The Biden administration has quietly abandoned a key metric used for decades to measure success in the war on drugs, suspending satellite monitoring of Colombia’s coca crop as cocaine production falls. increase in South America.
A spokesperson for the State Department said the move was “temporary” but did not give a timeframe for resuming data collection or explain why it was suspended in the first place. It is also unclear whether satellite surveys will continue in Peru and Bolivia, two countries that account for about half of coca production in the Andean region.
The move, first reported by Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, sparked outrage from Republicans in Congress from Florida, who had called on the president to revoke the Colombian government’s certification because did not cooperate in US anti-drug efforts. But it follows efforts by leftist Colombian President Gustavo Petro to refocus law enforcement efforts away from the countryside where coca is grown to chase down smugglers and large-scale money launderers. , who derive most of their profits from the drug trade.
“We continuously evaluate the effectiveness of various anti-drug efforts and make changes to our efforts,” a State Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement. when necessary”. The spokesperson spoke on condition of anonymity, citing agency policy. “We continue to work with the Government of Colombia in monitoring illegal coca crops.”
Since at least 1987, the United States government has published annual estimates of coca cultivation in Colombia. The number spiked to an all-time high in 2020, when the US Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that 245.00 hectares of land – an area three times the size of New York City – was planted. Illegal trees are used. to make cocaine. Last year’s report showed that output was mostly flat in 2021 from the same high.
In the first five months of 2023, Petro’s government managed to cut down only 4,511 hectares of coca manually – a drop of nearly 90% from the 33,454 hectares recovered in the same period a year earlier, when Ivan Duque was conservative to law and order. still in power.
While the US has yet to comment on what prompted the policy change, Republicans seized the opportunity to attack Petro, a former left-wing guerrilla, as he sought good relations. with Venezuela’s socialist government and try to reach an agreement with the nation’s last remaining rebel group.
“This is a gift to the Oil and Gas Administration,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and senior member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, said in a statement. statement to the Associated Press. “It’s another example of the Biden Administration giving in to far-left governments in the region.”
Petro pushed back, arguing that the US would be wise to refocus its attention on the fentanyl crisis, which has caused tens of thousands of overdose deaths.
“Things change,” he wrote in a Tweet this week in response to attacks from Representative Maria Elvira Salazar, a Miami Republican who chairs a subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Relations. House of Representatives dealing with Latin America. Without directly addressing questions about the future of US coca-monitoring efforts, he said “the structure of drug consumption is changing for the worse, reducing demand for cocaine, which is starting to start flows to other parts of the planet.”
Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office in Latin America, said satellite monitoring of coca plants provides valuable insights into Colombia’s ability to assert state control. in remote, economically depressed areas, which have long been dominated by illegal armed groups.
But as a tool for estimating cocaine intake, it is less reliable than other measures that have remained largely stable in recent years such as data on cocaine purity, street prices and deaths from overdose. In addition, the United Nations, in conjunction with the Colombian authorities, annually conducts its own survey on coca cultivation combining satellite data with field verification.
However, he suspects politics could also play a role in the US decision to pull the plug.
“If you put too much emphasis on the number of hectares, you are coming to a conflict with the Petro government, which does not want to make drug elimination central to its strategy,” he said. “The US may be calculating that it doesn’t need to pick a fight with its closest military ally in the hemisphere.”
The Biden administration has tried to downplay policy differences with Colombia’s first leftist government on drugs, trade, negotiations with armed rebel groups, and sanctions on the government. socialist state of Venezuela, instead emphasizing more than two decades of close bilateral cooperation.
The diplomatic dance has yielded some positive results. Petro visited the White House in April and spoke with Biden about a “shared agenda” to combat climate change and tackle migration. Days later, the United States said it would establish a processing center in Colombia to handle the growing number of migrants from Venezuela and elsewhere in South America seeking to enter the United States.
“We are going down the same river, the river that leads us to democracy that is bigger and freer than ever before,” Petro said at the White House.
A US State Department spokesman said stopping the cocaine trade remained a “high priority” as it causes violence, crime and death across the hemisphere.
The White House Office of Drug Policy Coordination, which publishes its annual cocaine surveillance report in July, did not respond to a request for comment.
AP writer Juan Francisco Valbuena of Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.