The US VS the UN: who should we believe?

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is the main source for 'official' figures on the use, production and trafficking of illegal drugs. On July 25th it released a report detailing the growing of the coca plant in Colombia, one of the major contributors to the world's cocaine supply.

The main point of interest was that:


  • the area cultivated with coca in Colombia increased over last year, from 62,000 to 64,000 hectares (1 hectare = 2 ½ acres).


This statistic is important because for the first time in five years, coca cultivation (the amount of coca plant being grown) has not decreased, but gone up. This is despite continued efforts by the Colombian and US governments to eradicate fields of the plant, either by spraying them with herbicides from the air (over 100,000 hectares), or by physically uprooting them (34,000 hectares). It seems obvious that their methods are not working.


Another source for figures on drug production is the US government itself. They typically release annual information on how their efforts of Plan Colombia, a campaign started in 1999, are getting on at helping the Colombian government crack down on left-wing insurgency and drug organizations. A short 5 days after the UNODC's report, The White House released a statement:


Survey Shows Significant [25%: my insertion] Drop in Cocaine Production in Colombia”


You don't have to be a data-analyst or investigative journalist to spot that the testimonies of these two organisations are completely incompatible with each other. The UN says that production of cocaine in Colombia has gone up; the US says that it has gone down. So, who is right; or barring that, who should we believe?


The UNODC details its various methodologies in all of its reports. In this one it used images from satellites that cover a specific area every 16 days; and crews and cameras on board aeroplanes to identify the location and size of fields. The UNODC even highlight some of the failures of its approach, admitting that due to heavy cloud in Colombia it can be difficult for the satellites to acquire a reliable image. Due to this, 15% of the area under inspection does not have any data.


The US government is not so honest. In fact, it doesn't even reveal how it goes about its survey in the first place, let alone its weaknesses. It is a completely oblique organisation in this respect, and one cannot help but be suspicious of its motives to arrogantly publish such a poor report. The US would hate to admit that the billions of dollars it pumps into the eradication of coca is an ineffective, if not completely futile endeavour.


But let's, for a moment, assume that the US government's figures are a reliable indication of the continuing success of Plan Colombia. So, along with the 25% reduction in the amount of cocaine produced over the last year, we can celebrate the thousands of Colombians driven to poverty by the destruction of the only crop that they can sell to provide enough money to feed their families; the hundreds of children becoming diseased and rare animals dying every year due to the virulent herbicides being sprayed over the world's second most biodiverse country; the thousands of civilians being murdered in the cross-fire between police and drug cartels; the increase of deforestation caused by coca growers having to cut down more trees to find farm on unsprayed soil; and the corruption that proliferates through Colombia's government, lining the pockets of politicians that decide to shy away from these problems.


Unfortunately, these 'unintended' side-effects of Plan Colombia are not covered in any US government report. They are, however, exposed in publications from organisations like Count the Costs, who aim to show the true damage that the War on Drugs is doing. Their reports are transparent, meticulously referenced and don't carry any motivation for financial gain. Until the US government releases documents in the same vein, no one is justified in believing their word over the United Nation's: the US's work in Colombia is ineffective and dangerous. It is time to explore alternatives.