Presidents Donald Trump and Juan Manuel Santos

US President Donald Trump has apparently called on his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos to lift Colombia's ban on aerially fumigating illegal crops, a dangerous and previously unsuccessful strategy that does not address the root causes of cocaine production.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told congress that Trump spoke to Santos about bringing back the controversial aerial spraying of coca crops as a result of booming cocaine production in the South American country.

"We have told [the Colombian government], '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," Tillerson said during June 13 testimony to Congress, seemingly referring to Santos' visit with Trump at the White House in May.

Aerial fumigation in Colombia was banned in October 2015 after the herbicide used was deemed likely to cause cancer in humans. Colombia's justice and post-conflict ministers have since told El Tiempo that that fumigation is unviable due to a Constitutional Court order.

Both the United States and Colombia have discussed the use of an alternative herbicide with less health or environmental risks, and Colombia's national police force is in the process of searching for a viable product, according to El Tiempo.

Tillerson's comments were in response to questioning by US Senator Marco Rubio, who interrogated him on what he described as "flaws" in Colombia's historic peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).

The senator claimed that Colombia "stopped aerial eradication because [Santos] didn't want to upset the peace deal with the FARC," adding, "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."

"Why should the American taxpayer be paying for a deal that is flawed, and could potentially undo the progress of Plan Colombia?" Rubio asked.

Clip from Secretary Tillerson's testimony before congress, June 13

InSight Crime Analysis

Tillerson's comments touched on a major controversy in US-Colombian relations: The United States has been pushing for fumigation to resume since even before Trump entered office, but US officials have failed to address the longstanding argument that aerial spraying has been an ineffective strategy for controlling coca cultivation in Colombia.

Rubio imprecisely stated that cocaine production has surged "over the past year and a half," when in fact coca and cocaine production began soaring around three years ago, before the aerial spraying ban was enacted. Even though aerial eradication had been on the decline by that point, year-on-year statistics do not show a clear-cut causal relationship between increasing eradication and decreasing coca.

UNODC eradication vs coca cultivation

Coca cultivations, aerial fumigation and manual eradication trends, 2001-2015. (UNODC, 2015)

The root causes of continued coca cultivation -- including poverty, state abandonment and criminal dynamics -- are likely more powerful in determining levels of coca cultivation. Some factors are indeed associated with the FARC peace process, which has encouraged some farmers to grow more coca in expectation of greater state aid.

But the coca issue has a history that far predates the peace agreements. While billions in mostly-military US assistance was pumped into "Plan Colombia" to combat drug supply during the 2000s, not enough aid was funnelled into rural development programs that might have weaned the country's most vulnerable communities off coca farming and into alternative, licit economies.

SEE ALSO: Special Investigation - Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade

During field research in some of Colombia's poorest regions with the densest coca cultivations, InSight Crime was repeatedly told by coca farmers that they will continue to plant illegal crops -- often their only source of income -- as long as social strife remains.

"Most people here live off of coca," one local told us on the Pacific coast of Nariño, the top cocaine-producing department in the country. "There is no other source of income ... There were fumigation operations here as part of Plan Colombia, but the area [of coca cultivation] was never reduced."

In other parts of Nariño, several municipalities were split into areas where successful agricultural initiatives had taken place and crops such as lemon and coffee were being grown, and others where such programs had failed, and coca remained ubiquitous. The fact that these areas had been fumigated in the past was not a significant factor.

"Why should the American tax payer be paying for a deal that is flawed, and could potentially undo the progress of Plan Colombia?" - US Senator Marco Rubio

Trump's apparent desire to see Colombia bring back aerial spraying also ignores the health risks associated with the chemicals used and the fact that the practice indiscriminately destroyed both illegal and legal cultivations, dealing even heavier blows to the country's most vulnerable populations.

"In areas where there was aerial fumigation, now nothing grows and people have also fallen ill," an indigenous leader told InSight Crime on a recent trip to Putumayo, where Plan Colombia hit hardest. "My dad died of cancer as a result, and who will answer for it?"

SEE ALSO:  Coverage of Coca

These are the populations that the peace agreement aims to bring out of poverty. Indeed, the first chapter of the signed accords lay out a comprehensive rural development plan that seeks to improve the livelihoods of poor communities. But its ambitious goals will need a massive amount of funding, much of which is expected to come from the United States. The possibility of the United States conditioning its funding on flawed policy changes is therefore worrying, especially considering that the White House recently proposed slashing aid to Colombia by 36 percent next year.

US-Colombia relations are already under strain by other unpalatable aspects of the peace deal, such as the recent release of a guerrilla fighter wanted in the United States on drug trafficking charges. With many other voices also pushing for a lift on the fumigation ban -- including Colombia's own attorney general -- the Colombian government is under pressure to return to a policy it has repeatedly been warned against.

Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Senior Associate Adam Isacson believes the issue may carry into the next presidency.

"The Santos administration won't succumb to pressure, but then the Santos administration is out in fourteen months. If Colombia elects a right-wing president in 2018, a capitulation on fumigation is likely," Isacson told InSight Crime.

* InSight Crime research assistant Luisa Maria Acosta contributed to this report.

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