SEMANA, July 11, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

SEMANA has obtained testimony and evidence from government officials and contractors that demonstrate that the forced manual eradication statistics are exaggerated by as much as 30 percent. How did we get to this situation?

After six years, the government celebrated a break in the tendency of illegal plantings in the country to increase every year. In 2018 there were 169,000 hectares planted in coca, while in 2019 there were 154,000, according to the United Nations report published three weeks ago.

President Iván Duque took the news as a pat on the back for his Ruta Futuro (Path to the Future) policy, his banking on a war on drugs, “that will go from the start with substitution, to eradication, development of alternatives, and payment for environmental services until the logistical chain is broken, as well as the chain of money laundering, and the chain of crime, all confronting drug trafficking,” he said. The President emphasized the completeness of the effort, but the main part of the work of diminishing the plantings has been concentrated on forced eradication, more than on voluntary substitution managed by the local communities.

This was even stressed by Colombia’s representative in the United Nations Office Against Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Pierre Lapaque, at the delivery of the report. The diplomat stated that forced eradication “had been prevalent, especially in the Province of Nariño, which has ceased to be the highest producer of coca in the country.” Last year the government eradicated 94,600 hectares by force, which was well ahead of its goal of 80,000. This year, facing the pandemic, it had mapped out an objective of removing 130,000 hectares, an ambitious goal, motivated by the quotas requested by the United States, the major financier of the war on drugs. However, there is a shadow over this report of hectares eradicated every year by the Police and the Armed Forces.

SEMANA talked with eight sources who are very familiar with eradication work, and who have actually taken part in it, from their high positions in the Ministry of Justice, the Army, and the United Nations. We also spoke with eradicators that have worked in the largest coca-growing areas of the country, and with Police officers who have investigated it. They all agree that the forced eradication statistics are exaggerated and that alteration of the reports has been going on for at least ten years.

One eradicator, a contractor for the Anti-Narcotics Police who has worked in Tumaco, Bajo Cauca in Antioquia, Putumayo, Cauca, and Vichada, told SEMANA thatonly half of the report sounds real. He says that the other half comes from alterations to the information, such as the coordinates, the size of the plantings, and the photos of the patches. On the other hand, an expert—who did not want to give his name—who worked in measuring the plantings and who has investigated all of the links in the drug trafficking chain, says that the false reporting, year after year, is more like 30% and tends to increase in the last months of the year.

The Minister of Defense, consulted by SEMANA, insisted that “we have not detected any allegations of false reports in relation to the eradication in 2019. In any case, if we do detect any allegations of false reports, what needs to happen is referring it to disciplinary authorities to do the necessary investigations.”  There was no reference to previous reports.

Forced eradication is carried out in three different ways: it’s done by protected civilians, by the Armed Forces, or by the Police and the soldiers working “every man for himself”. Each military unit has an annual eradication quota. For this year, for example, the Minister of Defense has set a goal of 65,000 hectares for the Police, and an equal number for the Army. “If the Minister says that this year we have to eradicate 50,000, however we do that, we have to eradicate 50,000. That’s the mistake, in however we do that. We had the perception that the measurement was not exact, that if there was a quota, well, that’s what we would report,” said a high official who was in charge of the Army’s programs to eliminate the illegal crops.

The eradicator told SEMANA what had happened in one of the most recent phases of the work that he took part in, in Villagarzón (Putumayo Province), in the middle of last year. His story reflects how the pressure to reach the quotas reaches even the troops that are doing the eradication. “The community was really angry about the eradication, so a Lieutenant (of the Police) went to talk to the people. They agreed that, for every hectare, 25 percent would be “socked” (cut the plant off at the base of the stem) and campesinos did the work themselves. Another 25 percent was pulled out and that was for the photo, to say that they had eradicated 100 hectares. And they didn’t touch the other 50 per cent. They left it standing. They even let me do the measuring of what supposedly had been eradicated.”

The expert explains that the troops had their quotas that they had to meet, but, when they got out to the countryside, they met another reality: the hostility of the armed groups, the resistance by the communities that live by the coca (They complain of confrontations between the campesinos and the Army in the coca-growing areas.) the climate, and the land mines. However, the units have to report every day on the quotas that their superiors have imposed, even in conditions that make it impossible to reach them. If they don’t reach those objectives, there will be punishments and reprimands in their records for the officers and noncoms in charge.

Before he got to Putumayo, the eradicator was in Tumaco, the largest coca-growing area in the country, in December of 2018. At that time, he explained, the quota was to eliminate 300 hectares during the eradication phase. “ So a Major told the eradicators: ‘The group that reports 300 hectares in 35 days will get some leave time to rest up.’” He relates that one group of eradicators reported more than 300 hectares in 35 days, something that was impossible because of the complexity of the work. “In 35 days the absolute most that you could take out would be 100 hectares. In that phase in Tumaco, they reported pastures, and plantings of coca that had been eradicated months ago and were reported all over again. That was a disaster,” he said.

“The Police are the most sophisticated in the system. They tell the coca-growers: ‘You have 100 hectares; we are going to eradicate 50.’ The Army does the same thing, although not as much. And that way the community doesn’t fight us. Then, you declare a zone eradicated when it was only partly eradicated. And the next year, when it appears with coca planting, you say that the community replanted it, and that’s it,” explained the expert. This eradication report matches the findings of the United Nations in their estimates using satellite imagery. According to Simci (the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), only 17 per cent of the areas where forced or voluntary eradication was used remained free of coca at the end of last year.

A high official in the Justice Ministry who has worked on anti-drug policy for two decades, confirmed the report that eradicated hectares do not correspond to reality.

The Minister of Defense told SEMANA that they control the reporting of forced eradication in the following manner: “The Armed Forces units carry out the daily eradication of illicit plantings, and report the amount eradicated by a dispositive GPS. It captures images before and after eradication. This information is transmitted and loaded onto the Simci platform of the Integrated System for Monitoring of Illegal Plantings in the United Nations Office Against Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In the same way, the information on eradication is reported by means of a polygram or radiogram to the units that are operating more or less centrally. They take charge of reviewing and consolidating the figures for every one of the units.”

Changing the records is easy, explains the expert and the also the official at the Ministry; verifying them is very difficult. First, because the reports are confidential, and it’s difficult for anyone that’s not part of the system to get the coordinates for the location of the plantings or the detailed reports of eradication. “They furnish a report that’s aggregated, indivisible, and unverifiable,” states an a analyst who is also an academic. And also because they made up the reports from dangerous areas where only government forces can go. Civilians cannot go there on their own to compare the reported results. “You need a lot training to be able to do those measurements. There are coca-growing areas that are impregnable; that if the technicians were to go there, they could be killed. If the Army comes in and has to leave, the measurers have to leave also,” explains an Army general.

To measure the hectares eradicated they hire topographers that travel along with the troops. They have to send the information about the plantings through the Armed Forces monitoring system. But it’s easy to break into that system, explain the expert and the eradicator, just by sending phony photos and false coordinates for the plantings. “Besides, they report a perimeter eradicated that’s much bigger than the planting really was. The one who measures it has to walk with the GPS around areas where there isn’t any coca,” said a Police officer who has investigated this kind of case.

The United Nations Simci program, they explained to SEMANA, is supposed to corroborate the information that they get from the Armed Forces with data from the satellite images of the plantings. “When we started doing this, we identified problems with the record, and that’s why we undertook the development of the platform in 2018,” they said. With that platform, which still isn’t ready to go, they are hoping “to guarantee an objective and verifiable validation.”

The United Nations also explained that the Armed Forces’ eradication report could influence the results that the international agency annually delivers. In the reports, they take into account the quantity of illegal plantings that exist in the country. According to the most recent report, completed last month, Colombia reduced coca plantings by 15,000 hectares in 2019. “The information validated on the platform is used to adjust for seasonal factors,” explained Simci. That means, if the agency has registered one hectare of coca with its satellites and later the Armed Forces indicate that they eradicated that same hectare after the image was taken, Simci can eliminate it from the report. But they would only do that if it meets their verification standards.

The expert and the eradicator confirmed that at the end of the year they add more false hectares, because then Simci has already finished taking satellite photos. And so the members of the Armed Forces can alter the United Nations report, which has major media and international impact, and is used every year to measure advances in the fight against drug trafficking.

The eradicator indicated another method of fooling the report; a method that has been used in several regions where he has worked. It’s called “movable plantings”. He explains that they dig up coca fields from one place and take them to another scrubland where nothing is growing. Then they replant it, taking photos and reporting the scrubland as an eradicated area. “I say this because I did it in Putumayo last June, and I did it in Tumaco in December of 2018,” he said. He also stated that they turn to this method because the communities won’t let them eradicate, and the pressure to report still continues on the Police unit. “The important thing is that the fields don’t look as if the leaves are upside down because the United Nations satellite photos would show that.”

The high-ranking official at the Ministry said that those altered reports are a way of justifying the high cost of forced eradication. “The economic and human costs are an outrage, and the only way to justify them is to inflate results.” Just in the last year, nine soldiers and one civilian were killed doing eradication work. At least 60 have been injured, the majority by land mines, and many of them suffered amputations. Since 2005, when they started the forced manual eradication program, these campaigns have left more than 1,000 killed, injured, and with amputations. And today there are more coca crops than there were when the program began.

Besides that, just last year the country invested 361 billion pesos (about USD 100 million) in this work. Right now, 10,400 soldiers and 1,883 Police Officers are taking part in the methods of manual eradication, as the Defense Ministry explained to SEMANA. Other military analysts question how security is affected when such a quantity of soldiers is deployed in order to increase the forced eradication statistics. It diminishes manpower readiness for territorial control and the fight against organized crime.

These reports in which they add more hectares than are actually eradicated have been going on for years, all the sources agree. And they have gone unnoticed not just because of the difficulty of verifying them but also because it suits everybody that’s taking part in the eradication program, they add.

The inflated reports are no secret in the military. In fact, the sources told SEMANA that in the United States Embassy there is some concern about the situation.

The challenge of manual eradication has been a daunting task for the country. The high cost, the difficult topography, the opposition by the coca growers, the threats from the criminal organizations, the almost nonexistent presence of the government, not to mention the land mines; all reveal that ridding a country like Colombia of thousands of hectares of coca is a monumental effort.

The combination of these difficulties and the natural demand for results may have led to a situation where lack of control and transparency has generated perverse incentives for the manipulation of statistics.

The fight against drugs and the illegal economies needs accurate statistics, since the eradication of the coca is the point of the lance. Because of that, transparency in reporting has to be guaranteed.

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