The US government has produced mixed messages on its anti-narcotics strategy

The US government has continued issuing mixed messages following controversial statements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that implied the White House was pushing for Colombia to return to outdated and potentially harmful aerial fumigation of drug crops.

Tillerson's remarks sparked much debate in Colombia after stating that President Donald Trump had spoken to his Colombian counterpart, President Juan Manuel Santos, about the need to return to "spraying" coca fields, which was widely interpreted as a reference to the controversial method of aerial fumigation.

However, US officials have since qualified Tillerson's remarks, suggesting that the Secretary was referring to a manual form of spraying coca crops that began months ago. InSight Crime tried to clarify the whole matter, and the US State Department responded via email:

Determining the most effective way to advance shared US-Colombia counternarcotics goals continues to be a priority for us. For example, just yesterday [US] Ambassador [Kevin] Whitaker met with Colombian Vice President [Óscar] Naranjo to review and enhance Colombian efforts to best integrate forced eradication with voluntary eradication/alternative development.

The best approach to narcotics production in Colombia is eradication combined with well-coordinated, whole-of-government efforts to provide licit and decent economic opportunities to those affected by this scourge.

We would emphasize that the choice of methods is a sovereign decision of Colombia.

In a subsequent email, the State Department added:

The Secretary never talked specifically about aerial erad[ication]. He mentioned "spraying" more generally, and of course coca eradication in Colombia has included both aerial spraying as well as land-based spraying (with officers on-the-ground using backpack units).

Colombia banned aerial fumigation in late 2015 following a World Health Organization (WHO) report that the herbicide being used was probably carcinogenic to humans, although this has recently been called into question. The government has since strengthened its manual eradication program, in which workers hack away the plants at their roots, and which eventually came to include manual herbicide spraying. Land-based eradication is both expensive and dangerous. And critics say it is ineffective.

SEE ALSO:  Coverage of Drug Policy

During Tillerson's exchange with Senator Marco Rubio on June 13, he said there had been "long discussions" regarding the "spraying of the fields." He then said "we have told them, 'no we've got to get back to the spraying, we've got to get back to destroying these fields.'" (See full transcript at the bottom of this article)

Colombia introduced the manual form of spraying illegal crops in January 2017, some days before President Donald Trump took office.

Furthermore, Tillerson's statements appeared to be a response to Rubio's questioning on aerial fumigation, specifically Rubio's assertions that:

Really concerning is this massive surge in cocaine production in Colombia over the past year and a half, which perfectly coincides with President Santos' decision to suspend aerial eradication, which he chalks up to not wanting to spray in national parks.

But I'd just advise him when he keeps saying that to members of congress who know better, that may have been an element of it but that is not entirely the rationale -- they stopped aerial eradication because he didn't want to upset the peace deal with the FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia guerrilla organization].

US Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker has since commented that aerial eradication was a "safe and effective" eradication method, but added that the government "has not thrown away the key, and if at any point [aerial fumigation] is worth reconsidering, [the government] will reconsider it, but at the moment this is not the plan and we respect that."

Colombian politicians close to President Santos have denied knowledge of US authorities making this request. Neither Trump nor Santos have referred to the issue in any public forum.

InSight Crime Analysis

The inconclusive responses to Tillerson's comments from US officials are the latest in a series of mixed messages from the Trump administration regarding its approach to fighting the illegal drug trade. Much of the rhetoric from the president's key staff -- including Tillerson's comments -- has emphasized the need for the United States to take more responsibility as one of the planet's biggest drug markets.

Nevertheless, Trump's statements and Tillerson's recent testimony suggest that the administration is moving towards a strong-armed drug policy abroad, which has so far borne little success. Colombian coca production has fluctuated over the years, but it is now believed to have reached its highest level in history.

SEE ALSO:  Coverage of Plan Colombia

The confusion is also symptomatic of the potential lack of communication within the Trump administration, especially within the foreign service, and the lack of expertise at the top. Recent reports claim that Secretary Tillerson -- who has no prior diplomatic experience -- has distanced himself from the career staffers, while much of his team has yet to be appointed, including the person that would head up US - Latin America relations.

Not surprisingly, Colombian officials have reacted with indignation at the perceived proposal. Colombia's Environment Minister Luis Gilberto Murillo said it was "bad advice from the United States," and the Post-Conflict High Counselor Rafael Pardo said: "Aerial fumigation has been rejected by the Constitutional Court and therefore is not an option at the moment."

Colombian Vice President Óscar Naranjo -- a former police chief as well as staunch ally of the US who oversaw the aerial eradication program for years -- also responded, affirming that aerial eradication was not an effective solution to the drug problem. But he also did not close the door to a reversal. If Colombia's current strategy does not offer positive results, he said, "the possibility [of fumigation] will surely be on the table."

Still, for now the Colombian government and US diplomats appear committed to working together to achieve Colombia's softer anti-narcotics goals, which aim to substitute vast amounts of coca fields for legal alternatives as part of a peace deal with the FARC. Following Whitaker's meeting with Vice President Naranjo, he stated that the United States was "fully committed" to accompanying Colombia in this new phase.

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TRANSCRIPT: Exchange between Senator Marco Rubio and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson re: Colombia. Senate hearing on FY 2018 State Department Budget, June 13.

Senator Marco Rubio: The best news stories from [American engagement] is Plan Colombia. This state that was on the verge of failure, thanks to extraordinary bravery and courage and investment by the Colombians, and US support for that effort, brought them to a better place under President Uribe.

As you're well aware President Santos visited here a few weeks ago, and it's always been my preference and inclination to be helpful because of the importance of our relationship with Colombia. That said I left - and open minded, despite the fact that the Colombian people in a referendum rejected his peace deal. I've tried not to opine in internal matters in that country because they're an ally and a democracy.

So he comes to Washington, and after the visit I'm actually more concerned than I was before he came for a couple of points.

The first is I remain concerned about their creation of this special legal framework in their peace deal that basically puts the FARC on par with Colombian government in terms of prosecuting people, which basically means - human rights abusers, prosecute them - but it basically means that some of these people that were working with us to destroy these drug gangs and these guerrilla groups, could be on trial for working with us to carry that mission out. We put the FARC at equal footing not to mention they've now become a political party.

I'm concerned about them stopping extraditions. As of the latest count about 60 members of the FARC are potentially wanted for extradition because they violated our laws. They've even pushed at one point to delist the FARC as a terrorist organization which they should always be on that list.

And the one that's really concerning is this massive surge in cocaine production in Colombia over the past year and a half, which perfectly coincides with President Santos' decision to suspend aerial eradication, which he chalks up to not wanting to spray in national parks. But I'd just advise him when he keeps saying that to members of congress who know better, that may have been an element of it but that is not entirely the rationale -- they stopped aerial eradication because he didn't want to upset the peace deal with the FARC.

I raise all this because they're now coming back for additional money to help implement all of these things we have concerns about. So the peace deal belongs to the sovereign nation of Colombia, but our [willingness] to participate and fund it depends on the conditions that we lay out, and I just wanted to get your sense in the minutes that we have remaining where we are in that process, what those conditions are and in particular the delisting of the FARC, the release of criminal Simon Trinidad, who's in federal prison, the aerial eradication. In essence, why should the American tax payer be paying for a deal that is flawed, and actually in many ways, could potentially undo the progress of plan Colombia?

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: Well all of the flaws that you've identified in the peace plan that they have, we would agree with, I think we see it the same way. We have had discussions with them, and as you point out, I think it's a question of how far do we want to go in trying to interfere with or condition or in any way undo the plan that they have arrived at and the agreement they've arrived at with the FARC.

I would comment on the spraying of the fields, and we had a long discussion about this, because the numbers are just eye popping in terms of what's happened with the acreage under cultivation in particular.

They indicated, they in some sense created this problem on their own because they had been paying farmers to get out of production of cocaine fields, the supply fields and convert to other, and they halted that program while they were in the midst of these talks and what the farmers did is that they went out and planted more acreage so that they could get more payments.

So we have told them 'no we've got to get back to the spraying, we've got to get back to destroying these fields,' that they are in a very bad place now in cocaine supply to the United States. And the president talked to President Santos directly about that.

So we are gonna work with them and how do we address that particular issue.

And then on the other issues it's a question of how heavily we want to condition our support to them, in terms of making changes to a peace process that they've put together and understanding would that completely unwind it, what's the consequences of that.

So I share all of the concerns you have, we've highlighted those concerns to them as well. Very troubling to us.

Cause we were on a great track, it kind of came off the track with the [Colombian referendum on the peace deal] vote, and this is where we are.

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