Challenging the Cocaine Figures, Part II: Colombia

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Colombia has seized a record amount of cocaine in 2016, which according to official statistics would suggest it has stopped nearly half of all cocaine flowing through the country. InSight Crime breaks down these figures.

Over the year 2016, Colombia has seized a record 300 metric tons of cocaine, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas told reporters on October 21.

Villegas said the figure was “the highest cocaine seizure statistic in our history.”

SEE ALSO: Challenging the Cocaine Figures, Part I: Bolivia

This total vastly outstrips seizures over the past few years. Authorities intercepted 219 metric tons of cocaine in 2015, 133 metric tons in 2010, and 92 metric tons in 2003, the defense minister stated.

The year’s record numbers are likely linked to the recent boom in coca leaf plantations, which doubled in size between 2013 and 2015.

Cocaine Production vs. Seizures

The record figures trumpeted by the Colombian government appear surprising when considering how much cocaine the country is believed to be producing. By US government estimates, Colombia has already seized nearly three-quarters of all the cocaine produced last year — an estimated 420 metric tons. (See graphic below)

16-11-15-Colombia-US-cocaine

By UNODC figures, Colombia has seized nearly half of its estimated pure cocaine production — which the international body calculated to be far higher at 646 metric tons. (See graphic below)

16-11-15-Colombia-UNODC-cocaine

As countries are generally thought to seize about 10 percent of all their illegal drug flow, these figures may seem unrealistic. However, they have some possible explanations.

The first has to do with cocaine purity. The UNODC’s cocaine production figures are estimated at 100 percent purity, the technical coordinator for the UNODC’s Colombia coca monitoring project, Leonardo Correa, told InSight Crime. For this reason, he said, production and seizures “are not comparable” sets of data. Correa also noted that 2016’s production estimates are expected to be higher than last year’s, and that seizures may include drugs that had been stored from past years. Cocaine can be stored for a few years, but not much longer.

There are estimates available for the purity of drugs leaving Colombia. According to commonly cited information from the national police, exported cocaine is around 85 percent pure. And an extensive 2009 report from researchers at the University of Antioquia that analyzed 65 samples of intercepted cocaine found that the lowest purity was 65 percent, while the highest was nearly 96 percent, yielding an average purity of 80 percent (pdf).

If cocaine production estimates are adjusted to account for an 85 percent average purity level, authorities would still have seized between a third (per UNODC figures) and half (per US government figures) of last year’s production. If adjusted to low-end estimate of 65 percent purity, authorities would have seized between 25 and 40 percent of total cocaine production.

Such figures would be in line with the UNODC’s analysis in its 2016 World Drug Report (pdf) that “the global cocaine interception rate?reached a level of between 43 and 68 percent in 2014.”

But such a conclusion deserves scrutiny. Some past figures yield even more unlikely results, with US government estimates showing that in 2012, 94 percent of production — adjusted for 85 percent purity — was seized.

Another conclusion is that the volume of cocaine being produced in Colombia is far larger than estimates show.

Flawed Figures?

While credit for high seizures can be given to security force capacity and intelligence sharing across borders, it is unlikely that authorities are seizing such a large share of Colombian drugs. And if this is the case, it raises the possibility that official cocaine estimates are not fully on the mark.

One hypothesis is that the UNODC is probably largely underestimating the amount of coca crop hectares in Colombia. On the other hand, the US government appears to be grossly underestimating the amount of cocaine that can be produced per hectare of coca. To understand why, one has to analyze estimates of coca to cocaine yield.

While the UNODC estimates that every hectare of coca in Colombia can produce 6.8 kilograms of cocaine, the US White House page on cocaine in the Andean region does not publish yield estimates.

But a simple calculation using US figures (cocaine production divided by coca hectares) gives an approximation of their yield estimate: for every hectare of coca in Colombia, around 2.6 kilograms cocaine were potentially produced in 2015.

This number is too low. InSight Crime has learned from Colombian antinarcotics police sources that cocaine yield per hectare has tripled over the past 10 years in certain parts of Colombia, for a number of reasons. Firstly, coca farms are being exploited more intensively, so more coca is produced in the same area. Additionally, cultivators have been crossing different strains of coca to get a variation that produces more cocaine hydrochloride (HCl). And techniques for cooking coca base have improved, with producers shredding coca leaves into a pulp to make the extraction process vastly more efficient.

Given these developments, InSight Crime estimates that Colombian producers can get at least 6 kilograms of cocaine from each hectare of coca. By the UNODC’s cultivation estimates, this would generate 576 metric tons of white powder per year — a figure lower than the organization’s 2015 estimate of 646 metric tons. Using the US government’s 2015 estimate that Colombia’s coca cultivation amounted to 159,000 hectares, the country could be producing as much as 954 metric tons — more than double the US estimate of Colombia’s cocaine production last year.

The US government did appear to factor in increasing yield in its latest statistics. The State Department’s 2016 Narcotics Control Strategy Report stated, “Based on U.S. estimates that 52 percent of the 2014 coca cultivation consisted of immature, lower-yielding crops, 2015 cocaine production numbers are expected to increase significantly, regardless of any new cultivation, due to the increased productivity of maturing coca plants.”

Nevertheless, the change in yield was nearly insignificant, rising from approximately 2.2 kilograms of cocaine per coca hectare in 2014 to 2.6 kilograms in 2015. This is even more unusual when considering that for Peru and Bolivia, US estimates of cocaine yield were 6.5 kilograms and 6.3 kilograms per hectare respectively, using the same calculation. While Peruvian coca leaf traditionally produces more hydrochloride than the Colombian variety, Colombia’s crops can be harvested up to six times a year, versus an average of three in its Andean neighbors.

Furthermore, a 2016 methodology for US drug production estimates explains that figures for cocaine are calculated under the assumption that “all of the coca?grown is harvested and processed into illicit drugs. This is a reasonable assumption for coca leaf in Colombia.” The text also includes the caveat that the government’s numbers are approximations that should not be seen as precise figures.

Still, this assumption — which actually suggests that the US estimates should be on the high side — seems somewhat flawed in itself. A small amount of Colombia’s coca is still diverted into legal production, while an undetermined amount of harvest can be lost.

Both the UNODC’s coca leaf yield estimates and the US government’s (based on a 2012 methodology – pdf) include interviewing coca farmers and productivity studies, making it unclear why the two differ so greatly. Indeed, the 2012 US methodology states that the discrepancy between the two institutions’ estimates on coca leaf yield per hectare “has no ready explanation, but yield estimates may have much greater sampling variation than has been appreciated.”

While the UNODC’s yield estimates are probably closer to the truth, its cultivation statistics may be on the low side. The organization has itself recognized that there is a chance its cocaine production estimates could be too low due to “knowledge gaps” in this area (pdf).

The UNODC uses satellite imagery and follow-up aircraft verification to produce its cultivation estimates, but there is probably a lot of coca that is escaping their surveys. In response to the extensive aerial fumigation of coca crops until the practice was banned in 2015, coca farmers have been making plots smaller and hiding them among other crops or under jungle canopy in order to avoid detection.

In sum, it is nearly impossible to determine the true extent of Colombia’s cocaine production when official figures from various sources differ greatly and reveal potential flaws in their methodologies. Still, it is probably safe to say that the volume of cocaine the country is feeding into the global market is at or above the highest estimates available.

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