Dependable crew members and deployed Law Enforcement Detachment Team pose with interdicted drugs during a 2018 Eastern Pacific patrol. (U.S. Coast Guard)

GAO: State Dept. Needs to Review U.S. Approach to Counternarcotics Assistance

Since the launch of Plan Colombia in 1999, the U.S. government has invested over $10 billion in counternarcotics efforts in Colombia. This assistance has supported a range of eradication, interdiction, and alternative development programs. Colombia is the world’s leading producer of cocaine, with production levels more than tripling from 2013 through 2017. Much of the cocaine produced in Colombia is consumed in the United States. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Cocaine Signature Program, over 90 percent of cocaine found in the continental United States is of Colombian origin and cocaine use in the U.S. is concurrent with production increases in Colombia.

The Trump administration has raised questions about Colombia’s commitment to meeting its counternarcotics obligations. As required by law, the Trump administration in September 2017 issued a memorandum documenting the annual presidential determination on countries that are major drug transit or illicit drug producing countries. As in years past, the memorandum identified Colombia as one of these countries. The memorandum also stated that the administration had seriously considered designating Colombia as a country that had demonstrably failed to adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements due to the extraordinary growth of coca cultivation and cocaine production over the past three years. According to the memorandum, the administration ultimately decided not to take this step because of the close partnership between the U.S. government and the Colombian National Police and Armed Forces. However, the memorandum underscored that the administration would keep the designation as an option and expected Colombia to make significant progress in reducing coca cultivation and cocaine production.

As part of the U.S.-Colombia High Level Dialogue in March 2018, the U.S. and Colombian governments pledged to expand counternarcotics cooperation over the next 5 years with the goal of reducing Colombia’s estimated coca cultivation and cocaine production by 50 percent by the end of 2023.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to review U.S. counternarcotics assistance to Colombia. Its December 12 report examines to what extent the U.S. government has assessed the effectiveness of its counternarcotics efforts in Colombia and what is known about the effectiveness of U.S.-supported eradication, interdiction, and alternative development programs in Colombia. GAO reviewed data and documentation from U.S. agencies, performed a literature review of relevant research on counternarcotics efforts in Colombia, conducted fieldwork in Colombia, and interviewed U.S. and Colombian officials.

GAO found that while U.S. agencies that provide counternarcotics assistance to Colombia conduct performance monitoring of their activities, such as by tracking the hectares of coca fields eradicated and the amount of cocaine seized, they have not consistently evaluated the effectiveness of their activities in reducing the cocaine supply.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has evaluated some of its alternative development programs, but GAO says the Department of State (State), which has lead responsibility for U.S. counternarcotics efforts, has not evaluated the effectiveness of its eradication and interdiction activities, as called for by its evaluation policies. Additionally, the report finds State has not conducted a comprehensive review of the U.S. counternarcotics approach, which relies on a combination of eradication, interdiction, and alternative development. Without information about the relative benefits and limitations of these activities, the U.S. government lacks key information to determine the most effective combination of counternarcotics activities.

GAO’s review of U.S. agency performance monitoring data and third-party research offers some information about the relative effectiveness of eradication, interdiction, and alternative development activities. For example, available evidence indicates that U.S.-supported eradication efforts in Colombia may not be an effective long-term approach to reduce the cocaine supply, due in part to coca growers responding to eradication by moving coca crops to national parks and other areas off limits to eradication. Agency data show that U.S.-supported interdiction efforts in Colombia seized hundreds of tons of cocaine and arrested thousands of drug traffickers, yet the net cocaine supply has increased and third-party studies have mixed findings on the long-term effectiveness of interdiction efforts. USAID evaluations indicate that alternative development programs in Colombia have provided legal economic opportunities to some rural populations previously involved in illicit crop production. However, USAID as well as third-party research suggests that alternative development requires significant and sustained investment and some programs have had design and sustainability challenges.

According to DEA officials, measuring the effectiveness of overall U.S.-counternarcotics efforts in Colombia has been particularly challenging in recent years due to historical, transformational events which have taken place in that country. Various U.S. officials acknowledged that the substantial increases in coca cultivation and cocaine production as well as the other significant changes that have occurred in Colombia in recent years, including the end of aerial eradication, the conclusion of the peace agreement with the FARC, and decreases in Colombian and U.S. counternarcotics budgets, necessitate that the U.S. government review its approach to counternarcotics efforts and consider adjustments to reflect these developments.

GAO recommends that State, in consultation with relevant agencies, evaluate the effectiveness of eradication and interdiction in reducing the cocaine supply in Colombia and undertake a comprehensive review of the U.S. counternarcotics approach in Colombia that considers the relative benefits and limitations between eradication, interdiction, and alternative development efforts. State generally concurred with the recommendations but highlighted the importance of a whole-of-government approach to counternarcotics.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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