ONDCP Dramatically Downscales Potential Cocaine Production Estimates for Bolivia

On July 9, the US Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) published its estimates of potential cocaine production in the Andes, citing a significant region-wide decrease from 2011 to 2012.  The largest reduction reported occurred in Bolivia: -18%, compared to -5% in Peru and -8% in Colombia.  Yet the ONDCP attributed the regional reduction to the “strengthened U.S.-Colombia partnership forged over the past decade and the increased commitment to counternarcotics cooperation and citizen security from President Ollanta Humala and the Government of Peru” as well as other developments in those two countries.  There was no mention of Bolivia.

Unexplained Change in Figures

Although they failed to provide any explanation, the same ONDCP press release reported Bolivia’s potential cocaine production for 2011 at 190 metric tons—instead of the whopping 265 metric tons for 2011 reported by the same office a year earlier.  The estimates drew harsh criticism from the international community, as well as AIN and the Washington Office on Latin America,[i] for inflating figures for Bolivia and downplaying Colombia’s cocaine production.  This is especially hard to swallow considering Colombia’s coca crop is considerably larger, and both countries employ similar processing methods.

Using the original figure, the decline in cocaine production from 2011-2012 would be -41% —a dramatic change.  In fact, the ONDCP webpage retroactively reduced the previous five years of potential cocaine production figures from those published on the same page in September 2012.[ii]

This is even more confusing, because just three months earlier, the same office stated in the National Drug Control Strategy that cocaine production had increased in Bolivia in 2012:

“The [Drug Enforcement Agency] DEA also conducted a study of how the changes in the production of cocaine HCl in Bolivia increased the purity and, therefore, the production potential for cocaine in Bolivia.” p. 65.

  • The ONDCP did not respond to AIN’s request for information, and the US embassy said that they were not aware of any DEA study in Bolivia in 2012.  Beyond the contradictory affirmation of increased cocaine production, the announcement provoked friction with the Morales Administration, which expelled the DEA in late 2008 and has not authorized the agency’s re-entry.
  • After US accusations of a dramatic increase in potential cocaine production, the Morales administration agreed to work with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to develop a methodology and process to calculate cocaine production there.  Although this announcement may have contributed to the ONDCP’s decision to revise its inaccurate estimates, reporting on Colombia’s potential production varies dramatically.  For example, the ONDCP estimates it at 190 metric tons (originally reported as 195) in 2011 and 175 metric tons in 2012, versus the UNODC’s calculation of 344 metric tons in 2011 and 309 metric tons in 2012.  The UNODC’s affirmation that they employ US data on the conversion of base to crystalized cocaine and its purity[iii] makes this striking disparity even harder to comprehend.


Unclear Calculations and Methodology

ONDCP tacitly admitted that their 2007-2011 potential cocaine production estimates (coincidently beginning a year after Morales’s inauguration) for Bolivia had been significantly inflated.  This is positive in the sense that it demonstrates the organization’s sensitivity to widespread and well-founded criticism, yet it is unclear how the ONDCP derived either year’s calculation.  US authorities admit that since the DEA’s departure in 2009, the US has no means to calculate the yield of coca bushes nor the efficiency of the alkaloid extraction, both indispensable to calculate potential cocaine production.[iv]  Thus, how the US arrives at its potential cocaine production estimates remains a mystery. 

ONDCP’s new “science-based drug policy” should include a transparent explanation of the data and methodology used to coca production calculate potential cocaine production and for the revision of any previous estimates.  The UNODC coca crop monitoring surveys, in contrast, contain detailed methodology sections.


The Mystery of the US Decertification Standards

As the US revises it estimates for potential cocaine production and recognizes a net coca reduction based on solid inter-institutional monitoring techniques, it refutes its own arguments for the country’s “decertification.”  The Obama administration justified “decertifying” Bolivia’s drug control performance for the following reasons:

1)   “The US government estimate of potential cocaine production has increased 28 percent from 205 metric tons [2010] to 265 metric tons [2011]” (2011)

  • The USG recently downgraded its estimates from 170 to 195 (a 15% change for the same time period), and noted an additional 18% decrease in 2012 to 155 metric tons.

2)   “Bolivia has not reversed the increases in net coca cultivation in the past years, it appears that production has stabilized.”

  • In March 2013, the US government cited a 13% net reduction in Bolivia’s coca crop for 2011.[v]  In 2012-2013, the US government participated in the precise UNODC and Bolivian coca-monitoring effort, providing aircraft for aerial reconnaissance and GPS equipment for in situ monitoring.  The 2012 yet-to-be-released US coca cultivation statistics should mirror the seven percent reduction in the coca crop reported by the UNODC on August 5, 2013.[vi]


Other US Complaints Resolved

Other US complaints, such as Bolivia’s withdrawal from the UN Single Convention, have also been resolved with the country’s re-entry into the convention in February 2013 with a reservation that permits traditional and medicinal coca use within its borders.  Bolivia has also instituted a complex biometric registry of coca farmers and shipments to better control the leaf trade.  Likewise, US criticisms that interdiction efforts and the exchange of regional antinarcotic intelligence have been ineffectual since the 2009 departure of the Drug Enforcement Administration also fail to hold water.  Traditional interdiction statistics continue to remain high.  Bolivia has signed intelligence exchange agreements with all its neighbors, most recently with Peru on July 19, 2013.[vii]  The DEA continues to work with these countries, circumventing any impediments to communication.  Through a trilateral agreement with Brazil and Bolivia, the US has access to Bolivia’s coca monitoring data and intelligence provided by Brazilian drone surveillance.


Questions Remain

Although the US’s recognition of Bolivia’s reduction in both net coca cultivation and potential cocaine production marks progress, the international community is left with questions regarding US reporting on drug control efforts in the Andes.  Why the sudden and drastic change in the data from 2007-2011 for Bolivia and Colombia?  How is it possible for the DEA to have done a study three years after it left Bolivia?  How was the US able to calculate estimates of potential cocaine production without crucial data?  If Bolivia experienced the most dramatic decrease in potential cocaine production, why is the regional success attributed solely to Colombia and Peru?  With so many looming doubts about the apparently politicized US reporting on drug control efforts in the Andes, a great deal remains to be done to regain credibility and transparency.

[ii] See original website statistics in Appendix 1.

[iii] “Colombia Coca Cultivation Survey 2012”. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Government of Colombia. August 8, 2013

[vi] “Coca crop cultivation and yield continue to decline in Bolivia for second straight year: UNODC 2012 Coca Monitoring Survey” United Nations on Drugs and Crime and the Plurinational State of Bolivia. August 5, 2013. p.48.

[vii] “Perú y Bolivia coordinan acciones conjuntas para combatir el narcotráfico.” Los Tiempos. July 19, 2013.