Recent statistics from Bolivia provide mixed outlooks on how much cocaine the country is producing. InSight Crime takes a look at how the figures do not always reflect the facts.
Cocaine seizures in Bolivia have shot up since 2013, reaching record figures this year. Between January and mid-August 2016, the police’s antinarcotics unit (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico – FELCN) registered 16.7 metric tons of cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) seized — already nearly double the total figure for last year, when 8.6 metric tons were intercepted.
However, coca base seizures, which have historically been much more substantial than cocaine seizures, have in contrast been decreasing sharply since 2012. (Coca base is a paste that can be further refined into HCl, which is the crystalized form of the drug.) This year, less cocaine base was interdicted than HCl. (See Graphic 1)
Seizure figures can illustrate shifting trends in Bolivian drug production or security strategy. For some critics, rising cocaine seizures have been taken as evidence that Bolivia’s drug control situation is deteriorating as a result of President Evo Morales’ alternative drug policies. A former coca grower, Morales has adopted a liberal policy that allows for coca to be grown legally and monitored through a “community coca control” system.
Whether or not these concerns are plausible very much depends on which set of statistics is analyzed.
Fact or Fable?
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the US government have in the past published sharply contrasting estimates on coca and cocaine production in the Andes, and 2015 was no exception.
The UNODC data indicates that Bolivia’s coca cultivations are at their lowest level in at least 10 years, at 20,200 hectares. This data would suggest that Bolivia’s cocaine production is on a similar downward trend. Nevertheless, according to US data in 2015 Bolivia grew the largest amount of coca in 15 years, hitting 36,500 hectares. (See Graphic 2)
US estimates also suggest that Bolivian cocaine production is rising in close correlation to cocaine HCl seizures. (The UNODC does not offer data on potential cocaine production in Bolivia.) (See Graphic 3)
But there are problems with the US government’s data. US estimates on Bolivian coca have been criticized for being inconsistent, and their numbers have allegedly been retroactively modified in the past.
Executive Director of the Andean Information Network (AIN) Kathryn Ledebur, who has published extensive research on coca and drug policy in Bolivia, explained to InSight Crime that the United States did not have objective information on coca leaf yield. Without this “there’s no way to calculate potential cocaine production,” she said.
According to Ledebur, the United States has had no personnel on the ground to verify satellite data on coca cultivations since President Evo Morales kicked the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) out of Bolivia in 2008.
Ledebur told InSight Crime that it appeared the US government was “pulling [statistics] out of a hat.” In one conversation with a US State Department official, Ledebur says she was told that producing data “is not a science, this is an art.”
A US State Department methodology for drug production estimates from 2014 states that for Bolivia and Peru, “the U.S. government potential cocaine production estimates are overestimated to some unknown extent since significant amounts of coca leaf are locally chewed and used in products such as coca tea.”
It explains that generally, US estimates on drug production are “based on agricultural surveys conducted with satellite imagery and scientific studies of crop yields and the likely efficiency of typical illicit refining labs.” The methodology also includes the caveat that the government’s numbers are approximations that should not be seen as precise figures.
In contrast to the United States, the UNODC still enjoys close cooperation with the Bolivian government. In addition to satellite and aerial intelligence, the international body carries out on-the-ground research to support its data.
Taking these dynamics into consideration, the rise in processed cocaine seizures may nevertheless point to certain enforcement or drug trafficking trends. However, interdiction is not a definitive indicator of the availability of a certain drug; rather, it could reflect a better security force efficiency.
“The [Bolivian] government has adopted a different approach to coca but has maintained a hardline approach to the drug trade per se,” Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), wrote in an email to InSight Crime.
“So there have been increases in interdiction and arrests under the Morales administration,” Youngers wrote.
During 2016, Bolivia has signed drug control agreements with Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, carrying on from decades of international cooperation. The country recently finalized the purchase of 13 high-tech radars to tackle illegal drug flights, and installed a vehicle scanner on the border with Chile to strengthen controls. Furthermore, a single 7.5 ton seizure of cocaine pushed the total figure up significantly.
Still, the possibility remains that Bolivia’s cocaine production is increasing, but probably not to the extent suggested by the US government. Supporting this theory is the fact that the number of cocaine processing plants discovered by authorities has risen consistently over the past decade, from three in 2005 to 73 in 2015. A Bolivian government official recently claimed that Brazilian criminal groups were setting up cocaine processing laboratories on the border between the two countries.
But it does not seem likely that more of the coca being cultivated inside Bolivia is being diverted to the illegal trade. The more likely conclusion is that any increase in product is coming from outside Bolivia. The country has long been a crucial stop-off point for Peruvian cocaine flying to booming consumer markets in Argentina and Brazil, and further afield to West Africa and Europe.
Official statistics from last year show that of all cocaine paste and HCl seized in Bolivia, approximately 60 percent is from Peru, while the other portion is homemade. This paste is often processed into cocaine within Bolivia. Up to 95 percent of Peru’s coca base follows this route, according to a police report.
Part of the reason is that Bolivia has a bigger domestic demand for coca leaf than nearby producers Colombia and Peru. A 2013 government study found that 14,705 hectares of Bolivia’s coca farms satisfied the legal domestic market. Using the UNODC’s 2015 figures, this would mean that around 5,500 hectares of Bolivia’s coca crop was potentially used for illegal purposes last year. Meanwhile, in neighboring Peru an estimated 35,791 hectares of its total 40,300 hectares of coca are for the illegal market, according to calculations Ledebur shared with InSight Crime.
Legal Bolivian coca leaf is also nearly three times more expensive than Peruvian leaf, according to UNODC statistics, which could make it less profitable to use the Bolivian primary ingredient to produce cocaine.
“This demonstrates that Bolivia’s primary issue is not cocaine produced from its own coca cultivation, but as a transit country for cheap Peruvian coca paste,” Ledebur explained.
While such conclusions suggest that the gravity of Bolivia’s narcotics situation depends more on external than internal factors, this strategically located country continues to face the threat of organized crime strengthening its local influence. Foreign drug trafficking organizations have set up operations in Bolivia, where they collaborate with local family clans. And increasing consumer markets within Latin America may heighten Bolivia’s attractiveness as an international drug hub.