and since then Jesus’ assault weapon has been painted over with a large blue book that represents the constitution.

There are thought to be some eight collectives in 23 de Enero, amounting to 2,000 armed volunteers, according to a 2011 International Crisis Group report. Images such as the gun-toting children have arguably bolstered fears that the groups’ radical ideology has taken a new, aggressive turn during this election year. Such concerns were reinforced when the opposition’s presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, tried to campaign in an adjacent, pro-Chavez neighborhood in March, and a gunfight broke out. The opposition blamed the incident on the local collectives. 23 de Enero residents have also reportedly warned the Capriles campaign against entering the neighborhood, the Crisis Group report stated.

RELATED: How much do you know about Venezuela's Hugo Chavez?

Also contributing to the sense that the collectives have become particularly combative this year are various media reports that the groups are behind several outbreaks of violence. In March, the murder of two young men in one section of 23 de Enero reportedly provoked La Piedrita to storm a neighborhood, setting vehicles on fire and firing gunshots. The group later strongly criticized media reports that described the confrontation as a “war” between neighborhood collectives. According to El Universal, La Piedrita blamed the murders on “narco-paramilitaries” who ambushed the two victims. More recently, unnamed local residents claimed the conflict broke out because La Piedrita is trying to assert its control over a rival collective’s territory, El Universal reported.

Conflict between the 23 de Enero collectives is not unheard of. La Piedrita and another prominent group, the Tupamaros, have previously seen brief bursts of open street warfare between 2005 and 2007. But as New York University (NYU) professor Alejandro Velasco points out, much of the conflict between the collectives is because of their ideological differences, not over territory.

“The tensions between the [collectives] are very real, and very lethal,” Mr. Velasco told InSight Crime in an e-mail. Some of the collectives have shunned others for seeking partisan ties with the ruling party, the PSUV, a decision viewed by some as “selling out,” Velasco said.

But while it is unclear whether La Piedrita is again butting heads with another local collective, their assertion that “narco-paramilitaries” were somehow involved with the March killings draws attention to the collective’s fundamental reason for existence. Groups like La Piedrita formed primarily in order to defend residents against state-sponsored violence and local criminals. By citing the threat of outsiders deemed “narco-paramilitaries,” La Piedrita seemed to invoke its original status as a self-defense group.

“There is a void of official, state authority in 23 de Enero that has helped justify the formation of these groups,” said Pedro Rangel, director of a Caracas-based think tank, Incosec, that studies conflict dynamics in the capital. “But legally speaking, that authority to provide security should only be in the hands of the police.”

Currently, the police are nowhere to be seen in 23 de Enero. One police control station is an empty cement building. Another one has been transformed into the colorful headquarters for another collective, the Coordinadora Simon Bolivar. The police were essentially kicked out of the neighborhood in 2005, and are viewed as brutal, corrupt and inefficient.

In the meantime, the collectives essentially act as local vigilantes. Drug dealing and petty theft are acknowledged problems in 23 de Enero, and the groups are known to take action against offenders if they receive complaints from residents. Night patrols are common, and collective members openly carry weapons.

“There is no due process here,” NYU professor Velasco said. “It’s trial by execution.”

The collectives’ role as the local law enforcers has also fed the fears that, should Chavez face an unfavorable outcome in the October 7 elections, these local groups are far too powerful and entrenched to accept a transition in government. But if an opposition government decides to challenge the role of the collectives in 23 de Enero -- one that should be filled by a competent city police force -- by complaining that they exist because they are “propped up by Chavez” would be ignoring reality. It may well be easier to remove weapons from the city’s murals than from the hands of La Piedrita.

  Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Elyssa Pachico’s work here.

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Erick Barrondo of Guatemala reacts as he crosses the finish line of the men's 20-kilometer race walk, at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Saturday, Aug. 4, in London. Erick Barrondo placed second in the competition. In the background is winner Chen Ding of China. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Guatemala wins its first ever Olympic medal

By Mike AllisonGuest blogger / 08.06.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, centralamericanpolitics.blogspot.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

On Saturday, Erick Barrondo won silver in  the 20-kilometer race walk [Yes, race walking is an Olympic sport – Read this.]. Barrondo won the first Olympic medal for Guatemala, a country which has been participating in the Olympic Games since 1952 (must be another accomplishment from Arevalo and Arbenz to add to my class notes). Barrondo is from the Chiyuc aldea in San Cristobal, Verapaz.
 
On Friday, the New York Times ran a piece on why racewalking is so popular in Latin America.
 
Congratulations to Barrondo and to the people of Guatemala!

From the AFP:

Erick Barrondo won Guatemala's first ever medal in Olympic history with silver in the men's 20 kilometres walk on Saturday and hoped his win would inspire youngsters back home to forego violence for sport.

The 21-year-old, who finished behind China's Chen Ding, said that if this brought a reduction in his impoverished country's problems with gang violence it would be another victory. "It is well known that Guatemala has problems with guns and knives," said Barrondo.

"I hope that this medal inspires the kids at home to put down guns and knives and pick up a pair of trainers instead. If they do that, I will be the happiest guy in the world."

Barrondo's achievement prompted a phone call from Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina. "The president congratulated me on the first Olympic medal for the country. He told me that everyone had come out on the streets to celebrate the triumph."

Here's more on Guatemala's newest national hero. 

Mike Allison is an associate professor in the Political Science Department and a member of the Latin American and Women's Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.  You can follow his Central American Politics blog here.

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Brazil: So hot right now

By Rachel GlickhouseGuest blogger / 08.03.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.

Brazilian culture is enjoying growing popularity in the United States, with everything from music to video games, from Neymar to cachaça. In some cases, they aren't positive or accurate visions of Brazilian culture, so it's something of a mixed blessing to see Brazil becoming increasingly visible stateside.

Beginning in May, Max Payne 3 brought gritty visions of São Paulo to gamers in the US and all over the world. While it glorifies the violence often featured in other forms of entertainment about Brazil, it also had a surprising attention to detail, ranging from loads of Portuguese with native speakers to real Brazilian designer furniture in a penthouse scene.

The same month, Macy's began a huge Brazil campaign nationwide, featuring both Brazilian products and designers as well as Brazil-inspired products from international brands. Apex, Brazil's export promotion agency, partnered with Macy's on the project. The flagship store in New York designed parts of the store to "look like" Brazil, including a Rio-style calcadão. Stores sold everything from cashews and Guaraná to Natura hand creams and fitas do Bomfim. Lots of products and clothes featured bright colors with "tropical" themes, and language around the campaign used words like "sensual" and "exotic." Nevertheless, the campaign put Brazil in the spotlight in one of the biggest retail chains in the country, and for the past few months, Brazil-themed Macy's shopping bags were ubiquitous throughout New York.

Indeed, Brazil is especially big in New York this summer. The Brazilian national soccer team played Argentina at the Metlife Stadium in June to a nearly sold-out crowd. In a single week in July, the New York Times featured two separate stories on Brazilian culture: a profile on soccer star Neymar and a feature on cachaça. In July, there was even a Broadway musical about Rio featured at a local festival, as well as a Nelson Rodrigues play for a short run. Everywhere you look, Brazilian keratin and blowout treatments are popping up around the city.

Brazilian music in particular has had a good run this summer. This month, an annual music festival at Lincoln Center dedicated a night to two forró bands, which were also featured in the New York Times. The event brought Brazilians, Brazilophiles, and curious New Yorkers alike to dance to the Northeastern beats. Brasil Summerfest returned for a second year, with a week of Brazilian shows including a big performance by Criolo in Central Park. And Michel Teló is now in the top 10 of the top 25 Latin songs in the US, with "Ai se eu te pego" continuing to spread among all audiences.

Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog Riogringa.com.

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Historic corruption trial begins in Brazil

By James BosworthGuest blogger / 08.03.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, bloggingsbyboz.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Brazil's Supreme Court will begin hearings on one of the biggest criminal trials in the country's recent history. Various money-laundering and corruption charges have been brought against 38 defendants who are accused of using government money to buy political favors. The scandal is called "mensalão" or "big monthly payment" because the governing Workers' Party (PT) was paying monthly bribes to get their agenda passed in the Congress. BBC has a useful Q&A.
 
The trial is unlikely to affect Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is quite popular right now and not linked at all to the corruption scandals. Indirectly, however, the distraction of this trial may slow her efforts to pass other items on her agenda.

Former President Lula da Silva may be hit harder. Though he was never directly tied to this scandal, the corruption did happen on his watch with some of his closest advisers. Lula was a Teflon president, with corruption scandals never sticking to him. However, now out of power, he may find it more difficult to avoid being hit by to some of the problems that occurred. The potential for his running for president in the future may hinge on the information released at this trial.

James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in Managua, Nicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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An accident or a plot? Deaths of Cuban dissidents raises questions.

By Anya Landau FrenchGuest blogger / 08.02.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, thehavananote.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

More than a week after a traffic accident in which Cuban dissidents Oswaldo Paya and fellow Cuban dissident Harold Cepero lost their lives, there’s controversy about what exactly caused the accident. Despite Cuban government reports, and now publicly available comments from the two survivors of the crash that it was nothing more than an accident, Mr. Paya’s family believes someone ran the car off the road. The family has reported that contacts abroad told them that the two Europeans in the car that day, Aron Modig of Sweden and Angel Carromero of Spain, sent text messages indicating they believed they were being followed (and even that one or both texted that a car had run them off the road). 

I wouldn’t be surprised if they were trailed. Mr. Modig and Mr. Carromero entered Cuba on tourist visas and then hooked up with one of the best known dissidents on the island. But was Paya a large enough threat that the Cuban government wanted to kill him?

While he remained a central or at least iconic opposition figure in the minds of international media and activists, Paya had had a lower profile on the island in recent years, after his movement delivered more than 25,000 signatures to the Cuban National Assembly and many of his regional organizers were imprisoned with dozens of others (accused of being backed by the US).  Still, Paya’s family reports that government-backed harassment had stepped up recently, including another car accident several weeks ago, once Paya began to criticize Cardinal Jaime Ortega for not being forceful enough in his dealings with the Cuban government. But, if the Cuban Ministry of Interior really decided to take out Paya, why do it with two Europeans – who survived the crash and could tell the world – in the car with him? 

Modig and Carromero have each made public statements about the crash now, and each has rejected that the crash was anything but an accident. Carromero has assumed responsibility for the crash (and is currently being held in jail), and says he lost control of the car when it hit a pothole. (If you’ve ever seen a Cuban pothole, you realize this is quite plausible.) Carromero had this to say:

“I ask the international community to please focus on getting me out of here and not use a traffic accident, which could have happened to anyone, for political purposes.”

Modig, who answered questions for the press (the director of the International Press Center ran the briefing beside him in this video) says he remembers nothing out of the ordinary, and says it was an accident (though the Cuban Ministry of the Interior reported that he was sleeping when the incident occurred). Modig also elaborated on his objectives and activities – to deliver several thousand euros to Paya and to enlist his daughter in the creation of a new youth-focused dissident group). He apologized for these activities and said that he now understands that they are illegal in Cuba.  We also learn from the video that Modig met with NDI and IRI  (National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, each of which are USAID grantees) contacts in Georgia just before traveling to Cuba, and that Cuba is the only country in which Modig's party has undertaken such activities as delivering funds to dissidents.

Those who believe the conspiracy theory don’t believe either of the foreigners in the case can speak freely about what happened. One exception is Elizardo Sanchez, a former political prisoner and oft-cited tracker of political prisoner cases, who sent contacts to investigate the incident. Mr. Sanchez “ruled out any conspiracy” early on, but notes that only outside of Cuba will the two foreigners’ stories be complete. The skeptics see a neat solution in Carromerro being charged with vehicular manslaughter (and if convicted he would likely be sentenced to one more or years in a Cuban prison) and Modig presumably realizing it’s best to say whatever gets him out of Cuba, or else he could find himself in the same predicament as an American, Alan Gross, currently serving out a 15 year sentence on the island.  Gross made numerous trips to Cuba in 2009 on tourist visas to deliver BGANs and activate several wifi-networks, including a special SIM card (available only to US defense and intelligence agencies) to hide the networks' satellite signals from Cuban authorities. 

Modig has now returned home to Sweden, so perhaps there is more to come on this story. It certainly raises plenty of other questions, starting with the legitimacy of Cuban opposition figures financed from abroad (Paya made a point of rejecting US funds) and the practicable strategies of international human rights and solidarity groups going forward. In the meantime, the Cuban government is offering answers of its own, by releasing new evidence of foreign tampering in Cuban affairs it had apparently held back, and, in the wake of Modig's confession, the Communist Party Daily, Granma, issued a scathing editorial against dissidents: "They are vulgar agents paid, supplied and instructed by the government of the United States and its allies. They betray their country for cash."

Finally, it is interesting that Modig, unlike Gross, was allowed to return home. Some will say it’s because Sweden doesn’t have anything Cuba wants – like the Cuban Five (who are serving in US prisons, and to whose fate Alan Gross's now seems to be tied). And others may say that Gross's crime was more serious. Then again, it may just be that Cuban authorities weren’t anxious to see Europeunite in protest and revisit sanctions against Cuba that were lifted several years ago. Though they weren’t that damaging, they were nonetheless of symbolic importance to Cuba, and their removal was welcomed. Afterall, once Europe lifted its sanctions against Cuba, it made the decades-old US sanctions look that much more isolated and overwhelming. In Cuba, there's only room for one mortal enemy.

– Anya Landau French blogs for The Havana Note, a project of the "US-Cuba Policy Initiative,” directed by Ms. Landau French, at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.

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In historic achievement, Colombian cocaine production plunges...or does it?

By Miriam WellsContributor / 08.02.12

For the first time since 1995, Peru and Bolivia have overtaken Colombia as the world’s leading producers of cocaine, the United States said this week.

Speaking to an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the president of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Gil Kerlikowski, said the latest estimates showed Colombian cocaine production down 25 percent from 2010 and an impressive 72 percent from 2001 – its lowest levels since 1994.

This is a “historic” achievement, said Mr. Kerlikowske. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was quick to laud his country’s “breakthrough.”

Based on the US data, Peru is now the biggest cocaine producer in the region, a reputation it held in the 1980s and 1990s, before Colombia rose to drug producing and trafficking notoriety. This latest role reversal might imply something of a “balloon” effect, where production is quashed in one country, only to have cultivation and production pop up with more force next door.

But the US figures raise some questions, such as why the numbers diverge so wildly from United Nations estimates published last week.

A numbers game?

In its annual report, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime – the only other body that measures cocaine production in the Andes Mountains – said Colombian cocaine production remained stable in 2011 and coca cultivation actually rose that same year, by 3 percent.

The UN estimate for 2011 cocaine production was 345 tons compared to the US estimate of 195 tons – a discrepancy of 77 percent. UN and US cocaine figures have always differed slightly, but have tended to track each other. No longer, it seems.

But beyond Colombia’s potential progress under the US numbers, perhaps even more surprising are Bolivia and Peru’s apparent leaps ahead of their neighbor in how much cocaine they are able to produce from the coca leaf.

The last time coca cultivation was measured by both the UN and the US, in 2010, Colombia and Peru had about the same number of coca fields, whereas Bolivia had less than half. According to the US, Colombian drug producers are now producing less than half the amount of cocaine from their coca leaves than their counterparts in Bolivia and Peru. Though Michael McKinley, the US ambassador to Colombia, told El Tiempo the White House figures have “95 percent” accuracy, the US has declined to make its methodology public.  

This discrepancy between the amount of coca leaf versus the amount of cocaine produced is interesting when taking into account a key factor in previous US calculations: What amounts of coca leaves are grown in Peru and Bolivia for chewing and products like coca tea?

A State Department report earlier this year said it was US government policy to overestimate cocaine production figures for Peru and Bolivia “to some unknown extent," because it was difficult to say with certainty what coca was being funneled towards legal versus illegal markets in those two countries.

It’s true that Bolivia has gotten much better at making more cocaine from less coca in recent years (ironically attributed to the fact it is now using the so-called "Colombian method", a more efficient production process). But some find it hard to believe Bolivia is outpacing Colombia in the production of cocaine when it has half the amount of coca crops, and uses a significant amount of those crops for legal products. It’s “difficult to fathom,” according to the Washington Office on Latin America).

‘You can see the results’ in Colombia

In a statement accompanying Kerlikowske’s speech, the US office pointed to what they believed was behind Colombia’s strides in combating cocaine production: Plan Colombia, which has strengthened the US-Colombia partnership. “These reductions can be traced to a variety of factors that resulted from the strengthened US-Colombia partnership forged through Plan Colombia.”

Since 2000, the US has spent $8 billion on Plan Colombia, a program to combat drugs and leftist insurgents in the Andean nation. It is the largest US foreign aid program outside the Middle East and Afghanistan and has helped bring about major improvements in Colombian security, though has come under criticism for failing to protect human rights.

Fredy Alonso Hurtado, a middle-aged doorman in Medellín – Colombia’s second-largest city and once the heart of the country’s cocaine empire – agreed that US investment had made a major difference. “Even in my barrio [neighborhood], you can see the results of Plan Colombia,” he says. “There are new roads, a school, a recreation center – these things help steer people away from drug trafficking.”

According to Mr. Hurtado, Colombia produced less cocaine than Bolivia even though it grows more coca because since the beginning of Plan Colombia, measures countering cocaine production and transportation have been much stricter “at every level.”

The UN doesn’t seem agree to with the US on that front either, estimating that cocaine yield from coca is around the same level for all three countries.

"While we don't challenge the UN estimates, we believe that our estimates are informed by more sophisticated technology and a different methodology," said the US office.

As the US refrains from explaining its methodology, it is leaving itself “wide open to charges that its estimates are politicized,” says the Washington Office on Latin America's Adam Isacson.

Plan Colombia hasn’t just helped reduce narcotrafficking – it has also strongly advanced American business interests. Colombia is the US’s poster child in the region, and it is strongly in American interests to hail the success of Plan Colombia, so the logic goes.

Bolivia, on the other hand, has consistently put itself at odds with US foreign policy, especially regarding counter-narcotics. Its leftist president Evo Morales, a former coca growers union leader, has fought for the rights of farmers, going so far as to kick out the US Drugs Enforcement Agency in 2008 and refusing to let it back in since. [See the Monitor’s latest cover story on Latin America reinventing the war on drugs]

The US also has an interest in encouraging Peru to toe the line. President Ollanta Humales, elected on a populist left-wing platform, has shifted more toward a pro-business conservative stance a year on as president.

“When your numbers so plainly appear to favor an ally over an adversary with roughly half as much coca, it's incumbent upon the US to be more transparent about how it derives its estimates,” says Mr. Isacson.

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