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

Colombian cocaine production fell by 25 percent from 2010, according to US data. But a UN report says otherwise. Why the discrepancy?

By Miriam WellsContributor / August 2, 2012



Medellín, Colombia

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.

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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.

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