Just as the Obama administration is stepping up its anti-narcotics effort in Mexico, there's some good news from Colombia's coca fields.
The United Nations says Colombia's cocaine production in 2008 dropped the most in a decade, down 28 percent. Seizures of cocaine, totaling a staggering 200 tons, were also up 57 percent in Colombia, a sign of how police efforts have improved radically in recent years.
All of this may sound like extraordinary progress. Until you hear that production of cocaine is rising in Peru and Bolivia again — 4 percent and 9 percent, respectively — partially erasing the gains in Colombia.
"While the 2008 drop in Colombia is encouraging, however, it is not as remarkable as it sounds," said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C. He points out that last year the U.N. reported a 27 percent jump in coca cultivation. "We're right back at the levels we saw in 2003-2006. There's been no breakthrough."
Which may explain why, despite Colombia's seeming success, the global market for cocaine has not been seriously disrupted, judging by the drug's relatively steady retail price.
The Bush administration insisted that the street-level price of cocaine, and its purity, were going up — indicating that the supply had been curtailed by eradication efforts. But critics said this was in large part due to traffickers' directing more of their produce to Europe to take advantage of a growing market and the falling value of the dollar.
Recent evidence in the United Kingdom suggests that the price of cocaine is falling there. While drug use among youths has dropped in the United States, it remains steady, at about 7.9 percent, among adults, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
The cartels also keep coming up with ingenious ways of smuggling drugs into the United States. Last week, the Mexican navy reported seizing more than a ton of cocaine hidden inside frozen shark carcasses. Police in Chile also arrested a woman bound for Spain who was carrying suitcases made from — rather than filled with — cocaine.
The success in Colombia is, in part, due to a shift from aerial fumigation of crops to manual eradication on the ground. Ironically, manual eradication had been spurned for many years by U.S. officials, who argued that it was too slow and labor intensive. Instead, they favored aerial crop spraying with herbicides that could be done on a massive scale.
Aerial spraying proved controversial because of allegations that it was imprecise and also damaged legal crops, evidence of which I have witnessed firsthand on recent trips to Colombia.
But last year, Colombian authorities managed to manually eradicate 237,505 acres of coca bush, up 44 percent compared with the previous year, while another 329,875 acres were sprayed.
The area being cultivated went down by about 18 percent, the U.N. found. But because many of the plants were new and had not reached maturity, their leaf yield was less, accounting for the 28 percent estimated drop in cocaine production, from about 600 to 430 tons.
In previous years, most of the coca was grown in south-central and southeastern Colombia. But now cultivation is concentrated along Colombia's Pacific coast. Experts call this the "balloon effect," in which eradication in one area simply creates new pressure elsewhere. It has been going on for years, and no one really seems to have the answer.
The balloon effect appears to explain the worrisome increase in production in Peru, where the situation is complicated by the resurgence of left-wing guerrillas, the Shining Path, in remote rural areas. The presence of Mexican cartels has also been detected in Peru, U.N. officials say.
Obama has inherited the so-called Merida Initiative, designed by the Bush administration to help Mexico defeat the cartels. But critics say focusing on eradication and interdiction abroad has failed, and the money would be more wisely spent on demand reduction and treatment programs at home.
The latest U.N. report would appear to reinforce that argument, yet again.
David Adams can be reached at email@example.com.